Sunday, June 16, 2024

Paid news: Bane of journalism


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By Indranil Banerjea

The sounds of the bells against the menace of paid news are feeble. Print and electronic media are ever ready to shake hands with corporate, politicians and PR firms to rake in windfalls by mortgaging and vending editorial freedom and space.

This is noticed at the eve of every election to Parliament and state legislatures. This is also noticed during defections, shifting political loyalties resulting in rise and fall of governments. It is also possible that many investigative stories, unearthed scams by media and support to what otherwise are public causes are pre-paid. Some media houses justify such sales on the ground that even otherwise PR firms and politicians “feed and bribe” journalists to buy or kill prominent coverage.

Immediately after taking over as the Chairman of the Press Council of India, Justice Markandey Katju, gave vent to the irresponsible, insensitive and remunerated reporting by the media. This is viewed as a hidden attempt to bring restrictions on the freedom of the press. However, it was also incumbent on the media conglomerates to make public the steps to be taken to free the press from the cancer of “paid news”. The freedom of the press, both print and electronic should not include a free hand to barter the fundamental constitutional rights and privileges. With the rise of the nouveau press barons and owners themselves having vested interests in politics, economic and public policy; only self-regulation may not be a viable proposition. A solo government regulation may be also undesirable in public interest. A mix of the two along with community initiatives to ensure that truth does not remain hidden and falsehood along with the doers including media houses stands exposed would be needed.

Virus Everywhere!

It’s a pre-paid and post-paid “zamana” today. Well before the cellphone companies introduced this mode of exchange, the practice was present under different titles and tags. During the golden years of trade controls and flourishing black-market, police and intelligence agencies used to nab those involved on a tip-off and payment received from rival gangs. These could be described as “paid raids”. This paid policing and enforcement had quadruple advantages for the police-payment from rival traders, rewards from government, recognition from society and share in the confiscated booty. This got extended to use of police for eliminating criminal gangs and “paid encounter killings” earning unaccounted wealth and cap of heroism for the men in uniform. Such “paid enforcement” of laws continues in all illegal businesses associated with extractive industries and forest wealth bringing rewards/awards to forest officials.

Professionals are also bitten by the paid bug. Some top legal professionals who could be termed as successful in the language of the market have managed to receive payments from their clients as well as the opposite parties. There was a time in one of the High Court wherein the government of the state and its instrumentalities were taken for a jolly ride by a trio of father as the AG of the state, the son and son-in-law as two senior advocates. These three representing the different parties in same matter on multiple occasions could be an honest example of “paid fixing”. This darkness continued for a pretty span of time. The microbe has also hit the still considered noble profession of medicine. Higher the specialty and super-specialty of the medical profession, the greater is the probability of the patient becoming the victim of the “paid prescription”. Many doctors today are also on the rolls of pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, health resorts, pathology homes and multi-scan clinics. Hence, tendencies to over-prescribe, over-test and put the patient through all available medico-hardware are on the rise. Little does the patient know that the healing hand dealing with him is unrelated to his ailment! Laws and authorities cannot do much in such “paid” encounters. We need to make intelligent choices, make second opinion as a rule and build awareness on such professionals through traditional means of communication.

It is not a secret that the virus hit election politics a few years back. This virus like AIDS destroys the self-esteem, self-confidence and moral roots of the citizen and also the ideological base of political parties. Citizens are hit by the epidemic of “pre-paid votes” and political parties are caught in the net of “paid tickets”.

Undoubtedly, the credibility of politicians and political parties is at a low level. The immediate alternatives available to the people are not reassuring. Maybe, we have to live up with this till we get the wisdom to reform ourselves and the political parties with whom we stand loyal. Print and electronic media has to be one of the natural ally of citizens and hence the concern for the falling credibility of the media.

Apart from “paid news”, and the hold of PR companies, media reporting is getting skewed and prejudiced in favour of less significant areas. The debates and information sharing on critical issues generates heat rather than light. It fails to educate to create an informed opinion. On almost every issue that is debated on electronic media, the mood and body language of the anchor conveys that only commerce and commercial breaks is a priority area. Each time the issue is sensationalised by the anchor demanding apology from politicians over issues on which the primary responsibility maybe of the bureaucrats. If the panellist refuses to apologise, the refusal is a breaking story according to the channel. Repeatedly, anchors demand resignations from the politicians and holders of office in a live debate, as if a channel is the platform to split heads to generate breaking news. Here also, a silence of the panellist on resignation is also a big story. Even anchors of stature exhibit their ignorance by suggesting changes in laws and demanding a time frame from the panellists. This is an attempt of media heroics without responsibility and accountability.

Media is also a business activity. Unless it generates surplus and becomes self-financing, it cannot hold the flag of free, unbiased, fearless and uncorrupted reporting. Just as we expect all businesses to run within norms, laid down parameters of law and ethics, the expectation is not different from the media companies. Hence, regulation is necessary to ensure that media play’s its role and rises up to the level for which it is provided the constitutional guarantees and protection. Let us not “legalise” the “paid news”, by considering it as inevitable. INAV


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