Paid content used to cut poll spending?

Paid content used to cut poll spending?

New Delhi: Elections are usually good news for the media, especially newspapers, because of the advertising by parties and candidates. Or at least they used to be.

Data compiled by media monitoring agency AdEx India (a unit of TAM Media Research Pvt. Ltd) shows that in the recent assembly elections in Maharashtra, the advertising volume (in column cm) in Marathi newspapers declined by around one-fifth compared with 2004.

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The numbers assume significance in view of the raging controversy over advertising masquerading as news, first reported by The Hindu in a Page 1 story and an op-ed piece on Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan’s “paid news" assembly election strategy.

According to The Hindu, Chavan spent a little over Rs11,000 on paid advertising in print, but received coverage worth much more in newspapers such as Maharashtra Times and Lokmat that gave him ample editorial space. Only the stories they carried were actually ads. The Hindu story says that rival newspapers carried the same reports, word for word, and that these were not labelled as advertisements.

Interestingly, the trend seen in the Maharashtra elections is a continuation of the one seen in the Lok Sabha elections held earlier this year. The volume of advertising by political parties and candidates in print declined by around 17% between the previous Lok Sabha election and this one, according to AdEx.

To be sure, the correlation between the phenomenon of advertising masquerading as content and declining political advertising isn’t all that clear, although the editor of a popular Marathi paper is convinced it is.

“The fact that ad volumes in print went down in this Lok Sabha election compared to the previous one is a clear indicator that paid news went up," said Kumar Ketkar, editor of the Marathi daily Loksatta.

According to Ketkar, paid content is “ridiculously common" in Maharashtra. “The difference is this time the scale was much bigger and Ashok Chavan’s case caught attention. But he was certainly not the only candidate who paid for favourable articles."

TAM Media’s senior vice-president (communications) Siddhartha Mukherjee said that his firm doesn’t track advertising pretending to be news, but added that “the 17% volume drop in print advertising between the two Lok Sabha elections could be owing to recession, Election Commission’s stringent rules or due to rise in paid news".

Promoters and top executives of several newspapers, many of whom did not want to be identified given the sensitivity of the issue, admit that the practice of accepting “paid news", especially, during elections, is not only entrenched, but rampant. Most brand the regional language press as the bigger culprit since its reach is far greater than that of English newspapers. “Candidates campaigning before elections prefer manipulating a medium that reaches the masses. English dailies kick in mostly after elections when favourable write-ups on policy matters are needed," Ketkar said.

And so, say these promoters and top executives, what began as a route for reporters to make some money on the side has been institutionalized by some large publications.

One regional language daily even prepared a business blueprint for tapping election advertising, alias “paid news" opportunities. The plan included detailed rates for political coverage (Rs20 lakh for 15 days general coverage, but Rs22 lakh for four days of exclusive coverage). The newspaper also created teams of advertising and sales managers in conjunction with reporters. To assuage the organization’s conscience, no negative write-ups on rivals were allowed.

Such offers ensured that those who were not indulging in “paid news" coverage lost out on advertising. A senior executive of a Hindi newspaper claims that his paper had expected Rs30 crore in revenue from the elections, but ended up with less than one-third after rivals adopted the “paid news" route.

The mistake the Marathi dailies made was in not branding those pages as sponsored or paid-for content, said Sanjay Gupta, CEO of Jagran Prakashan Ltd, which publishes Dainik Jagran (although this doesn’t explain how Chavan got the space, if it was paid for, for as little money as he did).

Gupta denies that his newspaper went down this route. “If someone rakes up the issue now, I will sue them. We cornered all the advertisements (during the Lok Sabha elections) because we are the largest newspaper in Uttar Pradesh."

He added that his paper “charged money for printing additional pages for coverage, but we branded those" as paid-for content.

Still, The Hindu’s reports have forced the Press Council of India (PCI) to take it up at its next meeting on 15 and 16 December. Officials of the Election Commission of India (EC) have also been invited to this meeting. Former Indian Newspaper Society president and current PCI member Hormusji Cama says that the journalists’ union from Andhra Pradesh had written to the council in June claiming editors and promoters were accepting payments for election coverage.

Meanwhile, EC—an autonomous, quasi-judicial body responsible for the entire electoral process in the country—is relying largely on PCI to take action. “We are examining the issue legally, but it is very difficult for us to establish whether an article is paid for or genuine and hence, we cannot do much," said election commissioner S.Y. Quraishi.

Prompted by a sharp increase in election spending by political parties and candidates over the years, the commission had set up a dedicated division to monitor poll spending in September this year. The unit, however, is yet to start functioning. The new wing is expected to examine reports filed by election observers on poll expenditure during the campaign period.

Centre for Media Studies (CMS), a New Delhi-based research firm, had estimated that such spending amounted to Rs10,000 crore in the April-May general election—more than double of what was spent in 2004. CMS estimated that out of this, around a quarter, or Rs2,500 crore, was below-the-line spending by candidates.

EC places an expenditure ceiling of Rs25 lakh per candidate for Lok Sabha elections and Rs10 lakh for state assembly elections, and candidates are required to submit election expense reports thrice during the entire election period.

However, according to political parties, this limit is unreasonable and archaic, prompting candidates to understate poll expenses.

“The EC has been maintaining that this ceiling needs to be rationalized. This had been set by an Act of Parliament and any change would require an amendment in the Act. The legislature should actually delegate the power of fixing the limit to the EC. This is a reform the government will need to bring about," Quraishi said.

Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint