The rot in the media

IN Media Practice | 18/03/2015
The media has plunged into infamy in recent years because of paid news at election time and journalists working as the paid agents of corporations.
PRANATI MEHRA gives an overview. Pix: paid news
We stand accused once again. 
 
A former journalist who started a consultancy and web portal is accused of being a willing conduit in a corporate spy ring. Shantanu Saikia, who runs IndianPetro.com, was arrested towards the end of February. 
 
If the Delhi police are to be believed, corporate espionage is an old game. The papers stolen from key government ministries were not to inform the public about what concerned them but to allegedly help giant companies pre-empt the government’s moves. Cash earned and spent muddied the façade of consultancy. But for a strong prime minister and his National Security Advisor, the game would have continued unhindered.
 
Other journalists, who had taken favours ranging from company cars to transportation contracts, were exposed as self-obsessed sponges of the system.
 
There is now a public interest petition in the Supreme Court asking for a committee to be set up to examine our incest with business houses in general and the Essar group of companies in particular, after which our privileges, such as subsidized land and newsprint, should be withdrawn. 
 
Exposes on the media’s practices are appearing a bit too often. The Radia tapes in  2010 showed  how  malleable the media had become to corporate and political influence. Niira Radia, a high profile lobbyist for the Ambanis and the Tatas, was taped in conversation with prominent journalists, one of whom was trying to help her install a particular minister in the UPA II government and others who were writing their stories with a slant during a corporate war between the Ambani brothers.
 
 
In 2012, Naveen Jindal of Jindal Steel and Power Limited organised a sting on television journalists trying to extort money and negotiate a "revenue deal" for their channel. Their demand was Rs 100 crore in advertising for a period of three or four years.  Two journalists were arrested. The last we heard of it, in 2013, the court had asked the crime branch to entrust the investigation to an officer of the rank of assistant commissioner of police, Delhi, after finding loopholes in the police’s investigation report. 
 
In March 2014, Election Commissioner H. S. Brahma, during a visit to Mumbai, said the city was not only the financial capital of the country but its paid news capital also. After howls from journalists, he apologized for the remarks but before he apologized, he quoted the case of the former Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan.  
 
 
The Election Commission identified 694 cases of paid news in the 2014 elections. The scourge had arrived in the 2009 general elections but more on that later. 
 
Chinese walls exist don’t they? Maybe not. 
 
The only silver lining is that this time around, journalists exposed in the Essar case have resigned on their own. (Though, to be fair, Vir Sanghvi did seek a change of work profile once his name figured in the Radia tapes). 
 
One of those in the Essar case did nominal service to us by exposing her bosses at the Hindustan Times and questioning how it was that what she had taken from Essar executives were 'favours' while what she asked from them for her employers were not.  
 
These favours are allegedly sponsorships for the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit amounting to over a crore of rupees every year from energy companies. One of her editors also asked her to get corporates to buy his book. She said Essar obliged by buying 250 copies. Another editor allegedly asked for somebody’s transfer in a company. 
 
An indignant editor-in-chief of the Hindustan Times, Sanjoy Narayan, has denied the allegations, saying the responsibility of financing the HT Summit was not that of the editorial department but of the company’s events division.
 
Thanks to these revelations, we now have evidence that Chinese walls do not function in big media organizations. The bigger our organizations become, the more vulnerable our ethics. Paid news comes in many forms. "As long as journalists do anything other than journalism, they are violating ethics," says senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta who was co-author of the first ever comprehensive report on paid news for the Press Council of India. 
 
Looks like a losing battle 
 
The Hoot, like other websites, has documented how journalists are fighting this losing battle, how those of us who stood against the flow were shunted out, and how the growing distance between journalists and editors has made us two separate categories. Some journalists prefer to call their editors 'managers'.    
 
There is now evidence showing how private banks, private hospitals, colleges and even schools can bully us into silence. Not many years ago, the beat reporter on health brought out scandals. Today, we have more stories on medical research and individual doctors and hardly anything on the uglier side of public or private health institutions. The list of holy cows is getting too long.
 
For all the sway of the pink papers, it was left to cobrapost.com, an investigative website, to expose how banks -- some of them big names -- were helping launder black money. 
 
In 2008, when I was at the Times of India, I got news of the raids carried out by the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) on the offices of Hewlett Packard India Sales Private Limited, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hewlett Packard, USA. I had the story exclusively. I asked my editor if I should file the story because I suspected we might have a ‘private treaty’ (PT) with the company. 
 
