The ‘Paid News’ Conundrum
As stated in the book Journalism: Ethics and Responsibilities by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Ujwala Uppaluri, “The autonomy of the media is meant to facilitate greater accountability of public personalities and reduce corruption. But when the media itself indulges in corrupt practices, especially during election campaigns, it seriously undermines the processes and structures that are meant to uphold and strengthen democracy.”
The increasingly common practices of paid news and media organisations being subservient to a powerful few are established facts in most countries (90 per cent of American media is owned by just six companies) and it is no different in India, even with its hallowed status as the fourth estate. As per the Registrar of Newspapers in India, the total number of registered publications as on 31 March 2015 was 105,443, with Hindi and then English publications leading the way. The number of TV households in India is currently around 175 million and expected to touch 200 million by 2020. On paper, this may seem a vindication of the sheer volume and diversity of the Indian media. However, despite appearances of being robust, noisy and plural, the truth is that most of the media is dominated by a few large conglomerates who, in turn, are controlled by the country’s biggest corporates and influential politicians.
Despite appearances of being robust, noisy and plural, the truth is that most of the media is dominated by a few large conglomerates who, in turn, are controlled by the country’s biggest corporates and influential politicians. As articulated in a 2013 TRAI report, the conflict of interest that arises due to this kind of skewed ownership results in paid news, continuous lobbying for favourable coverage (and suppression of negative news items), sensationalist news and propaganda, and proliferation of biased analysis and opinion pieces with little basis in facts.
Paid news in a democracy should be a huge cause for concern, just like state-controlled propaganda in authoritarian regimes like North Korea. Both compromise the fundamental premise of a media – free, proudly independent, speaking truth to power, and beholden to no one
“The major problem with paid news is that consumers are unable to distinguish in any meaningful way the difference between content that has been paid for and that which has not, or been subject to the ordinary rigours of an independent journalistic process… Paid news is the suppression of legitimate criticism, especially of those in power (be they in political parties or in corporate entities). Most worryingly, paid news is manufactured and delivered through an institutionalised and organised system based on untraceable transactions, that is, clandestine and illegal activities.” Journalism: Ethics and Responsibilities, by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Ujwala Uppaluri
Paid Content. Private Treaties. The Year 2003
Take for example Bennett, Coleman and Company Limited (BCCL), one of the country’s largest media houses which include the world’s most widely circulated multi-edition English daily newspaper, The Times of India (ToI). In 2003, it came up with a unique offering to its legions of clients – a ‘paid content’ service called Medianet, which would send journalists to cover product launches, events and other ‘news-worthy’ happenings and generously feature the same in their newspapers as long as a hefty fee was paid—in other words, paid news in a brazen, splashy form designed to grab eyeballs.
Another of its pioneering strategy was the ‘private treaties’ scheme that gave advertising space and favourable coverage (though they are wont to deny the latter) to private clients (usually mid-size companies) in exchange for equity investment in their company/corporate entity. BCCL usually insists on one-third cash as a down payment and accepts real-estate ownership if equity isn’t an option. By the end of 2007, BCCL had investments in 140 companies in aviation, media, retail and entertainment, at an estimated Rs 1,500 crore. It is of little surprise, then, that the company has registered enormous revenues year after year.
In light of these exclusive deals, one will not be wrong to wonder if any semblance of journalistic integrity is possible in the editorial rooms of BCCL’s many publications. After all, one rarely spits on the plate they eat from. An example of this quid pro quo exercise was when ToI refrained from mentioning the name of its private-treaty partner, Sobha Developers, in a news report wherein an elevator operated by the company crashed in Bengaluru and killed two workers. These kind of long-term ‘contracts’, which are usually with political parties, big and small corporations, and those seeking Page 3 coverage (entertainment firms, film and TV companies, celebs, etc.) have become a common occurrence and now extend to many large media houses, following in the footsteps of BCCL’s brilliant sell-out strategies.
So, Who Run the (Media) World?
Media houses in India are largely owned by two groups: politicians and large corporate groups. If this makes you uncomfortable, it should. Of all the fair and neutral entities in this world, these two would surely not be included in that list.
An interesting and highly detailed infographic by Newslaundry – http://www.newslaundry.com/2014/02/05/who-owns-your-media-4/ – shows who rules the world of Indian media. As one can easily gather, politicians and large corporations either crop up in the owners list or innocuous names are somehow related to them. For example, Hindustan Times Ltd’s majority shareholders (the Bhartias) are directly related to the Ambanis. Network 18, of course, already has stakes owned by Mukesh Ambani’s group. Essel Group with its stake in Zee Entertainment and its print venture DNA has gone the tried and tested way of controlling multiple media outlets.
