Media collusion with politicians, business weakens Indian democracy

Amrit Dhillon says tough regulation is neededto stop collusion between media and politicians

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 July, 2013, 4:52am

An Indian television reporter was sacked this week for doing a piece on the floods that have ravaged the nation while sitting on the shoulders of a flood survivor.

In a video that went viral, the reporter is seen on the shoulders of the man, who is standing in the water and wobbling under the strain of keeping the reporter above water.

It may have been just an isolated antic by an insensitive reporter, but it comes just weeks after a parliamentary report delivered a harsh rebuke to a much deadlier and more widespread practice - the oxymoronic phenomenon of "paid news".

The report outlines what is now a well-known evil: how newspapers and television news channels take money in return for positive coverage. The money comes from business houses, individuals and politicians, particularly at election time.

India's Election Commission has detected hundreds of cases where candidates gave money to the media. In return, the newspaper or TV channel carried glowing reports on their campaigns and hyped their chances of winning. In a campaign in Punjab, rival candidates both gave money to the same paper. The next day, the paper predicted that both men were heading for victory.

Bennett & Coleman, which owns The Times of India, demolished the line between editorial and advertising many years ago. It began by asking celebrities and other rich people to pay for coverage.

As the pioneer of this practice, it has continued innovating and now has something called a "private treaty" agreement in which it accepts an equity stake in a company that wants to advertise in lieu of an ad payment.

The silence of the Indian media on paid news - the parliamentary committee's report received minimal coverage - is alarming. As the report says: "Paid news undermines the essence of the democratic process."

How are people to decide who to vote for when what they read about the candidates is paid for? How can readers decide which company to invest in when the coverage depends on whether they paid the paper or channel?

No editor is going to tackle this; too many people are complicit. The Press Trust of India, which supposedly regulates the media, is toothless. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting also does nothing.

What is needed is an independent regulator with the power to punish the culprits.

A good place to start would be to disqualify election candidates who pay for positive coverage. Indians are already on the whole contemptuous of politicians. If they start thinking they are being fed biased stories by reporters, what will happen to their faith in democracy?

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance writer based in India