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Paid news no news

Malavika Sangghvi 

Thanks to I was able to watch an interesting discussion at the recently concluded Goa Arts & Literary Festival 2011 on “The curse of Paid news’.

All the expected issues were mentioned by the panelists: the fact that news according to is what someone somewhere does not want published, the rest being advertising ; the matter of advertorials; the numerous back-of-the-room deals made by newspapers with business houses; the virtual lack of transparency and conflict of interest declarations; the burgeoning of PR industry; the distance that ought to be maintained between Church and State; the lack of regulatory laws against cross media ownership and of course the increasing media involvement of large corporations and politicians.

But a member of the audience brought in two less discussed issues: the fact that in a market where the price of every other consumer good from toothpaste to automobiles has risen exponentially over the years, newspapers still cost pretty much the same; and the practice of ‘election packets’ being offered to political parties, wherein, for a certain sum of money, the paper will ensure that a certain amount of positive coverage will be afforded to a candidate and that it will also ensure an absence of coverage to his rival.

My take on the price issue is that as long as the price of your daily newspaper is subsidised by advertising, it is naïve to believe that it can be free of vested interests. The existence of newspapers ought to be decided by the readers, who votes for them with his wallet. As for the information that ‘ election packets’ are an institutionalised practice — is any one surprised any more?

But perhaps as someone who has had experience in ‘lifestyle journalism or the Page Three Press’ I can shed some light on the subject of ‘paid news’ .

The phenomena began around the time that newspapers began to encroach on the territory of magazines. Suddenly there were no rules — no boundaries established. Until then most journalists knew what a news story ought to be: the communicating of a recent occurrence in all its aspects with opinions sought from all those concerned. After 50 years of hacking away at it, Indian journalism had almost got it right.

But along with reform and liberalisation came the supplements carrying not news but views, preferences, biases opinions dressed up as news. Each day a journalist working on one of these supplements had to decide who to put on their pages and what spin to give. And to actually take a call on not what was news — but what was entertaining!

In the end it boiled down to subjective judgment with no guidelines for empirical decisions. Even if they were scrupulously transparent about their choices, it still amounted to a whole lot of power vested on personal judgments of hapless scribes.

It was not very long before more vested interests realised this anomaly and moved in for the easy pickings. So you had paid news, cleverly disguised advertorials and deals made with commercial interests in mind. After all, if the earth shattering decision of naming the best -dressed socialite or most happening party in town had to be decided-why leave it to the subjective judgment of a journalist? Once newspapers got away from the business of reporting news it was all downhill.

And to paraphrase “News became what some one somewhere wanted published. Just like advertising.”

Malavika Sangghviis a Mumbai-based writer  

First Published: Sat, December 24 2011. 00:13 IST