Savvy politicians from all major political parties have substantial ownership in many of these media companies including The Deccan Chronicle group, Information TV Pvt. Ltd (that owns the incoherent, rhetorical shouting match that is NewsX channel, amongst others), NDTV, Network 18 and Sun Group. As usual, the most interesting shareholding pattern is observed at BCCL (they also seem to have the most diverse range of media interests). While the Jains seem to have minority stakes in the company mothership, the majority of BCCL’s shares are divided among eight other companies. The catch? All companies are registered at the same address in Darya Ganj and have a ‘Jain’ listed as the director. Coincidence much?
In line with the worldwide trend of media consolidation (think of the Murdoch empire), a few large companies control huge swathes of the Indian media. Some of the more well-known ones are BCCL, Sun TV, Essel Group, Star India, India Today, HT Media, Network 18, ABP Group, Bhaskar Group, Jagran Prakashan, and Manorama Group. The promoters of these groups often have other business interests as well – and a cosy, incestuous relationship among their multiple holdings is the norm. For instance, Sun TV’s owners also control Spicejet airlines and are into film production and broadcasting, while Deccan Chronicle Holdings are into retail and technology. It should be noted that although SEBI has issued guidelines for disclosure of shares/stakes held by media companies, many media groups have simply chosen to ignore them.
Even more worrisome is the growing trend of the country’s biggest corporations muscling their way into this space in clandestine deals. The 2013 TRAI report discussed the many concerns associated with corporate-owned media, who are often likely to misuse it to further their selfish agendas and vested interests. Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) taking effective control of Network 18 in a Rs 4,000 crore deal (the ensuing drama of Rajdeep Sardesai quitting as editor-in-chief of CNN-IBN is well known), Aditya Birla Group acquiring a substantial stake in Living Media India Limited (which owns Aaj Tak, Headlines Today and India Today, amongst others), and Oswal Green Tech buying stake in NDTV are some of the more famous deals that have taken place in the recent past.
The Many Subterfuges of Mainstream Media
A highly detailed report on the issue of paid news in media, which ironically found little coverage in most mainstream media, was issued by the ministry of information and broadcasting in 2013. It examined the growing tendency of media companies in the country to pass off advertisements as legitimate news content. This is obviously done at the cost of deceiving the readers and creating a false narrative wherein the moneyed class can dictate the facts, news and opinions that are so crucial for an informed and active democracy.
The report brought to light the multi-crore shadowy industry born as a result of the convergence of editorial, advertising, PR and lobbying industries. The report also demonstrated how difficult it was to get information related to income and ad revenue of media groups. A 2010 report by a subcommittee of the Press Council of India (PCI) was scathing in its takedown of the epidemic of paid news, the unscrupulous tactics of ad selling, and the underhand dealings with politicians for favourable coverage. The committee itself refused to release the full report at that time—which did no good to its own credibility. However, the report managed to come out a year later thanks to the dogged efforts of a few (including the aforementioned Paranjoy Guha Thakurta). Most mainstream media simply chose to ignore the report.
The response of most TV channels to a major takeover deal such as Network 18 is also conspicuous by its striking absence. Would those TV channels and newspapers remain mute had RIL decided to buy Future Group, Ola, or Flipkart? One thinks not. Even the Editors’ Guild of India had no comment on this development.
Aside from corporates and organisations looking to promote their products, paid news is already commonplace among politicians and electoral candidates (cutting across party lines). The Election Commission had previously estimated in 2009 that the market for political paid news could be in the region of Rs 500 crore – this sounds quite paltry really and it’s likely to be much more. The same 2010 report by the PCI’s Sub-Committee had made its observations on the paid news practice during the 2009 General Election: “This malpractice has become widespread and now cuts across newspapers and television channels… Marketing executives use the services of journalists – willingly or otherwise – to gain access to political personalities. So-called ‘rate cards’ or ‘packages’ are distributed that often include ‘rates’ for publication of ‘news’ items that not merely praise particular candidates but also criticise their political opponents.”
Another colourful avatar of paid news are award ceremonies organised by media houses wherein their more generous sponsors are given awards, ostensibly for some noble or glamorous reason. The convergence of powerful interest groups, wherein already huge corporate behemoths control the tone, content and dissemination of how information pertaining to them is distributed and received by the public, is possibly one of the gravest issues of our times.
