One of the pivotal books on media and journalism that should be on everyone’s reading list is Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward S Herman. The book clearly elucidates how the media frames every news piece and every issue according to a carefully selected, narrow framework that adheres to the strict limits of acceptance by the ruling elites. In other words, debate, discussion and dissent are tolerated only as long as they are within these predefined boundaries. The authors use many examples including the Vietnam War which the mainstream media started criticising only after tremendous losses were suffered by the United States and it became increasingly clear that the war was not theirs to win. Even then, any discussion on the morality of the actual act of going to a foreign, sovereign nation and inflicting untold misery on it simply because it refused to accept American hegemony was beyond the acceptable limits and, hence, hardly registered in popular media.
The phenomenon of media ownership being concentrated in the hands of a few is also discussed. Although the book came out in the late ‘80s, most of its observations still ring true. Here, a distinction must be made between the increasingly shrill protests of a ‘biased’ media which has been conveniently used by people across the political spectrum and actual, existing media bias. The former seeks to reaffirm one’s opinions and beliefs, while the latter is a result of the elite (read moneyed class) consensus that drives the political class, economic choices, social tensions and cultural forces in a country.
The paid news epidemic
The increasingly common practices of paid news and media organisations being subservient to a powerful few are established facts in most countries (90 per cent of American media is owned by just 6 companies) and it is no different in India, even with its hallowed status as the fourth estate. As per the Registrar of Newspapers in India, the total number of registered publications as on 31 March 2015 is 105,443, with Hindi and then English publications leading the way. The number of TV households in India is currently around 175 million and expected to touch 200 million by 2020. On paper, this may seem a vindication of the sheer volume and diversity of the Indian media. However, despite appearances of being robust, noisy and plural, the truth is that most of the media is dominated by a few, large conglomerates who, in turn, are controlled by the country’s biggest corporates and influential politicians. As articulated in this 2013 TRAI report, the conflict of interest that arises due to this kind of skewed ownership results in paid news, continuous lobbying for favourable coverage (and suppression of negative news items), sensationalist news and propaganda, and proliferation of biased analysis and opinion pieces with little basis in facts.
Paid news in a democracy should be a huge cause for concern, just like state- controlled propaganda in authoritarian regimes like North Korea. Both compromise the fundamental premise of media – of being free, proudly independent, speaking truth to power, and beholden to no one. Quoting from the book Journalism: Ethics and Responsibilities by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Ujwala Uppaluri, ‘The major problem with paid news is that consumers are unable to distinguish in any meaningful way the difference between content that has been paid for and that which has not, or been subject to the ordinary rigours of an independent journalistic process… Paid news is the suppression of legitimate criticism, especially of those in power (be they in political parties or in corporate entities). Most worryingly, paid news is manufactured and delivered through an institutionalised and organised system based on untraceable transactions, that is, clandestine and illegal activities.’
Take for example Bennett, Coleman Company Limited (BCCL), one of the country’s largest media houses with brands across publishing, television, internet, radio and outdoor domains. It is publisher of the world’s most widely circulated, multi-edition English daily newspaper The Times of India (ToI). In 2003 it came up with a unique offering to its legions of clients – a ‘paid content’ service called Medianet, which would send journalists to cover product launches, events and other ‘news-worthy’ happenings and generously feature the same in their newspapers as long as a hefty fee was paid. In other words, paid news in a brazen, splashy form designed to grab eyeballs. Another of its pioneering strategy was the Private Treaties scheme which gave advertising space and favourable coverage (though they are wont to deny the latter) to private clients (usually midsize companies) in exchange for equity investment in their company/corporate entity. BCCL usually insists on one-third cash as down payment and accepts real-estate ownership if equity isn’t an option. By the end of 2007, BCCL had investments in 140 companies in aviation, media, retail and entertainment, at an estimated Rs 1,500 crore. It is of little surprise, then, that the company has registered enormous revenues year after year.
In light of these exclusive deals, one would not be wrong to wonder if any semblance of journalistic integrity is possible in the editorial rooms of BCCL’s many publications. After all, one rarely spits in the plate they eat from. An example of this quid pro quo exercise was when ToI refrained from mentioning the name of its private-treaty partner, Sobha Developers, in a news report wherein an elevator operated by the company crashed in Bengaluru and killed two workers. These kind of long-term ‘contracts’, which are usually with political parties, big and small corporations, and those seeking Page 3 coverage (entertainment firms, film and TV companies, celebs, etc), have become a common occurrence and now extend to many large media houses, following in the footsteps of BCCL’s brilliant sell-out strategies.
