‘Attention election candidates!
“Four News items of your choice and your profile costs only between Rs 5 to 20 lakh depending on the page of our newspaper.
If you are rich enough we will publish for you a special supplement about your achievements for only Rs 1.5 crore.”
These rates are not for advertisements.These were the rates for sale of newspaper columns to affordable candidates in the recently held Maharashtra Assembly elections.
“In the financial orgy that marked the Maharashtra elections, the media were never far behind the moneybags. Not all sections of the media were in this mode, but quite a few. Not just small local outlets, but powerful newspapers and television channels, too. Many candidates complained of “extortion” but were not willing to make an issue of it for fear of drawing media fire. Some senior journalists and editors found themselves profoundly embarrassed by their managements. “The media have been the biggest winners in these polls,” says one ruefully. “In this period alone,” says another, “they’ve more than bounced back from the blows of the ‘slowdown’ and done so in style.” Their poll-period take is estimated to be in hundreds of millions of rupees. Quite a bit of this did not come as direct advertising but in packaging a candidate’s propaganda as “news.”
The Assembly elections saw the culture of “coverage packages” explode across the State. In many cases, a candidate just had to pay for almost any coverage at all. Issues didn’t come into it. No money, no news. This effectively shut out smaller parties and independent voices with low assets and resources. It also misled viewers and readers by denying them any mention of the real issues some of these smaller forces raised.
None of this, as some editors point out, is new. However, the scale is new and stunning. The brazenness of it (both ways) quite alarming. And the game has moved from the petty personal corruption of a handful of journalists to the structured extraction of huge sums of money by media outfits.
Only, the falsehoods often disguised as “news” affect an exercise central to India’s electoral democracy. And are outrageously unfair to candidates with less or no money. They also amount to exerting undue influence on the electorate.
All of this goes hand in hand with the stunning rise of money power among candidates. More so among those who made it the last time and have amassed huge amounts of wealth since 2004. With the media and money power wrapped like two peas in a pod, this completely shuts out smaller, or less expensive, voices. It just prices the aam aadmi out of the polls. Never mind they are contested in his name.”
Loksabha elections also saw this phenomenon of ‘journalism for sale’. The Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists [APUWJ] has, on the basis of a sample survey conducted in West Godavari district, estimated that newspapers across the State netted Rs. 350 crore to Rs. 400 crore through editorial coverage sold to candidates during the 2009 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections.
In a seminar organised by APUWJ on May 13,2009 all the speakers unanimously expressed concern over the role played by large section of media during the General Elections – 2009. They said:
“Not only did the media indulged in unprofessional, immoral and unethical practices but also cheated the readers. Pointing out that the practice of publishing of propaganda material of the contesting candidates or political parties as “news” in the news columns with dateline and credit line under the guise of packages, schemes and contracts and collecting money is an unethical practice. While it is legitimate business practice for the media houses to accept advertisements, it is improper to use the news space/time slots for pecuniary gain. We believe that such practices lower the credibility of the media.
In a democracy the media exercises the right of the people for freedom of expression. It is the voice of the people. It is to inform, to educate and rouse their conscience for betterment of democracy and common good. It is time for the media houses, professional journalists, political parties and regulatory bodies to self introspect on the perilous practices that have crept into the media in recent times and apply corrective measures to remedy the situation before it is too late.”
The Press Council of India did appoint a 2 men commission to enquire into these complaints in June 2009,but this did not prevent the Maharashtra media outfits from selling their newspaper columns to the highest bidder in last month’s elections.
What was the all powerful election commission doing? Almost nothing.
Let me conclude with the last paragraph of Sainath’s article.
“Each time a giant poll exercise is gone through in this most complex of electoral democracies, we congratulate the Election Commission on a fine job. Rightly so, in most cases. For, many times, its interventions and activism have curbed rigging, booth capturing and ballot stuffing. On the money power front, though — and the media’s packaging of big money interests as “news” — it is hard to find a single significant instance of rigorous or deterrent action. These too, after all, are serious threats. More structured, much more insidious than crude ballot stuffing. Far more threatening to the basics of not just elections, but democracy itself.”