State of the Nation | The Paid News Venom

The Cobrapost sting operation is symptomatic of media managements’ willingness to compromise editorial content for a price. It also explains the warped, government-friendly coverage in recent times

The sensational sting operation videos made public last week by the website Cobrapost, literally caught the managements of media organisations across the country with their pants down. It exposed how media houses — 25 organisations in all, including the Times of India Group, India Today and Hindustan Times — were lured by the promise of big money to consider compromising editorial freedom to publish/telecast content as required by a client. In this instance, the media managements/owners agreed in principle to run a sustained three phase pro-Hindutva, pro-BJP paid news campaign ahead of the 2019 General Election.

Equally shocking was the fact that this insidious campaign, which included communal content to promote hatred against minorities, defame secular parties and their leaders and build up the BJP and the government, was discussed at length by the top management of these organisations by bypassing editors. By all accounts, the Cobrapost expose confirmed what many journalists already suspected — that paid news supportive of the government, the BJP and its various agenda, was the new sunshine zone that media houses have been milking to rake in moolah and favours from the government.

What would come as a surprise to those outside the media is that representatives from the top management of media organisations met the undercover reporter posing as Acharya Atal, a representative of a Hindu organisation close to the RSS. In the case of the Times Group, it was its owner and managing director Vineet Jain and the group’s executive president Sanjeev Shah who discussed the proposed deal. The two are caught on tape even suggesting ways of routing black money payments for the campaign. In the case of India Today, it was Kalli Purie, the group's vice president, who held discussions. Similarly, in the cases of other media outfits, it was CEOs and senior executives who worked out the modalities of the pro-Hindutva campaign.

Camouflaged operation
Interestingly, after the sting became public, the Times Group claimed that it had merely played along and was conducting a “reverse sting” to trap Acharya Atal. The India Today Group asserted that it had at no stage agreed to compromise editorial freedom. But the fact that the senior management in both groups engaged in discussions on a paid news project cannot be dismissed lightly. It reflects a trend which has set in where editorial content is being increasingly shaped by commercial considerations.

In fact, the sting operation provides an explanation for the warped coverage we have been seeing in the last four years on several television channels as well as in sections of the print media. Be it the agrarian crisis, unemployment, Dalit issues, demonetisation, Love Jihad, communal tension, Indo-Pak relations or Kashmir, the motivated stories (sometimes fake or twisted) were obviously run unfiltered probably on orders from top bosses in media organisations. So, is it not within the realm of possibility that deals, like the one discussed in the sting operation, were negotiated between newspaper CEOs and the government or the BJP?

Let us for a moment imagine that in the sting operation, the client was not an undercover reporter but someone negotiating on behalf of the government or the BJP. Would the managements have obliged him or her? It is safe to assume that they would have rolled out the veritable red carpet. And as a quid pro quo may have readily settled for a healthy quantum of government ads and an audience with key members of the ruling dispensation. Payments would thus be through a clever and covert 'be our friend and reap the rewards later’ scheme.

Those coming in the way of the management’s plans are either sacked or marginalised. This is the reason why there has been a flight of independent journalists from mainstream media to web portals that offer them space and freedom

In other words, it would be a well camouflaged paid news operation in which the media organisation publishes/telecasts reports with a specified slant and later gets paid through a legitimate channel - government advertising. Such deals are struck much in advance, the idea being to ensure sustained positive coverage which is paid for in a staggered manner through advertising. It ensures that there is no clinching evidence that directly links the friendly coverage and the advertising support extended which can be explained as part of a government’s larger PR exercise.

Behind-the-scenes of 'paid news'
So, what does positive coverage entail? It includes reports praising the government by highlighting its achievements and reporting the party in power at an advantage in various elections. Friendly media outlets are also expected to downplay or even suppress negative news while vigorously attacking the Opposition parties and secular liberals. This biased mix is ensured through persons in key positions in the management and editorial who are entrusted to see that the overall coverage is on the positive side and unfriendly news is kept to a bare minimum or censored.

Those coming in the way of the management’s plans are either sacked or marginalised. This is the reason why there has been a flight of independent journalists from mainstream media to web portals that offer them space and freedom. Others who have no option but to hang on to their jobs for monetary and personal reasons learn to comply with the new laws of coverage or allow themselves to be relegated to unimportant beats where the demands on them are not considerable.

However, to allow the media to keep up some semblance of being unbiased, some negative reports are given tacit approval. These include “exposes” on the slow implementation of “well thought out schemes” or strident attacks on the fringe elements in the Saffron brotherhood. According to a media executive at a prominent TV channel, carefully orchestrated campaigns against gau rakshaks (cow protectors) or motormouths within the BJP are examples of this. Ironically, while no official action is taken against such elements, it is left to the media to rein them in.

This kind of support extended by large mainstream media outfits is a lot more devious from what has been practiced in the past. Earlier, a write up on a ministry or an interview with the minister would be carried on the same day on which the ads appeared. The link between the coverage and the advertising support was obvious to the reader. Now, the government covertly instructs various ministries to offer advertising support to friendly media organisations in exchange for long-term support.

'Give news instead of ads'
While cultivating governments is nothing new, media managements find that the present dispensation expects complete loyalty. Some try to strike a balance of sorts. The Times Group thus has its main news channel, Times Now, perceived to be overtly pro-government. But it also launched Mirror Now in 2015 as an anti-establishment platform with its focus on “civic issues”. This is a throwback to the NDA-1 days when the Times of India ran a weekly supplement on governance which took a critical look at official policies and their implementation while the main paper was seen to be soft on the government.

But several media outfits don’t even pretend to be objective. The Cobrapost sting operation reveals how ZEE News was open about its Saffron leanings with one of its executives telling the undercover reporter that the channel was willing “to run down political rivals (of the BJP).” Similarly, a senior management representative of the Kannada channel Suvarna and its sister publication Kannada Prabha assured all support since “our chairman (BJP MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar) is also a Hindutva guy.” A sales officer of Kannada Prabha even advised Acharya Atal “if you give news instead of advertisements, it is better.”

Perhaps, it is easy to dismiss the Cobrapost expose as lacking in evidence since no money changed hands. But it is too important a story to ignore. If news can be planted by those paying for it, then it speaks poorly of our press and its credibility. And remember, this is not editorial space being set aside to promote a product or a company. It is hardcore news that influences the world view and the political choices made by citizens. Which is why paid content should never be allowed to supplant real news. The sooner this pernicious practice is stopped the better. Is the Press Council listening?

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