Who run the (media) world?
Media houses in India are largely owned by two groups, politicians and large corporate groups. If this makes you uncomfortable, it should. An interesting and highly detailed infographic by Newslaundry shows who rules the world of Indian media. As one can easily see, politicians and large corporations either crop up in the owners list or innocuous names are somehow related to them. For example, Hindustan Times Ltd’s majority shareholders (the Bhartias) are directly related to the Ambanis. Network 18, of course, already has stakes owned by Mukesh Ambani’s group. Essel Group with its stake in Zee Entertainment and its print venture DNA has gone the tried and tested way of controlling multiple media outlets. Savvy politicians from all major political parties have substantial ownership in many of these media companies including The Deccan Chronicle group, Information TV Pvt. Ltd (that owns the incoherent, rhetorical shouting match that is NewsX channel amongst others), NDTV, Network 18 and Sun Group. As usual, the most interesting shareholding pattern is observed at BCCL (they also seem to have the most diverse range of media interests). While the Jains seem to have minority stakes in the company mothership, the majority of BCCL’s shares are divided among eight other companies. The catch? All companies are registered at the same address in Darya Ganj and have a ‘Jain’ listed as the director. Coincidence much?
In line with the worldwide trend of media consolidation (think of the Murdoch empire), a few large companies control huge swathes of the Indian media. Some of the more well-known ones are BCCL, Sun TV, Essel Group, Star India, India Today, HT Media, Network 18, ABP Group, Bhaskar Group, Jagran Prakashan and Manorama Group. The promoters of these groups often have other business interests as well, and a cosy, incestuous relationship among their multiple holdings is the norm. For instance, Sun TV’s owners also control Spicejet airlines and are into film production and broadcasting, while Deccan Chronicle Holdings are into retail and technology.
Even more worrisome is the growing trend of the country’s biggest corporations muscling their way into this space in clandestine deals. The 2013 TRAI report discussed the many concerns associated with corporate-owned media, who are often likely to misuse it to further their selfish agendas and vested interests. Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) taking effective control of Network 18 in a Rs 4,000 crore deal (the ensuing drama of Rajdeep Sardesai quitting as editor-in-chief of CNN-IBN is well known), Aditya Birla Group acquiring a substantial stake in Living Media India Limited (which owns Aaj Tak, Headlines Today and India Today, amongst others), and Oswal Green Tech buying stake in NDTV are some of the more famous deals that have taken place in the recent past. It should be noted that although SEBI has issued guidelines for disclosure of shares/stakes held by media companies, many media groups have simply chosen to ignore them. The revolving door between corporate honchos and the governing board of the media companies where they deign to advertise has been another thrilling development in the past few years. When the top 0.1 per cent of the country’s richest, besides owning much of the country’s wealth and resources, start to control and dictate worthy and unworthy news, it doesn’t bode well for the health of the country’s policies and future, and surely is a slippery slope towards a media regime that is far from being independent, fair and objective. For example, after the Network 18 takeover by RIL, reports came out of how its subsidiaries were under pressure not to relay any remotely negative information about Ambani or RIL, and a complete blackout of Arvind Kejriwal and AAP (who were going after RIL with corruption allegations at the time) was demanded. Forget about bias, one would be lucky to find factual details in that bias.
How mainstream media dodges and deceives
A highly detailed report on the issue of paid news in media, that ironically found little coverage in most mainstream media, was issued by the ministry of information and broadcasting in 2013. It examined the growing tendency of media companies in the country to pass off advertisements as legitimate news content. This is obviously done at the cost of deceiving the readers and creating a false narrative wherein the moneyed class can dictate the facts, news and opinions that are so crucial for an informed and active democracy. The report brought to light the multi-crore shadowy industry born as a result of the convergence of editorial, advertising, PR and lobbying industries. One of the most revealing anecdotes was a quote from a chief editor’s speech to media professionals in 2010: ‘A year ago, in Editors Guild we asked editors to take a pledge… that they should be ready, at least in their own individual capacity, to resist proprietors who will want paid news without norms of disclosure… We got about 18–20 editors only, answering and giving that pledge. A majority haven’t done so… We could have a code of conduct, we could devise it but are editors going to be willing to adhere to that?’ A good question, indeed. Pity there’s unlikely to be an answer.