Unsurprisingly, the report stated its concerns on the menace of private treaties (which it rightly lambasted), cross-media ownership, vertical integration (owning both broadcasting and distribution within the same type of media), and increasing corporate stake in media houses. Its many experts favoured some sort of regulations in order to address these issues and preserve a fair and independent media. It also argued for a regulatory mechanism to eliminate, or at least minimise, the scourge of paid news. Currently, entities like Press Council of India are toothless bodies that do not have the authority to enforce strict compliance with its rulings or observations. Kind of like the President of India.
On Native Advertising and Advertorials
There’s outright paid news and then there are the modern versions of advertising that are nothing but cleverly disguised paid news. Thus, there is something called native advertising. It is a type of advertising that relies on content, usually an article or a video, that matches the platform on which it appears and the interest of the platform’s readers or viewers. The idea is to create buzzworthy or share-worthy content with a view to promoting the product of the advertiser by carefully and cleverly merging the content and the product. Even though the content in question may be labelled with a ‘promoted by’ or ‘sponsored by’ tag, often times customers fail to recognise them as sponsored posts, which isn’t surprising as the aim is to seamlessly blend in the advertising bit into snappy, easily digestible content. To put it bluntly, the line is meant to be blurred. On popular platforms, it can take the form of a Buzzfeed quiz, a paid post on a newspaper, a promoted Tweet, or a suggested Facebook post.
Advertorials (advertisement + editorial) have been around for long, in the form of a newspaper section designed to look like any other non-editorial content, in TV and radio infomercials, or in a magazine article that mimics the look and feel of a legitimate news item. The basic rule is that although it is advertisement, it is made to create the illusion of editorial content while still making an obvious pitch for the product. While the difference between native advertising and advertorial is fuzzy, the former makes it a point not to come across as advertising (or very subtly so) and is usually configured to a specific platform. Advertorials, on the other hand, can be more blatant in pushing for the product in question and can be promoted across multiple sources.
In India, the guidelines according to the Press Council of India mandate that ‘news’ should be clearly demarcated from ‘advertisements’ through adequate disclaimers. Also, news reports should always carry a credit line and set in a typeface that would distinguish it from ads. It is a separate matter that these guidelines are conveniently ignored by most media houses.
Fundamentally, there’s nothing wrong in ads. After all, media companies have to survive and generate enough revenues to satisfy their owners. And with the stagnant subscription rates, ads are the easiest and most lucrative way to keep the journalistic machinery running. The problem arises when ads merge with the news so much so that there’s no separating the two and instead of the editorial team, the company’s owners decide what news goes up on the platform.
The wall between news and advertising may be thin and porous but there’s no reason to completely break it down. The issue of trustworthiness and credibility of the news media carrying such deceptive ads is a crucial one. A publication which regularly carries such sponsored content is likely to be given less credence by consumers as it will be increasingly seen as a ‘paid for’, and less serious, media platform. More dangerous is how these ads intend to deliberately mislead the unwitting reader. This is paid media at its subterfuge best and seemingly adopted by most mainstream media organisations. In India, newspapers like ToI openly embrace advertorials to fatten their ad revenue coffers. In a 2012 interview, Samir Jain, one of the top honchos at BCCL, defended the tiny disclaimer next to the many ‘paid for’ promotional features in Bombay Times, saying that it meets the transparency test. One may rightly assume that the test was created, administered and evaluated by him.
As consumers of news, we rely heavily on the good work of journalists to inform, educate and provocate us. Most people read their favourite daily newspapers, browse familiar websites, and watch the news on TV assuming that the information is accorded and sanctioned by its journalists and editors, not the owners of that newspaper, website, or TV. A tiny fine print, a disclaimer narrated rapidly at the end, or a footnote isn’t good enough. If such ads or PR exercises are a reality of our times, then they shouldn’t be cloaked under a heavy veil, almost as if the publishers and advertisers know that what they are doing is somewhat unethical. People pay for the privilege of being informed and not being sold a product. Similarly, a media outlet is there to serve its consumers, not kowtow to every demand of anyone who has enough money to throw at them. At the same time, the role of the public is to be aware and vigilant about the sordid side of the media and not accept everything that is fed to us as the gospel truth. It is important to question, research, think and evaluate the deluge of information that is provided to us every single day and continuously challenge conventional wisdom, even if it goes against our preferred way of thinking. Just like we deserve a fair, independent and provocative media, the media needs a discerning and argumentative audience.