Mediating greed

The Election Commission’s notice to Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan seeking his comments on the charge that he spent money on paid news during last year’s Assembly elections is the first action by the EC to deal with a widely reported problem of media misconduct and corruption. The issue is not just one of independence and integrity of the media but of interference in the free and fair conduct of elections. According to reports, Chavan claimed to have spent only Rs 5,379 on newspaper advertisements but a number of newspapers published many reports in his favour and some of them were the same. Such coverage, which ran into several full pages for many days, could be taken as only camouflaged advertisements. They violated electoral laws and editorial ethics. In fact, many politicians have admitted to buying news during elections.

The problem of sale of news space is not new. During the Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections in 2007 it was noticed that some newspapers sold favourable news to parties and candidates in return for money. Last year’s Assembly elections in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh saw the malpractice being resorted to on a wider scale. It became much more blatant also. It was seen that cases of individual corruption, which had always been there in the media, became institutionalised as policy. Coverage packages, with different rates for different levels of favourable coverage, were on offer; those who paid the money got coverage and ensured that their rivals got negative or nil coverage. Election coverage became a commercial endeavour. Not only print media but television news channels were also making cash deals for such coverage.

The commercialisation of the editorial functions of the media had started much before this with some newspapers entering into financial arrangements with companies. The paid news phenomenon is a natural culmination of that trend. By eliminating the dividing line between advertisements and news it violates the basic principles of journalism. The trust of the reader is violated and the credibility of the media suffers. Professional bodies like the Press Council of India and the Editors’ Guild are seized of the matter but they are unable to take any effective corrective steps. The EC can disqualify a candidate who has misrepresented his poll expenses, as Chavan has possibly done. Even if the EC does that, that amounts to punishment for only one party to the crime.

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