March 5, 2010
“(Edmund) Burke said there were three Estates in Parliament; but in the Reporter’s gallery yonder, there sat a fourth estate more important far than they all.” – Thomas Carlyle, Scottish essayist and philosopher (1795-1881).
“I fear three newspapers more than a hundred thousand bayonets” –Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France (1769-1821).
Such power and fear that the Fourth Estate (Press or media, if we should include electronic entry) enjoyed over the centuries is being frittered away by a section of the media prostituting itself with its greed for what Timothy called, in the Old Testament of the Bible, “filthy lucre”. This tainted regime of selling propaganda as news seems to be near its end. But, first the background
The Election Commission EC) had sought “comments” from Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan on allegations that he spent money on “paid news” in his favour in local newspapers and he did not account for this expenditure in his election accounts. Chavan, who was elected from Bhokar in Nanded district, had been asked to reply. The Commission had sent him copies of complaints received from various sources, including the BJP, and a number of articles that appeared in several newspapers, including The Hindu, on the subject of ‘paid news’. In its first time action of its kind, the Commission has also sent some CDs.
The EC’s action follows a series of reports in The Hindu exposing the malaise of ‘paid news’ during the Lok Sabha and Maharashtra State Assembly polls. These included a front-page report on November 3, 2009 pointing to the glaring mismatch between Chavan’s claim of having spent a mere Rs. 5,379 on newspaper ads and the 47 full page ‘news’ (mostly in colour) on Chavan appearing during the State poll campaign. Later, the count of such pages went up to 89. The EC had pointed out that three Marathi newspapers carried identical news reports praising Chavan. Only headlines were different.
Under the rules, a candidate has to submit his election expenditure accounts within 30 days of the declaration of results. If EC is satisfied that the person has failed to lodge an account of election expenses within the time and the manner required by the Act, and has no good reason for the failure, the EC can declare him disqualified for three years from the date of order.
It appears that the EC is set out to make Chavan’s case a test on the ‘paid news’ front. While EC has powers over the election process, it cannot touch the media. That aspect is being looked into by the Press Council of India and Editor’s Guild of India.
That brings us to the role of the media and the place of advertisements.
Here shall the Press the People’s rights maintain,
Unawed by influence and unbribed by gain;
Here Patriot Truth her glorious precepts draw,
Pledged to Religion, Liberty and Law.
- Joseph Story, US Jurist (1779-1845).
Against this is to be set the distorted role of ads, wherein, instead of the dog wagging its tail, we have the tail wagging the dog in many cases. This has been forcefully commented on by Vice President Hamid Ansari who, while inaugurating the MC Verghese memorial lecture series in Delhi on January 28, 2010, warned that commercialization of news content for revenue generation could damage the country’s polity and economy. “The recent practice of leveraging political and economic content in our media for overt and covert revenue generation have the malevolent potential to tarnish the polity and even destabilize the economy.”
Continuing, Ansari noted that the Editors Guild of India and the Press Council of India have investigated the “phenomenon of electoral malpractices of paid news and coverage packages… It is now clear that amongst the pillars of democracy, it is only the Fourth Estate that has the identifiable business and commercial persona. The pursuit of profit has altered the profile of the media entrepreneur. Today, a media enterprise is seen as necessary subsidiary for a growing business enterprise, a political party and even individuals seeking to leverage public influence for private gain. Commercial success of media organisations had become a function of advertising revenues rather than subscription and circulation figures. The advertisers had thus replaced recipients of media products. By the same logic, circulation figures, meant to attract advertising, became more important than content”.
The distorted role of advertising and their manipulation for image-building has been long noted. “Advertisements are of great use to the vulgar. First of all, - they are instruments of ambition. A man by no means big enough for the Gazette, may easily creep into the advertisement; by which means we often see an apothecary in the same paper of news with the plenipotentiary, or a running footman with an ambassador.” – Joseph Addison, English writer (1672-1719) The despair of Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of USA (1743-1826) about the intrusion of ads and the distorted news and comments in newspapers is reflected in his following prescription: “Perhaps an editor might divide his paper into four chapters, heading the first, Truth; second, Probabilities; 3rd, Possibilities; 4th, Lies.” If Jefferson was alive today, he would have suggested a fourth chapter: Paid News.
In the latest development on the subject, Chavan, in his reply to the EC, has denied that he had spent for paid news. He has questioned the EC’s right to seek “comments” on the charge of paid news as the expenditure account was the subject matter of an election petition pending before the Aurangabad Bench of the Bombay High Court. He has also contended that he has submitted his expenditure statement to the authority concerned in time and prima facie this was approved by the District Electoral Officer with the endorsement that it was “in the prescribed format” and “in order”.
All this, and the time-consuming court processes, might save the day for Chavan for now. But, the noose is being tightened on paid news by the day, with adverse public opinion relentlessly building up against it. There are many movements working against the malaise of paid news and it will not be long before it would be put paid.
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