No Regulation, No Penalties
One issue that gets minimal media coverage in India is that of ‘paid news’. The trading of awards, honours and gushing media coverage in return for fat sponsorship fees and advertisement campaigns is already very brazen, but it does not bother the political establishment at all. However, with general elections around the corner, even politicians are worried about the new round of demands that will be made by media houses for favourable coverage or for orchestrated hit jobs and sting operations. Yet, the 47th report of the standing committee, which looked into the paid news menace, had nothing substantive to offer, other than some seemingly tough talk.
The report openly calls the ‘increasing trend’ of paid news and talk shows as a ‘serious fraud’ on innocent viewers and readers. It observes that some sections of the media even distribute rate cards and packages for positive coverage as well as hit jobs on opponents and that media houses resort to vindictive action when a politician refuses to fall for their ‘extortion/blackmail’.
What is ironic is that the committee lists the plethora of regulatory and professional bodies that ought to be looking into the scourge of media blackmail and paid news, but don’t. The list includes: the Press Council of India (PCI), News Broadcasters Association (NBA), Indian Broadcasters Federation (IBF), Advertising Standards Council of India, Electronic Media Monitoring Centre (EMMC—established by the ministry of information & broadcasting), Editors Guild of India (EGI) and several unions and associations.
There is also a clutch of statutes with specific guidelines covering media behaviour. Apparently, nothing works; so the standing committee merely urges the ministry of information & broadcasting to ensure strict adherence to existing regulations until it chalks out a comprehensive action plan to deal with the menace. Shockingly, even on something as dramatic as the tussle between Jindal Steel & Power (led by Congress MP Navin Jindal) and Zee News where top editors of the group were arrested based on Jindal’s allegation of extortion, the committee only notes that the entire regulatory structure is pleading helplessness and shirking responsibility on the plea that the matter is sub judice. What does this really mean? Well, if the ministry of information & broadcasting and multiple regulators are powerless in such a high-profile case, it is safe to say that it will be business as usual for ‘paid media’, with plenty of hagiographies and hit jobs, as we head for the 2014 elections. Is this why the mainstream media, badly hit by the economic slowdown, are pushing for early elections?