Action demanded in Goa paid news case

BY Mir Ubaid| IN Regional Media | 30/10/2011
Entrapped by a sting operation earlier this month, the Herald and its editor are protesting their innocence. The local journalist who conducted the sting has complained to the Press Council, and the Goa Union of journalists is calling for action aga
MIR UBAID reports
In the paid news case currently unfolding the  Goa Union of Journalists which represents over 200 working journalists in Goa has in a statement asked the Goa Editor’s Guild to step up and “take appropriate action”. The union has endorsed the paid news sting operation, exposing the practice at the Herald, one of Goa’s leading newspapers.  
The latest instance of paid news is creating ripples in this state. His publication exposed by a sting, the Herald editor has protested his innocence on a media and journalism website calling the expose “hugely defamatory”.  
Mayabhushan Nagvenkar, a veteran Goan journalist, decided to conduct a kind of sting operation after being perturbed by reports in the widely-read Goan daily—Herald.  In a complaint letter to the Press Council, Nagvenkar said he “felt let down by the editorial content” of this paper as the state approached assembly elections scheduled for early 2012. “(Herald) regularly contains seemingly dubious ‘political’ interviews of aspiring candidates,” he said. The long-time subscriber of the paper said he was even more disturbed when friends of his who work for Herald informed him that political interviews appearing as news content were being published in exchange for money.
According to his complaint, Nagvenkar then conducted an investigation at a personal level. He telephoned Herald’s marketing manager, Tulsidas Desai, and claimed to be someone who was looking to contest assembly elections in a South Goan constituency. Over a series of four telephonic conversations—three of which Nagvenkar recorded—it becomes evident that the newspaper quite unabashedly engages in paid news tactics. Desai makes a clear offer to the fake political aspirant for an amount of Rs. 86,400 of a “political campaign interview, (less than half a page)” in the daily Goan newspaper. “(Desai stated that) for an additional Rs. 50,000 I could be interviewed on Herald Cable Network (HCN), which is a local news channel operated by the same media group,” Nagvenkar added. Armed with evidence, Nagvenkar approached the Press Council of India, and several media organizations crying foul. The recordings sent as audio files have the ‘candidate’ asking for assurance that the label advertorial will not be carried with the interviews. “No, no” says the manager.
 The findings fromNagvenkar’s entrapment experiment were largely published on web portals that catered specifically to the Goan people, such as Goa Chronicle, GoaNet, TargetGoa and NizGoenkar, in addition to the web portal MxMIndia, which caters to the broader Indian readership.
In a written statement on www.mxmindia.com, Herald editor Sujay Gupta says that Nagvenkar’s “accusations” are baseless, and his reported findings are misconstrued. “To even suggest that these interviews were part of a paid news package is hugely defamatory,” wrote Gupta. “Herald will respond to these allegations urgently and appropriately in a proper forum.” Gupta went on to state that he had spoken with his management team regarding the incident, and had been informed that the marketing manager Desai’s remarks in relation to providing editorial favors were “absolutely incorrect.” The editor provided the example of the regional Deputy Speaker’s birthday—during which time the official’s team highlighted his achievements over a two page spread. Gupta states this ‘article’ was cleared labeled as paid content; and insisted that all paid content that comes to his media organization is explicitly marked as advertorial.
“Paid news” in print journalism has broadly been defined as an advertisement written in the form of an objective article, and presented in a printed publication—‘usually designed to look like a legitimate and independent news story.’
This entire controversy in Goa has snowballed and come to a head over the course of less than ten days—Nagvenkar’s phone conversations with Herald’s marketing manager started on October 20th, and the editor’s written response on the MXMIndia web portal came just a few days later. With that in mind, it is perhaps premature to assess what the response will be like—from Goan media, the broader spectrum of Indian media, and the Indian government—to this affair.
However, responses from some of these sectors to similar incidents have been mixed. Several major print and television organizations in India carried news just a few days ago that the Chief Election Commissioner had for the first time disqualified a legislator for not disclosing expenses spent on favorable media coverage during an election in 2007. Umlesh Yadav, a politician from northern Uttar Pradesh, was accused of not disclosing money spent on “advertisements masquerading as news” in two newspapers. The incident resulted in Yadav being barred from contesting polls for three years. Furthermore, media including the Times of India report that Yadav could be the first of many politicians that would have such a decision slapped on them. In an article published on October 22nd, the TOI states that “similar action could be taken against former Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan, and former Jharkhand Chief Minister Madhu Koda.”
As our attention shifts to the punishments being served to politicians exposed in the “paid news” scandal—a glaring disparity comes to light. In the race to expose politicians guilty of such behavior, the guilty media organizations have yet to face even a semblance of reprimanding or disciplinary measures for being complicit in the same affairs.
The CEC’s decision does not take any action against the newspapers concerned. One report says they have declared it was an advert (probably in small print as a footnote) and furnished bills for it. It is not clear under what law the newspapers can be acted against, since they claim it was a billed advertorial. The Press Council has to have the powers to act against newspapers for this practice, which it does not. As of now, offending newspapers can only be scrutinized for income tax evasion, if a case is made.
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