The report also demonstrated how difficult it was to get information related to income and ad revenue of media groups. Freedom of press is used as a fig-leaf excuse to dodge prying questions on revenue sources, even though a newspaper (or any media platform) should hardly have any cause for concern in relaying this information if they are not in the business of paid news. Media houses expect transparency and disclosure from others, not themselves. A 2010 report by a subcommittee of the Press Council of India (PCI) was scathing in its takedown of the epidemic of paid news, unscrupulous tactics of ad selling, and the underhand (and fairly widespread) dealings with politicians for favourable coverage. The committee itself refused to release the full report at that time, which did no good to its own credibility. However, the report managed to come out a year later thanks to the dogged efforts of a few (including the aforementioned Paranjoy Guha Thakurta). Most mainstream media simply chose to ignore the report. The response of most TV channels to a major takeover deal such as Network 18 is also conspicuous by its striking absence. Would those TV channels and newspapers remain mute had RIL decided to buy Future Group, Ola or Flipkart? One thinks not. Even the Editors’ Guild of India had no comment on this development.
Unsurprisingly, the report stated its concerns on the menace of private treaties (which it rightly lambasted), cross-media ownership, vertical integration (owning both broadcasting and distribution within the same type of media), and increasing corporate stake in media houses. Its many experts favoured some sort of regulations in order to address these issues and preserve a fair and independent media. It also argued for a regulatory mechanism to eliminate, or at least minimise, the scourge of paid news. Currently, entities like the Press Council of India are toothless bodies that do not have the authority to enforce strict compliance to its rulings or observations. Kind of like the President of India.
Aside from corporates and organisations looking to promote their products, paid news is already commonplace among politicians and electoral candidates (cutting across party lines). This should surprise no one – think of the Niira Radia tapes, the Ashok Chavan and Umlesh Yadav case, or BJP leaders paying up to Rs 20 lakh per episode to Marathi news channels to telecast Modi’s speech at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The Election Commission had previously estimated in 2009 that the market for political paid news could be in the region of Rs 500 crore – this sounds quite paltry really, it’s likely to be much more. The same 2010 report by the PCI’s Sub-Committee had made its observations on the paid news practice during the 2009 General Election: ‘This malpractice has become widespread and now cuts across newspapers and television channels… Marketing executives use the services of journalists – willingly or otherwise – to gain access to political personalities. 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.’ Interestingly, it is easier to find reports about paid news in politics compared to paid news by corporations (or even corporate control of media groups), so far as mainstream media is concerned. Another colourful avatar of paid news are the award ceremonies organised by media houses wherein their more generous sponsors are given awards, ostensibly for some noble or glamorous reason. The convergence of powerful interest groups, wherein already huge corporate behemoths control the tone, content and dissemination of how information pertaining to them is distributed and received by the public, is possibly one of the gravest issues of our times.
When advertising comes in disguise
There’s outright paid news and then there are the modern versions of advertising that are nothing but cleverly disguised paid news. These rely on a neat trick of subtle deception designed to generate interest in the customer in a passing, informal way, without being too in your face. This was perhaps inevitable, considering that most people loathe ads in any form and click-through rates on the internet are abysmally low (most of which are accidental, in any case). Thus, the idea is to promote the product while eschewing telltale signs of promotion. Here, we break down some of these popular tactics, much beloved by marketers.
Native advertising is a type of advertising that relies on content, usually an article or a video, that matches the platform on which it appears and the interest of the platform’s readers or viewers. The idea is to create buzzworthy or share-worthy content with a view to promoting the product of the advertiser by carefully and cleverly merging the content and the product. Even though the content in question may be labelled with a ‘promoted by’ or ‘sponsored by’ tag, often times customers fail to recognise them as sponsored posts – this isn’t surprising as the aim is to seamlessly blend in the advertising bit into snappy, easily digestible content. To put it bluntly, the line is meant to be blurred. On popular platforms, it can take the form of a Buzzfeed quiz, a paid post on a newspaper, a promoted Tweet or a suggested Facebook post. Most of us will be familiar with at least one of these avatars. Buzzfeed calls it ‘branded content’ and is well known for being its biggest champion.
Advertorials (advertisement + editorial) have been around for long, in the form of a newspaper section designed to look like any other non-editorial content, in TV and radio infomercials, or in a magazine article that mimics the look and feel of a legitimate news item.
The basic rule is that although it is advertisement, it is made to create the illusion of editorial content while still making an obvious pitch for the product. While the difference between native advertising and advertorial is fuzzy, the former makes it a point not to come across as advertising (or very subtly so) and is usually configured to a specific platform. Advertorials, on the other hand, can be more blatant in pushing the product in question and can be promoted across multiple sources.
