Chennai: The Election Commission of India hasn’t received a single complaint about paid news in the run-up to the assembly elections in Tamil Nadu.
That could be because the state’s media and its political parties are models of propriety. Or it could be because political parties own or control several media vehicles, including television channels.
Indeed, there are at least 10 television channels that have aligned themselves with a political formation in the state—some for ideological reasons and the others for commercial ones.
Paid news refers to parties or candidates paying a newspaper or channel to carry propaganda (or an advertisement) disguised as news. The Election Commission and the Press Council of India have been trying to combat this.
But while the Election Commission has had to watch out for other poll violations, it has had a fairly easy time tracking instances of paid news. And it knows why.
“We haven’t come across a single case of paid news so far, and we have been scanning vernacular media pretty closely,” said the state’s chief electoral officer Praveen Kumar. “We haven’t received any complaints to that effect either.”
“You know what I think is the reason? Television channels. Since most of them are party-owned or affiliated, they carry the concerned parties’ election coverage as news or advertisements, so the parties don’t see the need to pay for favourable news,” he added.
Interestingly, the one channel that two people singled out for its neutrality was Sun News, part of Sun TV, owned by the Maran family, close relatives of Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi. (One of the Maran brothers, Dayanidhi, is a Union minister.)
The initial growth of Sun TV was closely tied to the fortunes of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), and Kalanithi Maran made use of his political ties well. “Now, Sun TV is perhaps the only channel independent of politics because Maran prefers to keep business and politics clearly separated these days,” said Sashi Kumar, chairman of the Media Development Foundation, Chennai. The foundation runs the Asian College of Journalism. Kalanithi Maran is chairman and managing director of Sun TV.
“Sun TV can also afford to work independently now, because it has grown to be a rich and powerful network that other networks have to fight to keep up with, and that’s only possible through political affiliation,” said a media manager, who used to work with Sun TV and who did not want to be identified. “Raj TV, despite being owned by no political party, has aligned itself with DMK. And Zee Tamil and Vijay TV keep complaining about being unable to match the political prowess of other channels in Tamil Nadu.”
Indeed, when the Marans fell out of favour with Karunanidhi’s family (they are now back in favour), the latter launched Kalaignar TV, which despite their backing, couldn’t combat Sun’s channels. Yet, political backing can guarantee reach. Kalaignar TV reaches 89% of TV-viewing households in the state, according to TAM Media Research. Sun reaches 94.3%. And even the year-old Captain TV, launched by actor Vijayakanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) reaches 60%. The DMDK is part of the J. Jayalalithaa-led All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam alliance.
The exact nature of the programming varies across these channels, but there’s no mistaking the bias.
“At this time of the year, people don’t want to watch cinema or soaps. So, we give them election-related debates and shows,” said Kalaignar TV’s general manager Florent C. Pereira.
For instance, the channel conducted a debate moderated by popular debater Dindigul I. Leoni on whether the DMK’s manifesto favoured men or women. But the channel knew the result of the debate even before it ended.
“Leoni would conclude that the manifesto is favourable to not only men and women, but to transgenders too,” Pereira said.
Jaya TV follows a different approach.
“We do not change our regular schedule in the name of election specials. But whenever Amma (Jayalalithaa) is out campaigning, we give live coverage,” said an editor at the channel, who did not want to be identified.
The political bias means channels cannot and do not carry ads of rivals.
“Election advertising is only in addition to regular advertising and we don’t compromise on prime-time programmes for the sake of political ads,” said Jaya TV’s vice-president (marketing) K. Balaswaminathan.
It isn’t really about advertising revenue, said the head of programming at Makkal TV, Mariappan, who uses only one name.
Makkal TV is the channel of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), a partner of the DMK, and its programmes, according to Mariappan, are about politics even when there are no elections.
An executive, who did not want to be identified at Captain TV (so named because most of Vijayakanth’s fans refer to him as “Captain”) echoed Mariappan’s sentiment’s on ad revenue: “Election propaganda for the party is more important than commercial gains.”
The Election Commission does have stringent norms on television coverage 48 hours before the actual polling, but otherwise it “can take action only if there is a violation of guidelines”, said Praveen Kumar. “Else, it is for the Press Council to act.”
“There can be any action at all taken only if a political party pays for favourable news coverage or if the news reported is inaccurate,” said Sashi Kumar. “There is really no guideline against reporting one-sided news.”