Though my editor said we didn’t have a PT with the company, he asked me not to file. He also asked me, "Do you think anyone reads these stories?’’ He went on to give me his take on government agencies and their investigations. "Most of them are corrupt and their cases fall when challenged in the courts,’’ he said.
 
I had reported on the DRI for years before that and I hardly needed to be told how to judge the quality of investigations. Besides, raids on a company like HP were news,  no two ways about it. But I had to drop it. 
 
The memory that stayed with me, though, was of my editor stalking me all over the newsroom as I talked to colleagues, looking worried about our conversation.
 
Two years later, on completing the investigation, the DRI issued HP a notice demanding duties to the tune of Rs 1400 crore. Some papers reported the news, including the Economic Times, the financial daily of the Times Group. 
 
But by then I had left the Times.
 
I found this peculiar. When editors find that a story sounds routine, they are willing to use it. But they don’t want to be the ones to cast the first stone. Reporters be damned. After all, companies like HP are hardly 'soft targets'.
 
Often reporters like me were asked to work a little harder on a big story. And once we did that, the editor got down to work too and some good stuff made it onto the front pages of our papers.  But slowly, this became rare. Of late, the story, once submitted, usually vanished into a black hole while mundane, safer stories dominated the pages.
   
And then we started seeing the not-so-exclusive stories also getting spiked. Here’s an example. Some time in October 2009 when Sheila Dikshit had already completed almost one year of her third consecutive term as chief minister of Delhi, Vijendra Gupta, a BJP leader, approached the Delhi Lokayukta alleging that the government’s advertisement spend had risen over the months in the run up to the 2008 assembly polls in a bid to create a positive image of Ms Dikshit. 
 
Finding prima facie merit in Gupta’s arguments, the Lokayukta issued a notice to Ms Dikshit. Most journalists received the papers from Gupta himself. They also reached the Hindustan Times. The copy was filed. Later in the evening, it was killed. Other newspapers carried it the next day. Here is the link to what The Indian Express reported.
 
 
Essar has the press eating out of its hands 
 
The contents of the PIL filed recently by the Centre for Public Interest Litigation in the Essar case are telling of how the media is becoming irrelevant, a nuisance, at best, (like the Naxals who also got largesse from the group) that can be easily 'managed'.  For the benefit of those who haven’t read the entire affidavit, here are some nuggets:
 
"On 23.07.2012 Mr Anil Agarwal, Sr VP Essar, writes a summary of his meeting with the chairman of SAIL Mr CS Verma. He states "Chairman mentioned that Essar was planting stories thru (through) media on NMDC pricing which was not in good taste. He mentioned that certain specific reporters…had given specific names of very senior Essar officials who had recently planted stories on NMDC which was not appreciated’’. A copy of the said email dated 23.07.2012 is annexed as Annexure pg 27 (pg 82).
 
Mr Rajamani, the senior vice president of Essar, finally closes this issue with the instruction: "Anyway we need to be more careful in future in  planting stories’’. In response to this, Mr Agarwal reassures Mr Rajamani by stating: "She has done numerous stories for us and we have not had any problem.’’ A copy of the email exchange dated 23.07.2012 is annexed as Annexure P28 (pg 83-84).
 
And the next paragraph:
 
"Regarding the Bureau Chief of (a) major newspaper in Dantewada (Chhattisgarh) an internal communication shows that Essar Group has co-opted the journalist to control the media in Dantewada. Mr Rajamani Krishnamurthy writes on 07.06.2012…. "had certain issues about being discriminated and bypassed in contracts for last two years. He is an influential journalist and can be a big help to us in terms of information and opinion building if we encash him to our advantage and at the same time will be great nuisance value if we ignore him.’’ 
 
A copy…….Head BP of Essar Steel Ltd Mr B. M. Shettigar in his email to Senior Vice President, Essar, Mr Krishnamurthy writes on 04.11.2012: "On your words we have also given him transportation contract so that he can be favourable to us.’’ A copy of the said email dated 04.11.2012 is annexed as …. (pg 87-88).
 
And then come the details about the favours given to various journalists in large cities. One sought a car for use over ten days; another wanted to use the company guest house in South Extension in New Delhi for a party for 15 of his friends; and another wanted a car for two days. In one email where the company executives discuss a reporter who has been writing stories with the slant they want, after ‘Subject: Re’, are the words "Categories: bribes and scandals.’’ 
Paid News: A regular business with discounts and package deals.   
 
