The prostitution of Indian journalism by pimps, promoters and proprietors selling editorial space without letting the reader know what is independently verified news and what is a paid-for advertisement in the garb of news, has attained pandemic proportions.
“Paid News”, as the trend has been sadly named, happens not just during election time, but in between elections too. It afflicts not just the language media, but mainstream English media too. It is not just political news that is coloured, but business, sport, cinema and everything else, including the TV listings.
Above all, it is not something that small papers and extortionists are indulging in to keep their business going; it has become a revenue stream for profitable media organisations to keep the ink black on the bottomline, as trust and credibility are thrown to the wolves by suited-booted “managers”.
The Rajya Sabha, the election commission and the press council are all seized of the issue.
The country’s #1 business investigative journalist Sucheta Dalal who has written fearlessly on the subject—a trend that has deep implications for Indian democracy and reader trust in the media in the long run—throws light on a scandal in which India’s top filmmaker was held to ransom by “a leading media house”.
By SUCHETA DALAL
Moneylife has often commented on the brazen sale of news by a leading media house. However, we also acknowledged that the group usually made a win-win offer which was tough for companies to refuse. After all, which company would want to say no to something as lucrative as assured positive coverage, plus a steep discount in advertising tariffs, in return for a small equity stake?
However, in recent times, companies complain about the strong-arm tactics used by the group’s media arm.
Several companies have reported that they are told to appear first on the group’s media channel, during the quarterly results announcements. A print interview is thrown in as a carrot. Or they can face the stick: the prospect of being black-listed by its large circulation dailies.
As for the group’s city supplement, it is not only common knowledge that all its pages are for sale, but it has even dropped the pretence that its news and photographs are anything but paid publicity material.
Yet, the group still managed to shock us, with its recent strong-arm tactics against a top-grossing Hindi movie.
Its director told us how the media-selling arm of the publishing house approached him with a ‘publicity package’ which offered a number of articles and photographs for a price.
The director said a polite ‘No’. He would buy advertisements to publicise the movie, but the editorial would be up to the publication. But he was in for a shock. He was told that if he did not accept the package, there would be no editorial coverage of the movie in any of the group’s publications.
Given the stakes involved in the movie business, the director consulted his partners and friends in Bollywood. Many supported his stand, while there were others who were quite happy to accept the offer. However, our director-friend put his foot down and invited several like-minded producers to discuss the implications of what he calls the ‘dadagiri of this brand’.
The publishing house representative apparently said the director was making a needless fuss. After all, “film journalism is not serious journalism” (suggesting there are no ethical issues in buying editorial coverage).
What is most heartening is that, unlike wimpy corporate India, a dozen top producers and directors got together, discussed the issue and had the courage to say no, even though their stakes are significantly higher. The media house, realising that the issue could get out of hand, then backtracked and actually wrote a letter of apology for trying to pressure the industry.
The story had a happy ending, because the movie went on to set success records.
Why has this not made news? Because Bollywood also realises that it needs big media and is not idiot enough to shoot itself in the foot. Moneylife doffs its cap to the producers who had the guts to say ‘No’.