Paid News Syndrome
Paid news illustrationMedia in India have long argued for self regulation; against government control and censorship. The Press Council of India was set up to help the objective of self-regulation.  Though the Council did succeed in laying down ground rules and building up case laws on journalistic ethics, it could not control wayward journalists and publishers.

Now the Editors Guild of India has thrown in the towel. It has asked the Election Commission to take strong action against politicians and media persons for paid news used for election publicity.

Paid news or packaging of advertisements as news has existed for some time now. It assumed more serious proportions when it was used for campaigning in the Lok Sabha polls in 2006 and Maharastra Assembly elections in 2009.

Paid news undermines the basic precincts of journalism. It adulterates news, abandoning the separation between news and advertisements. Thus, it cheats the readers.

However, tackling it is easier said than done. There are a number of ways in which business houses and politicians influence journalists and publishers. Paid news is only one. The difference now is that a section of the media is now directly demanding payment for publication of news.

The Election Commission can deal with publication of campaign advertisements in the form of news under Section 10A of the Representation of People Act. However, its powers are limited and confined to matters connected to election campaign and coverage. Besides, identification of advertisements masquerading as news is not always easy. Besides, frivolous complaints cannot be ruled out once the Commission starts taking action.

During campaigns, candidates may file complaints against media, which carry adverse comments or reports about them, saying that they were paid for. Moreover, there are complaints that newspapers refused coverage because the candidates refused to pay money. This is not always easy to prove though that would always happen in a market where news is being paid for.

Many cases could be clinched only if it is proved that money had changed hands. This would often require police investigation.

So, it is not surprising that the Commission has asked the Press Council to draw up broad guidelines to identify advertisements, news items and paid news masquerading as advertisement.  The Guild has also been asked to come up with concrete suggestions on how to deal with the problem.

It is evident that the Commission alone would not be able to tackle the problem which is not confined to election coverage and publicity. If the Press Council and Editor’s organizations fail to tackle the issue, legislation might be the only answer. 2010

Related links (Updated):
Report of the Subcommittee of Press Council of India on paid news
Report of Press Council of India
Statement of Editors Guild of India
Copy of Election Commission of India's instructions on 'Paid News'

Back Home