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In India, news for sale

Sushma Swaraj, head of India's BJP party, says journalists encourage the "paid news" practice. (AFP) I just returned from India, where I spent a week meeting journalists and discussing press freedom concerns. One issue that emerged during my visit is what is known euphemistically as “paid news.”  Many media outlets routinely sell political advertising dressed up as a news article.

On March 13, the Editors Guild and the Indian Women’s Press Corps sponsored a lively discussion in New Delhi featuring an all-star lineup of journalists and officials from leading political parties, as well as the head of the electoral commission. At first blush, the issue seems pretty straightforward. Publishing political advertising disguised as a news article misleads the public and, panelists noted, violates journalistic ethics. It has an impact on press freedom because it allows politicians to control the news agenda. But as I learned, the forces that created paid news are complex, and eliminating the practice will not be easy.

As moderator Rajdeep Sardesai explained, the practice emerged initially in the entertainment sections when PR agents began paying newspapers for articles promoting their clients. This may not have been the pinnacle of journalistic excellence, but it did not directly undermine the integrity of the newsgathering function. But then politicians wanted in on the deal. Their basic argument was: If Bollywood stars can pay for favorable news coverage, why can’t we?

Moreover, the paid news phenomenon institutionalized a practice that was already widespread. Journalists in India, particularly at the provincial level, have long accepted cash payments in exchange for favorable coverage. As Sushma Swaraj, head of the opposition BJP party, told the audience, “First the journalists asked for tea, then liquor, and now money.”

Everyone at the event recognized that this was not a good situation. But now do you resolve it?

The politicians complained about being shaken down, but none were willing to renounce paid news unilaterally because it would give their rivals the upper hand. There is no law against paid news, and while several panelists called for new legislation, others were not excited about letting the government into the newsroom.

While journalists complained that the practice undermined their credibility, media corporations seem unwilling to renounce it because it generates significant revenue. Moderator Sardesai, one of India’s most prominent television reporters, suggested that, at a minimum, media companies establish standards and identify paid news item.

The issue of paid news is not going away any time soon. But what was encouraging was the intensity and passion of the debate. Journalists—or at least the ones who came out for the panel discussion on a Saturday morning—care deeply about the issue. Perhaps with more discussion and dialogue all parties will find their way towards a solution.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Rajdeep Sardesai's name has been corrected.
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The issue of paid news reeks of dirty politics, and even more dirty journalism. And what makes it worse is that the phenomena is not restricted to the coverage of political activities alone.

Especially at the provincial level, "paid news" has spread its tentacles to innocuous local events such the opening of a community centre, a trade-union rally or even the grand-finale of a physicians' conference. Worse still, sometimes the payments are not even in cold cash. It is no secret that the value of the goodies in your press-kit (read: pens, writing pads and leather diaries; or sometimes even the contents of the inconspicious food-packet)is directly proportional to the degree of positive coverage your event will recieve.

I think it is time we step back and look at the larger picture.
Riding on the crest of phenomenal economic growth at the national level and the spread of communication technology on the global level, the Indian media now has the potential to take the idea of vibrant press to a whole new level.
But for that to happen, it is imperative to optimally harness the existing potential. In other words, for starters effectively deal with issues such as these right now.
The solutions mentioned in the article make for a solid first step towards the elimination of such practices. Yet it only deals with the symptoms of a much greater malady that plagues the Indian media in particular, but also the nation in general.
We need to set our priorities straight. In a country where nation-builders such as politicians, teachers and journalists largely comprise of the scum of the population because they are paid measly salaries, how dare you expect any better?
By no means, do I condone such professional behavior but I know better than to write it off as mere corruption or blame it on the punching-bag-for-all politician.

In Sri Lanka, it is a given that political parties have their own journalists in the media and they `do their beat' and God forbid if another journalist trod on their terrain.

In the state-owned media, while some journalists steer clear from politicians (it is so difficult to do so at tha price of being sacked) there are others who are paid double salary; one from the media and other from the press office of the ministry.

Since this is state media ergo the ministries are part of the govt. and the heads of media institutions give their blessings or nod for these journalists who prostitute themselves for extra kudos.

Having said that Indian journalists paid or unpaid by powers that be brought down Rajiv Gandhi amidst Bofors scandal. Indian journalists are more courageous than Sri Lanka journalists and my experience with Indian foreign correspndents is they research well before writing a piece.

But then again Sri Lanka being such a small island has a media-shy government which does not tolerate dissent.

Journalists in Sri Lanka work under very trying circumstances, particularly regional correspondents who are freelances and who rely on their output to earn their living.

In conflict areas it is the freelance wose lives are sacrificed and their family left destitute since they have neither protection nor no insurance from media institutions.

Pearl Thevanayagam March 23, 2010 9:40:00 AM ET

The Press Council of India (PCI) decided not to forward the detailed report on “paid news”, prepared by its sub-committee, following divisions within the Council, with some members objecting to the fact that specific media houses had been identified as offenders in that document.

We have the full damning report on our site Newswatch:

i think paid journalism is not a threat for any media in any nation,we must leave this to the audiance,readers,listeners to decide.It is not spreading i ll effect to society.