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Bought news

Mitali Saran  |  New Delhi 

Hello, consumer of news, how goes? I was thinking that since you presumably pay for your newspapers to get an objective assessment of what is going on in the world, it would be interesting to get your view on this whole storm about the Press Council of India’s sub-committee report on paid news. What do you think? Oh, you didn’t know anything about any storm about any Press Council of India report on paid news?

If that is true, I beg you to research it. At the very least, it will anger, dishearten and depress you, and who doesn’t look forward to that on a Saturday morning?

Recap: After a lot of pushing by some journalists who still care about this sort of thing, the PCI commissions a sub-committee report on the widely-recognised phenomenon called ‘paid news’, in which journalists, editors and media publishers accept, or demand, payment in cash and kind from corporate houses, politicians and other individuals, in return for certain kinds of coverage (most damagingly, though not exclusively, during elections). The sub-committee report produces a thorough report that doesn’t merely mutter darkly, but gives concrete examples, naming names.

Guess what the PCI does with the report?

It forms a 12-member board to figure out whether or not to publish it. Guess what this board does? It shouts the idea down and decides instead to write a tiny little hand-wringing abstract of it, in which a tiny little hand-wringing footnote says that the report will remain ‘on record’. ‘On record’ doesn’t mean ‘appended to the tiny little hand-wringing abstract’, or ‘available on the website’. It means, ‘when people call looking for the report, let’s refer them to the tiny little hand-wringing abstract on the website, and if they insist on the actual sub-committee report, let’s make them apply in writing for a hard copy, which we’ll take a week to mail.’

Then journalist P Sainath of The Hindu writes about how the PCI buried this report. Guess how many newspapers follow up this little scandal? You get only one guess. It’s as if a bunch of emperors suddenly realised that none of them had any clothes on and decided to stay home.

Luckily though, we live in notoriously leaky times, so you can read the full report online at www.scribd.com/doc/35436631/The-Buried-PCI-Report-on-Paid-News.

At the beginning of the week, there was a Media Foundation of India discussion on the PCI report. The panel included Justice G N Ray, chairman of the PCI, and Justice J S Verma, chairman of the Independent Broadcast Regulatory Authority. Justice Ray refused to say why the 12-member drafting committee had to be constituted, or how it voted, and stuck to his sulky position that the PCI has accepted the truth of the report, so what’s all the fuss about? Justice Verma’s main agenda seemed to be to cover for his pal, saying the footnote can legally be interpreted as “incorporated by reference”.

Concerned journalists on the panel called the PCI a ‘toothless tiger’. They talked about how in the 1980s and 1990s, regional newspapers didn’t pay their reporters a salary, but gave them a commission on any ads they brought in; how corporate management is increasingly sidelining editors; how journalists are given lists of subjects to cover in a target number of column inches.

The PCI sub-committee report, the burial of that report, and the media’s lack of interest in the topic points to a complicity so deep that nobody can afford to turn the lens on themselves. It takes the idea that there are always a few rotten apples in the barrel, and shows that the one you bite into every morning is ridden with maggots. There’s no better reason for you to care.

[Mitali Saran is a Delhi-based freelance writer]

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First Published: Sat, August 21 2010. 00:27 IST
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