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INSIGHT

A New York Times Article on how some newspapers in India operate. Its hardly a surprise for us. If they investigate into how Television in India functions, greater muck will emerge

Letter From India In India, Sometimes News Is Just a Product Placement

A businessman I know was approached by representatives of a leading Indian national newspaper and offered a deal: Give us a stake in your company, and we’ll give you advertising space and favorable editorial coverage. A publisher told me that she received a similar proposition: Pay us, and we’ll interview your authors and write features about them. Sushma Swaraj, the parliamentary leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, has said that she was offered favorable media coverage during national elections last year in exchange for 10 million rupees, or $220,000.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the commercialization of intellectual and cultural life in India. There is perhaps no example of this trend more egregious than the phenomenon of “paid content” or “paid news,” in which space for articles in newspapers, magazines and the electronic media is sold without it being labeled as such for readers.

Rumors about shady practices — unethical, possibly illegal — in the Indian media have circulated for years. Over the past year or so, and especially since the 2009 parliamentary elections, when the sale of media space was reported to have reached new heights, the issue has drawn more attention.

Questions have been raised in Parliament. Last July, the Press Council of India, a government-sanctioned monitoring group, formed a two-man committee to look into the allegations. The committee completed a draft report last week that was due to be released publicly, but that release is on hold after a strong show of opposition from media owners.

Nonetheless, many of the report’s key findings have been leaked into the public domain, and they make for damning reading. Though publishers have complained that the evidence presented is weak, the report identifies several publications that are believed to have sold editorial space and it lists scores of instances in which the practice allegedly occurred.

Paranjoy Guha-Thakurta, one of the authors of the report, told me that one of its most disturbing findings was that the practice of paid content had become “institutionalized.” He said that it goes beyond individual editors or publishers, and beyond the occasional paid junket. “What started out as an individual aberration has become an illness, an epidemic of sorts,” he said. “This makes the malpractice all the more troubling.”

The commercialization of the Indian media takes many forms. It has been known for some time that a few of India’s leading media conglomerates — including Bennett, Coleman & Co., the publisher of The Times of India and The Economic Times — offer what that company calls “innovative” and “integrated” marketing strategies that blur the traditional line between advertising and article content. Bennett, Coleman’s Medianet division, for example, lets advertisers place articles on certain pages in the paper without clearly marking them as advertising.

One of the company’s more aggressive offerings is a product known as a Private Treaty, which offers companies a certain amount of advertising space in exchange for equity stakes in those companies. According to the Private Treaties Web site, Bennett, Coleman now holds such equity stakes in more than 100 companies.

Officially, the companies are only given advertising space. But at least one businessman confirmed to me that it was made clear that he could also expect favorable news coverage.At the very least, it seems evident that Private Treaties set up a very serious conflict of interest, a point highlighted last year when the Indian stock market regulator, the Securities and Exchange Board of India, wrote a letter to the chairman of the Press Council expressing concern about the business practice.

Private Treaties are an example of the commodification of business news. But much of the recent attention in India has focused on paid political content. Over the past year or so, there have been a growing number of reports of politicians paying media houses for favorable coverage or to skirt restrictions on campaign financing.

P. Sainath, the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, a national newspaper, has been instrumental in drawing attention to such practices. In a series of articles on elections in Maharashtra State last year, Mr. Sainath listed specific prices for different kinds of articles.For 400,000 rupees, he found, newspapers would publish the profile of a candidate as well as “four news items of your choice.” For 15 million rupees — ten times the amount a candidate in state assembly elections can legally spend on a campaign — politicians could buy a special supplement.

Such practices come in for particular condemnation in the Press Council report, which argues that paid political content is not only unethical, but also illegal.

Paying for political content involves three acts of deception, the report says, according to Mr. Guha-Thakurta. First, it deceives citizens and consumers, who are not aware that the “news” they are reading is in fact an advertisement. Second, it violates election spending laws. And finally, newspapers receiving payment from politicians are usually violating tax laws, given that the operations are clandestine.

More generally, the report argues that paid content “undermines Indian democracy” and it calls on the government to protect India’s democratic values and institutions. Notably, it recommends adding the purchase of content to the list of acts — including corruption and incitement to communal violence — that are already defined as “electoral malpractice” under Indian law.

Driving the prevalence of paid content are some of the forces to which I drew attention a few weeks ago: a growing infatuation in India with commerce and business, and the incursion of markets into virtually every aspect of private and public life.

In many respects, the advent of competition has been good for the media. According to a recent study, the Indian newspaper market is expected to grow at a compounded annual rate of 12.5 percent between 2009 and 2013, making it a rare bright spot in the otherwise dismal firmament of the global media industry.

But with this growth come new pressures, too. India has almost 70,000 registered newspapers and more than 450 television channels. It is perhaps unsurprising that some of these publishers have been tempted to experiment with new business models and to take shortcuts to profits.

Unsurprising — but for the country, and for the sake of its public life and democracy, deeply worrisome.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/08/world/asia/08iht-letter.html?pagewanted=all