P. Sainath, former Rural Affairs editor at The Hindu, can entertain a whole class with his paid news stories. During the summer of 2009 during election time, he wrote a piece with the headline 'Package Deals – with Credibility Discounts'. 
 
 

Candidates complain of media extortion, with publications offering 'coverage packages'

It’s a development that sets apart the 2009 polls from earlier ones in Vidarbha (and some other regions, too). And it’s not a happy one. Candidates complain of “media extortion.” Some (not all) publications and a channel or two appear to be making poll contenders offers they can’t refuse.

The offer: “coverage packages.” The low-end package seems worth around Rs. 15–20 lakh, the high-end ones a lot more. Buy into one and you get a set number of column centimetres, photos and reports, or footage of your campaign and rallies.

“They know we have an election budget and they pressurise us,” says one candidate, who has been an MP more than once. He says he has never seen it this blatant.

To some in the industry, it seems simple enough, even harmless: an advertising package. What’s wrong with that, it’s been there in the past, too, they argue. The problem, says another candidate, is that in practice, “refusal to bite means you can get blacked out of their coverage. That is, unless they do negative stories about you.”
 
Since no one has actually filed a complaint, there has been no official comment or response. The word “package,” though, has gained notoriety here and is now used in a mostly sarcastic or pejorative sense.

 
And so on…and so forth.
 
While all the mainstream newspapers ignored the article, 22 and 23-year old reporters in Maharashtra started to send Sainath clippings, notes, their own observations of what was happening. 
 
Paid news had arrived. Journalists were being asked to interview politicians with their Human Resources colleagues in tow. Why? Because the HR man knew how much the newspaper had negotiated with the candidate and the interview had to be done accordingly.
 
One day Sainath got a call from a friend in a Marathi newspaper. He said an interview with a prominent leader would appear in his paper soon with his byline. "But I have not done the interview,’’ this friend told him.
 
 It was a case of paid news, he told Sainath.  Further, all reporters were now contract  workers unlike Sainath, whose paper, The Hindu, had not yet switched to the system. This friend told Sainath, "I am on an 11-month contract. If I disagree with my bosses in the eighth month of the contract, I stand to lose my job.  I’ve got kids in school.’’
 
That is when Sainath realized how lonely his battle against paid news was going to be. "One Urdu paper which could be described as anti-establishment even put out an announcement that their favourite columns were suspended since all the pages of the paper were sold till the last date of the  elections,’ says Sainath. In many smaller towns, television channels had printed rate cards, without their logos, journalists informed him.
 
As the `benefits’ of paid news became obvious in all of Maharashtra, a number of media organisations called a meeting of editors sometime before the polling. Of the nine editors who attended, some later spoke to Sainath on the quiet. They said the meeting was hilarious – officials from the finance department of one media group (who had also come to the meeting) were angry because the rival group had made more money!
 
These managers of media organizations, mostly newspapers, thought that the cost of winning an assembly seat was in the range of Rs 3 to 5 crore.  The winning edge was 145 seats in an assembly of 288 seats. "So it was a question of between Rs 435 to  Rs 750 crore for these companies,’’ Sainath explains. They all thought that at least one third of this "business" should come to them.
 
Sainath’s writing on the 'paid news' case of former chief minister Ashok Chavan in the assembly elections of 2009 is well known.  Chavan said his expenses on newspaper advertising were only Rs 5,379 and on cable TV (advertising) they were Rs 6,000. But over 100 pages of news, most of them full pages with his pictures prominently displayed, had been published. "In advertising, these would have cost him crores of rupees,’’ Sainath argues.  
 
Candidates who had opposed Chavan protested to the Election Commission.  They also alleged that upfront advertisements which appeared in newspapers had not been accounted for in the election expenses of the candidate.
 
When the Election Commission heard the matter, newspapers explained how they had carried identical stories on Chavan, saying these were based on the press releases put out by Chavan or his party which lazy reporters had failed to attribute to the party. They claimed no money had changed hands. 
 
If that is to be accepted, then the reader is a fool, required to believe that all the journalists in all of the papers at the same time were lazy and did no reporting of their own. The issue was discussed in an article by Prashant Reddy Thikkavarapu.
 
On the advertisements, the EC issued a notice to Chavan which he challenged.  In September 2014, the Delhi High Court quashed the notice after Chavan’s lawyers argued that their client could not be punished for the mistakes of publishers for carrying advertisements which had not been brought to the candidate’s notice. The Delhi High Court accepted this argument. This is now under challenge.
 
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