Saturday, August 07, 2010

“Paid News Undermining Democracy”

Here's the inimitable P. Sainath lamenting the Press Council of India's (PCI) burying of the issues of "Paid News," in an article titled "Paid News Undermining Democracy."

The issue is clear. Some Indian publications publish editorial articles for a fee. The result is you can't trust if what you are reading is original research and reportage or has been prepared by a press relations agency. A newspaper is read and subscribed to for its credibility. Over time it becomes a habit to believe what it prints as gospel truth. We often say, "I read it in ---- newspaper," believing that our trusted newspaper of so many years can't be wrong. It's like a trusted parent, or, uncle, or, better still, friend. It develops an intimate relationship with the reader leading the reader by the hand, coaxing him to believe what it believes, trust what it trusts, and a relationship of dependence develops.

I have been a reader of the Old Female of a certain precinct in Bombay since childhood. I refuse to change this habit. I can't. Over the years it has become like my morning cup of coffee. Though I subscribe to multiple newspapers I turn to it first because I know where the pages are, where my favorite sections are, where the cartoons and horoscopes are.

Now consider this. I read that a certain candidate is good for my constituency compared to his rivals and vote for him and he turns out to be a nincompoop and doesn't do anything for the community and instead helps spread crime and fills my area with slums. I later learn that the nincompoop had paid the newspaper a lot of money to print glowing articles about him. What do I feel?

I feel cheated, let down, g*** m***-ed. (Which exactly is what I am feeling now, because the said newspaper (which I pay with my hard-earned, heart-block-inducing, artery-hardening, sweat-of-brows money) is full of paid news masquerading as editorial.

It violates the basic tenets of the freedom of press (and independence of the press) enshrined in the constitution because if a rich corporation prints lies about its products and make me buy it and I die, it and the corporation would be responsible. Certainly the paper wouldn't write what was wrong with the product and it wouldn't report my death, too. Because its survival now depends on "paid news." Are such newspapers good for the health of our democracy, which is entering its 64th year?

This is worrying indeed. We need a wider debate on this issue. The government also needs to act on this issue because it subsidises newspapers by supplying newsprint to it at heavily discounted rates, allows it postal concessions, gives it preferential treatment. For what?

The answer is: "To report the truth. Not print lies and feel good articles about celebrities."

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