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Friday, October 29, 2010

Paid news a big threat to democracy.

  Paid news during elections has become a big threat to democracy. Even as politicians are guilty of subverting democracy, media houses are entering
    into clandestine deals with candidates and political parties.



    THE report of the Press Council of India's (PCI) Committee on Paid News needs to be appreciated. The problem is not new. Anyone with money or power - high net worth individuals, corporations, powerful trusts in health, education and so on, and people in power - always had some degree of influence. They could control advertisement revenue flows to a particular media house.



    There is also a natural reluctance to take on the rich and powerful. For instance, Professors from a leading Business School in the US say in private that it is not advisable to expose the dealings of some of the big corporations in India. Here we look at only one aspect of it - paid news during elections.



    The phenomenon existed for at least a decade, but recent exposures by the media and the PCI's detailed report show the extent to which it has spread.



    We ask three simple questions. What are the roots of this problem? How does this affect good governance? What if anything can be done about it? The roots of the problem are clear. Both the media and the political system need money. On the one hand, there is intense competition in the media with hundreds of newspapers, magazines and TV channels. They are under pressure to earn profits. Some of the reporters, journalists and editors are also exposed to temptation when money is offered. Beyond individual corruption, media houses are entering into clandestine deals with candidates and political parties.



    On the other hand, elections have become a very high stakes game as candidates and parties pour in huge sums of money to ensure a win. There is a proliferation of political parties, spending more and more money to woo smaller and smaller vote banks. For a fraction of what they spend on wooing voters, they can buy some sections of the media. The roots are, therefore, in the intense competition and complete commercialisation of media and politics. This was inevitable, and the trend was clear for several years. We as a society did not sufficiently anticipate how big the problem would become.



    The impact of paid news during elections and its long-term implications also need to be clearly understood. Debates on paid news seem confined to the English media. The majority of voters in the country are exposed to the Indian language media. Selected candidates or political parties are built up by the media. Political parties or their leaders own newspapers and TV channels. In this situation, there is a good chance that voters are influenced.



    While we can debate the extent of money involved and its influence on the eventual outcome, the real question is: what kind of governance can we expect from someone who wins using dubious means? They are either the rich and powerful, or people who will stop at nothing to further their ends. Once in power, they will use it to recover their investments, and to manipulate the system in the interests of those who support them.



    High stakes, high investment elections have become the norm. Big money was perhaps always ready to accommodate those in power, a few honourable exceptions apart. But now they find that the balance has tipped - they need not humour those in power. Those in power are now eager to humour them.



    Big money is also flirting with directly entering politics instead of merely manipulating it from behind. This is a dangerous tipping point in the life of a nation, and we have reached it. In a two-part nation like ours, with India and Bharat on different sides, the implications are not difficult to see. On the one hand, politics will increasingly become populist, with more subsidies and concessions to vote blocks. That is because we have a very fragmented political system with small vote banks, and those in power often do not have the stamina or political strength to tackle the real problems of the country. They find it easier to build vote banks.



    On the other hand, there will be further sell out to corporate interests. This is not to paint the entire corporate sector as greedy and manipulative. But sections of it are definitely putting pressure on governments to bend rules, get tax concessions and get new laws passed. We will also see bigger and bigger mega projects coming up (that is already happening) involving huge sums of money. If the government cannot pay for it, we will use the PPP (Public Private Partnership) model, with some deals clearly favouring the investor over the consumer.



    Large-scale scams periodically hit the headlines. And the recent Commonwealth Games is only a case in point. Behind all this, the problem of black money will further spiral upwards. The real danger ahead is whether we will end up tarring the moral fabric of our society itself. In short, paid news contributes significantly to bad governance.



    Tackling the problem of paid news is not easy, and even if we succeed, the nexus between money and power will not entirely go away. One radical solution is to change the structure of media from a profit-making one, to a not-for-profit model, either as a society or trust, much like educational and religious organisations.



    There is also a crying need for more credible, honest media houses that are independent of big money and power. The Press Council of India's detailed report also has some excellent suggestions, and we need to consider them seriously. It includes an enforceable code of conduct, complete and transparent disclosure of paid news, inclusion of the electronic media under the PCI's jurisdiction, disclosure of all interests and share holdings of the media house and its owners, and strengthening the Election Commission to tackle this issue during elections. With the political system and the judiciary under a cloud, we cannot afford to soft-peddle the issue of media reforms.


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