Annie Zaidi: What your morning paper forgot to tell you

Sunday, 23 October 2011 - 11:00am IST Updated: Saturday, 22 October 2011 - 11:24pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
If your newspaper or favourite news channel was interested in serving as a pillar of democracy, it should have published the Press Council’s report on how media houses have been taking money from candidates during recent elections.

Heard about a recent report released by the Press Council of India? No? If your newspaper or favourite news channel was interested in serving as a pillar of democracy, it should have published the Press Council’s report on how media houses have been taking money from candidates during recent elections.

And you, who have been such enthusiastic supporters of Anna and Co, here’s the first rule of Operation Corruption Combat — A clean ‘system’ is not possible without a clean, independent media.

You know about the scale and extent of corruption in this country only because corruption has been exposed. By heavily embattled journalists and by a system of audits. This is possible because there are honest auditors, lokayuktas, whistle-blowers, and finally, journalists.

Newspapers, magazines, TV channels, websites — they are supposed to bring you word when things are wrong. But often the media fails. It fails partly because YOU — middle-class, media-consuming citizens — swallow the hogwash about not being interested enough in ‘serious’ news. It also fails because journalists are controlled by businessmen/women. Right now, there is an ongoing battle for the very soul of Indian journalism.

Media owners are adopting policies which are not merely unethical but also illegal, like accepting cash in exchange for favourable coverage during elections. If the media will not support honest candidates, or expose the dirty ones, how will the public know whom to vote for? How can we expect honesty from politicians if they are expected to cough up anything upwards of a crore of rupees to ensure coverage by just one media house, over the course of just one election campaign? Do we then seriously expect that clean, dedicated candidates will win elections?

Go to this link (http://bit.ly/cQpvOP) and look at the column on the left. Click on the link that says ‘Report on Paid News’. Read it.

Here are some extracts: “The concerned newspapers and television channels typically receive funds for paid news in cash and do not disclose such earnings in their company balance sheets or official statements of accounts. Thus, by not accounting for the money received from candidates, the concerned media company or its representatives are violating the provisions of the Companies Act, 1956 as well as the Income Tax Act, 1961, among other laws.”

“The entire operation is clandestine. This malpractice has become widespread and now cuts across newspapers and television channels, small and large, in different languages and located in various parts of the country... So-called rate cards or packages are distributed that often include rates for publication of news items that not merely praise particular candidates but also criticise their political opponents...”

“Identical articles with photographs and headlines have appeared in competing publications carrying bylines of different authors around the same time. On the same page of specific newspapers, articles have been printed praising competing candidates claiming that both are likely to win the same elections.”

Most journalists are outraged at what’s happening (remember, you know this only because some journalists told the truth) but are helpless. Journalists are made to ‘cooperate’ with their respective marketing departments, who seem to have no respect for editorial integrity.

Many prominent media houses have been indicted by the Press Council report. And naturally, most of them have denied the allegations. Even so, it would be nice to see some soul-searching by media houses, or even an offer to place their account books under public scrutiny. It is time they showed citizens that they are trustworthy, that they deserve the right to critique politicians and bureaucrats, that they are not themselves guilty of corrupting our democratic processes.

—  Annie Zaidi writes poetry, stories, essays, scripts (and in a dark, distant past, recipes she never actually tried)


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