Who watches the watchmen?

Who watches the watchmen?

The government, politicians, civil society, industry and the public—all these sections of the Indian democracy have a stake in making the news media more accountable and relevant. Yet, these stakeholders are not just keeping quiet, but also adding to the media’s declining standards. Why are we afraid to bell the cat?

It is now quite clear that the media is being misused—abused, even—to make more profits and take advantage of the power that it wields. Two related issues are paid news and the practice of private treaties.

The paid content issue came to light in the pre-election season in 2009, but soon fizzled out of public discourse.

But advertisements in the guise of news remain a common business strategy (clearly owing to the rich dividends it pays), and media corporations have fine-tuned it—there are even ready-made rate cards for such advertisements now.

Everybody who is associated with the media knows this, and a recent Press Council report, among others, has clearly shown the required evidence. Yet, nobody wants to talk about it.

The media business routinely deals with the issue of editorial independence from the advertiser. This summer, we saw a barrage of advertisements from various educational institutes—one of the largest ad segments for the media today.

Advertisements have been followed by write-ups related to the advertisers, though this by itself is no indication that there is any link between the two.

Similarly, the private treaty initiative by most media houses is a violation of media ethics in terms of how it is implemented. Private treaties are arrangements wherein a media corporation gives a company advertising space or time in exchange for a stake.

But while this makes clear business sense—and there is nothing illegal about it—most like to turn a blind eye to instances of its misuse.

Besides diluting the independence of the press, such agreements give rise to conflicts of interest in such instances, which could lead to compromising the nature and quality of editorial content relating to such companies.

Given the existing conflict over paid news, such private treaties further erode the editorial sanctity of the news media when there is such misuse.

These private arrangements could also contaminate stock market ecology.

Typically, such treaties are with companies that are listed or propose to initiate public offerings. A treaty would, in general, entail a company giving stake (shares, warrants, bonds and so on) in return for advertisements.

But given that any investment through private treaties turns positive if the client’s stock rises, media organizations have to resist allowing the dissemination of information to be guided by commercial considerations, thus misleading investors in the securities market.

That explains why capital market regulator Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) has made it mandatory for media companies to disclose their interests in the companies about which they report. The move clearly indicates that these practices are no longer confined to a few practitioners, and that such journalism is not in the interest of the securities markets.

Sebi specifically states that such disclosure would have to be made in any “news report/article/ editorial in newspapers/television relating to the company in which the media group holds such stake". The media group must also disclose the names of its nominees on the boards of companies it has “treaties" with, and any other details that “may be a potential conflict of interest for the media group".

(For an earlier perspective on this issue, see the Mint article of 15 January 2008—“Should private treaties be made public to newspaper readers?")

This marks a start in addressing the systemic issues that plague the media today. With these mandatory disclosures, the media will at least be compelled to be a little more transparent and accountable. The fine print may be too small yet for the unsuspecting viewer and reader, but it is a beginning.

I agree that the media today is not a monolith that is easy to discipline, but a set of diverse entities in a complicated communication system. Also, it is not healthy to its existence or its ecosystem that it be controlled by any entity.

However, there are some expectations and responsibilities that the media must face up to, especially in a developing economy such as ours.

And so, while watchdogs such as the Press Council may not have sharp enough teeth, there is an urgent need to come up with other systems and ways to bell the cat before it’s too late.

PN Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies (CMS). She also heads the CMS Academy of Communication and Convergence Studies.

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