Kerala's have-to-oblige news

BY MUHAMMED SABITH| IN Regional Media | 08/07/2013
There are more ways of managing news than paid news. Kerala recently showed the way.
MUHAMMED SABITH describes what happened. PIX: The Mass Contact Programme

Is there anything wrong in publishing a mass-mailed article requesting publication on a specified date?  Written by a seemingly independent writer? The media in Kerala did just that.

“Kerala Admired” (Keralam Adarikkapedunnu) or “UN Award: Kerala Admired” was the title of an article published simultaneously on June 27, 2013, in at least five major Malayalam language dailies: Malayala Manorama, Madhyamam, Mathrubhumi, Chandrika and Thejas. It was written, as mentioned at the end of the article in each newspaper, by former Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations T.P. Sreenivasan. One would wonder why a senior diplomat with Sreenivasan’s credentials should write this.  I contacted those newspapers to satisfy my curiosity and some of them admitted that the article was part of Chief Minister Oommen Chandy’s PR campaign!

It is not uncommon for a chief minister, members in the cabinet, opposition leaders or other politicians to use the editorial pages of newspapers to articulate their stance. But the current case is different.  T. P. Sreenivasan, the author of the article, is a well-known veteran diplomat with 37 years of experience in the Indian Foreign Service. But, he is more than that. He currently holds the post of the Vice-Chairman and Executive Head of the Kerala State Higher Education Council –a rank equal to Vice-Chancellor and a post which requires the candidate, besides having the academic or professional competence, to have a good relationship with the government. “His relationship with the government is not a secret. People know it”, said a journalist, justifying the act of identifying him by his previous position rather than the current one.

Facts and Propaganda

Let us take a look at the situation when the advertorial appeared in the newspapers. Three Indian public projects were listed among the award-winning initiatives for this year’s UN Public Service Awards (UNPSA). Chief Minister Oommen Chandy’s Mass Contact programme won the Award from the Asia-Pacific region in the category of “Preventing and Combating Corruption in the Public Service”. There were four more categories. The Swavalamban of  the District Administration of Dhanbad in Jharkhand and Graamin Haat programme of  the Department of Cottage and Rural Industries in Madhya Pradesh won the second place in the  “Improving the Delivery of Public Services” and “Promoting Gender-Responsive Delivery of Public Services” categories, respectively. The article neither mentioned this classification for the awards, nor said anything about winners of other four categories. Instead, the writer created an impression that twists the very fact that there are five categories just like five geographical regions. He however wrote that Oommen Chandy finished first in the Asia-Pacific region by defeating the Republic of Korea (the same country that shone the most during the award ceremony by bagging two first places and four second places).

The article, which argued that the award is a matter of pride not just for the state but for the entire nation, however, did not bother to mention the other Indian projects that too won the award. This cements the argument that the writer’s ignorance about other categories was conscious and purposeful. “This (the award to the Mass Contact programme) award is not only for Oommen Chandy or for Kerala or even for India, but for all democratic countries in the developing world. Definitely each Malayalee has the right to feel proud of this achievement as this is a rare occasion when Kerala has been acknowledged globally”, he wrote. “We can define it (the Mass Contact programme) as nothing but a perfect democratic experiment … it is surely a great experiment that strengthens the democracy”.

The Hindu, along with few other newspapers, that made an effort to go for the sources beyond the government ads, however, reported: “Before the Mass Contact programme was started, there was a low follow-up rate on complaints received from citizens. Characterised by high bureaucracy, the state faced efficiency challenges and a very low responsive rate, which led to a large volume of complaints. Complaints about government officers were not entertained properly by the senior officials and people had limited options for solutions to their problem with public services. This led to piling up files in departments and government Secretariat, with 1,32,000 files pending in Secretariat by mid-2011” (‘U.N. Public Service Awards for Three Indian Projects’ - The Hindu, 27.06.13).

Of course, the sincerity and commitment shown by Oommen Chandy in his public life needs to be commended. But it does not mean that he is a perfect model for the democracy.  Many noticed the coincidence (and irony) that the award was given to his office for “Preventing and Combating Corruption in the Public Service” at a time when many in the same office were ousted and arrested for their alleged involvement in the latest ‘Solar Scandal’. The Opposition was actively demanding his resignation when he was in Bahrain to receive the award. There are active takers for the argument that the UN award was a great relief for him in the midst of the deep political crisis he and his government are currently in, and that his PR campaigners were all set to make maximum benefit out of the award.

“Denying ads not difficult”

None of the media organisations that I contacted admitted to being paid for publishing the article on the editorial page. Some strongly claimed that they were not paid and criticised my ‘cynicism’. But the conversations I had with them emphasised the argument that absolute editorial independence is no more a reality. Yes, they may not have been paid for that article but clearly they were not in a position to make an independent editorial decision on any material distributed by the government.

“See, it is not unusual. No media organisation could reject material, yes any material for that matter, distributed by the government”, replied an editor when contacted for a comment. Asked about the ethical questions it may raise, like in the present case, he said, “No, I don’t think it is unethical. We must maintain a good relationship with the government. If we strictly judge their materials based on journalistic standards and editorial integrity, we may end up in damaging our relationship with them (government). No media would do it as we all need government support to sustain.”

He also hinted that though there are provisions for government advertisements being distributed to the newspapers based on their circulation, it is not difficult for the officials to find loopholes to deprive newspapers of government advertisements. “There are rules and regulations regarding allotting government advertisements to the newspapers, but they can be easily violated if your relationship with them is not good”.

And another editor said, “The article reached me by email, and it was a group mail-- it was marked to most editors in Malayalam besides many senior journalists in Kerala-- with a request this may be published on June 27, the day the chief minister was to receive the award at a function in Bahrain. It gave details of the award which he said was a prestigious one from a UN agency.

I decided to publish it though I knew most others will also do the same --mainly because such promotions will indirectly help getting government support by way of ads from the public sector units and PRD. Definitely it was not an advertorial or paid news, but the quid pro quo is evident. Most editors do oblige when there are such requests, as there is no way of running small newspapers without government support by way of ads.“

It is, of course, a valid argument that the media should promote any governmental efforts aiming to improve lives of the common man. But should newspapers not feel free to reject an article which is clearly a command performance?

(Muhammed Sabith is a freelance journalist and can be contacted at sabith.muhemmad@gmail.com)

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