Last week's page one declaration by the Hindustan Times that it does not indulge in 'paid news' of any kind was arguably the best piece of news on the front page of that edition.
The statement by editor-in-chief Sanjoy Narayan (HT brings you real news, not 'paid news', 2 February) served to clarify the newspaper’s stand on the unethical 'paid news' phenomenon that has swept and soiled large, prominent sections of the Indian media. Perhaps the statement would not have come had The Hindu not mentioned HT in a 29 January report stating that the Press Council of India had held HT and other newspapers guilty of ‘paid news’ during the Bihar assembly polls of 2010.
While submitting an explanation on the unbiased reportage during the Bihar assembly polls, the editor declared categorically: "We did not, and do not, believe in paid news." His statement began by saying: "Hindustan Times does not believe in 'paid news'. Our news is news got by the hard work of our network of journalists across the country. Our advertisers pay us to advertise on our pages. The two-news and paid-for advertisements are distinct. When our advertisers want to run an advertorial, we insist that it be labeled clearly as such for all to see."
Such a detailed clarification is a rarity and holds high value for readers today given an environment where ‘paid news’ has virtually become the norm.
'Paid news' is the practice where an advertiser or influential persons such as politicians, industrialists, film stars and other celebrities pay special rates to influence the wording, placement and display of the news item relating to them. This is done without telling the reader that the news item they are reading has been sponsored by the client. So in effect, the readers are being fed with advertising copy and not a news copy written by journalists who are duty-bound by their professional ethics to write copy freely and fearlessly.
'Paid news' quickly emerged as a mainstream operation in Indian media because of the blind faith that readers have on the news columns. What appears as news is held sacrosanct by the readers and this is where the media marketing departments smelt an opportunity to sell space. Advertisers and celebrities had always wanted to influence the news pages in their favour and 'paid news' offered them a legitimate opportunity to do so.
The enormous business generated through 'paid news' at the time of elections is too well known to be repeated in detail. Although the Press Council of India appointed a sub-committee to undertake a fact-finding exercise and condemned the practice; and although a clutch of newspapers are embroiled in a 'paid news' case in the Bombay High Court relating to former Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan’s 2009 election campaign, paid news has become an accepted reality in many news establishments. There is no sense of shame about it.
However, its effect on unsuspecting readers can be disastrous. Take for example a number of doctors running specialty clinics who have been getting themselves and their businesses featured glowingly in newspaper columns. The unsuspecting reader is not aware that he is reading a sponsored piece. Thus, an 86-year old gentleman with vision in one eye reads a glowing report about a laser eye treatment, complete with contact details, and thinks that the newspaper has verified the claims made. Although news supplements such as Pune Times (or Bombay Times, for that matter) run a disclosure below the masthead which reads—"Advertorial, Entertainment Promotional Feature"— this is not grasped adequately by readers. The possibility that the laser eye treatment report could well be advertising and promotional copy does not strike most readers.
The same thing happens with educational institutions when they promise the moon through their 'paid news' write-ups, only to be discovered by students and their parents after they’ve paid the fees and felt cheated.
Recently, when a senior journalist and a group of journalism students visited Rahimatpur- a semi-urban taluka town in Satara district, a local politician there had just one appeal: "Sir, do something about 'paid news'. There are a dozen odd newspapers in this taluka and all they do is collect money and play up profiles of politicians. A completely misleading picture is put before the readers…". How different are many of our big newspapers, whether in the English or the regional press?
Thus, while there is an urban chaos in most of our cities, especially those on a growth trajectory, news establishments are hesitant to expose irregularities by the builders’ lobby because they are among their biggest advertisers. This has been happening in every other advertising segment where "protection money" is demanded for suppressing reports just as money is demanded for running a glowing report.
The Rs 100 crore Zee TV–Jindal case alleging an extortion bid by a media house to suppress negative reports is being battled in the courts and touches upon all of these points.
In such an environment, when a newspaper asserts through a front-page declaration that it does not indulge in 'paid news', it ought to be taken note of.
The Press Council of India needs to do more in the interest of promoting industry standards and good journalistic practices in India. The PCI chairman, Justice Markandey Katju has been proactive on the issue and needs to publish at least a biennial report on the state of paid news in India. This issue needs to be kept on the boil till it is resolved.