Would you eat your favourite brand of noodles if you knew it had a chemical that is carcinogenic? You would probably change your brand immediately.
Last year you voted for your local MP because your favourite newspaper did lots of stories about how he had done a great job. What if you came to know that those articles in the paper were actually paid for by the candidate and that he was a fraud? Can you change him?
What if you came to know that the Rs 10 lakh you spent on an MBA degree for your son was a waste. The ranking of institutes by the magazine you went by was paid for. The institute was not half as good as it was made out to be. Can you take your son out of it?
If you would not accept adulteration in what you eat or drink or use for personal hygiene, why would you accept it in your media brand. Both have equally disastrous consequences.
Yet there is no way knowing which newspaper or news channel is carrying paid news or adulterated content and which isn’t. There is no rating, no sign that indicates this. In fact, till recently, there was no evidence that this was happening.
Then came the Lok Sabha elections of 2009. In the run up to the elections, some of India’s best-known newspapers and news channels (English and language) were alleged to have charged money from candidates for coverage. Following complaints, the Press Council of India (PCI) appointed a sub-committee. Its draft report, which will be finalised this week, documents more than a hundred examples of paid news based on the evidence within newspapers and news channels and from interviews with politicians of all hues. Almost every media brand accused has denied any wrong-doing.
The draft, which I have read, is weak on documentary evidence. But if you know how the news business operates, then there is enough to show that there has been large-scale, institutionalised hanky panky.
This, as co-author of the report Paranjoy Guha Thakurta puts it, “is fraud at three levels”. One, it is hoodwinking the reader. In most newspapers and news channels, there is a clear differentiation between advertising and editorial content. If you read a supplement or an article praising a bank or a company that is paid for, it is usually marked as “Media Marketing Initiative”, or “Advertorial”. Globally, that is a valid way of selling space. But in this case, the whole value of the coverage and the premium paid for it depend on the reader’s belief that this is news.
Two, the money comes to the media company in cash, so shareholders and income tax authorities lose.
Three, it flouts the Election Commission norms which limit publicity expenditure, because candidates don’t show it as such.
Most publishers and news broadcasters are sanguine about the whole thing. The going belief is that at the end of the day, even if readers came to know, they wouldn’t care. Maybe they don’t. But what if they don’t even know the extent to which this is happening. From the movie you see to the fridge you buy to the holiday you take, newspapers and news channels influence everything. If readers knew the full extent of the fraud, they would react.
And for that it is critical that media brands that don’t sell their editorial, and there are dozens of those, get together to shame the brands doing it. How about a Michelin-style rating or badge. “This paper does not carry paid content in any hidden form,” a simple disclaimer made loudly and proudly. And a rating either from the PCI or any other non-governmental body, say a consulting firm that audits ethics, just like it audits corporate social responsibility programmes. Why not make that the gold standard of media brands. Think of it as the J D Power rating of credibility, albeit in another context.
The bottom line is that people break rules and benefit because there is a silent majority of people who follow them.
Why then not turn the tables on the rule-breakers and create a premium for brands that don’t compromise? It benefits consumers and could actually turn out to be a profitable way of dealing with a mucky situation.