|Putting paid to the media|
|Monday, 10 January 2011 00:00|
If you don’t fix it, someone else will do it for you. That’s the lesson from the paid news controversy that has enveloped the media since the Maharashtra elections, when it was found that competing newspapers used the same words to praise Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan. Once this came out, and the Election Commission threatened to get into the act, other instances came to light of similar paid news. Some politicians began giving details of how large Indian-language newspapers threatened to black them out unless there was a payoff. Details of ‘package rates’ began doing the rounds. The fact that various newspapers have some form of what are called ‘private treaties’, where the newspapers swap ad space for equity stakes in firms, also got thrown up in this context, as further evidence that the media barters publicity for money.
This is what the Press Council of India was confronted with, and this is what it tried to address when it commissioned a report on the subject. When push came to shove, however, the PCI backed down and a watered-down version of the report got issued.
Given this backdrop, the Niira Radia tapes were the last straw. According to a news report in FE last week, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee is to head a Group of Ministers on paid news. The group is to examine the issue, to establish the facts and to then come up with suitable penalties for this. Suggestions being bandied about include a penalty which is related to turnover and denial of government ads. The issue here is not of the quantum of the penalty; it is the fact that the government can now feel free to monitor the media, to decide what is paid news and what is not. Thanks to the media’s collective inability to deal with a very real problem, we now have a situation in which the government now threatens to camp in the media’s backyard. For want of a nail, as the saying goes, a kingdom is in danger of being lost.