Proponents argue that the very nature of today’s news – fast, snappy, mostly digital, and expected to be viral – demands models such as native advertising and advertorials. Plus, if the news in question is well written, authentic and researched thoroughly, there is no reason to moan about the fact that a brand manager decided the topic rather than a newspaper editor. Then there’s the matter of shrinking ad revenue for publishers. With the explosion of digital media at the cost of traditional print media and the inefficacy of banner ads, mediums like native advertising help publishers make up the revenue deficit while continuing to invest resources in newsworthy items without turning off consumers. Hence, they find plenty of takers in most large media platforms and for obvious reasons, are enthusiastically embraced by marketers of all shades and types. In India, the guidelines according to the Press Council of India mandate that ‘news’ should be clearly demarcated from ‘advertisements’ through adequate disclaimers. Also, news reports should always carry a credit line and set in a typeface that will distinguish it from ads. It is a separate matter that these guidelines are conveniently ignored by most media houses.
Fundamentally, there’s nothing wrong with ads. After all, media companies have to survive and generate enough revenues to satisfy their owners. And with the stagnant subscription rates, ads are the easiest and most lucrative way to keep the journalistic machinery running. The problem arises when ads merge with the news so much so that there’s no separating the two, and instead of the editorial team, the company’s owners decide what news goes up on the platform. As expounded by John Oliver in this segment of Last Week Tonight, no matter how one tries to spin it, native advertising and advertorials are still ads at the end of the day. Which means the platform carrying it was paid handsomely for it. Which means that, despite the quality of the content, the sole aim is to promote the advertiser, and everything else is coincidental, including the copywriter or journalist’s sincere intentions. The wall between news and advertising may be thin and porous but there’s no reason to completely break it down. The issue of trustworthiness and credibility of the news media carrying such deceptive ads is a crucial one. A publication which regularly carries such sponsored content is likely to be given less credence by consumers as it will be increasingly seen as a ‘paid for’ and less serious media platform. Again, Buzzfeed here is a good example which despite some excellent journalistic work is still seen as a ‘listicles’ site.
Advertorials gone wrong like the Atlantic’s brazen laudatory article on Scientology can harm the reputation of an otherwise respected publication and turn it into a ripe target for the venom of the Twitterati. More dangerous is how these ads intend to deliberately mislead the unwitting reader. This is paid media at its subterfuge best and seemingly adopted by most mainstream media organisations. In India, newspapers like ToI openly embrace advertorials to fatten their ad-revenue coffers. In a 2012 interview, Samir Jain, one of the top honchos at BCCL, defended the tiny disclaimer next to the many paid-for promotional features in Bombay Times saying that it met the transparency test. One may rightly assume that the test was created, administered and evaluated by him. Lest he forgets, advertising isn’t journalism.
The biggest problem with all this paid news and advertorials/native advertising business is that the entire point of media gets sidelined and rendered meaningless. While there will be editorial choices, selection of worthy news and subjective opinion pieces, when the same mouthpieces that are supposed to be a check on power become one of their many possessions, it doesn’t bode well for the common person. As consumers of news, we rely heavily on the good work of journalists to inform, educate and provocate us. Most people read their favourite daily newspapers, browse familiar websites and watch the news on TV assuming that the information is accorded and sanctioned by its journalists and editors, not the owners of that newspaper, website or TV. A tiny fine print, a disclaimer narrated rapidly at the end or a footnote isn’t good enough. If such ads or PR exercises are a reality of our times, then they shouldn’t be cloaked under a heavy veil, almost as if the publishers and advertisers know that what they are doing is somewhat unethical. People pay for the privilege of being informed and not being sold a product. Similarly, a media outlet is there to serve its consumers, not kowtow to every demand of anyone who has enough money to throw at them.
Alternative media, alternative voices
In these troubled times, the diversity of news and opinions offered by the internet, although shrill, cacophonous and often times suspect, is much needed and truly welcome, especially since it’s a marked contrast to the gradual consolidation of traditional media. The number of internet users in India has increased to about 460 million (nearly 35 per cent of the total population) and mobile internet users are around 370 million, though most of them happen to be in urban areas. These numbers will only tick upwards with every passing year – this will have the inevitable (and positive?) consequence of more Indians relying on the glorious world wide web for their daily intake of news and happenings.
The good news is the mushrooming of alternative media on the internet. Where mainstream media deems it perfectly acceptable to cosy up to the rich and the powerful, alternative media revels in its pure disdain for them. Over the past few years, as the internet has snaked up into the lives of many Indians, alternative journalism has similarly thrived through websites such as India Resists, Janta ka Reporter, Raiot, Kafila, Round Table India, Countercurrents, and TwoCircles, which can be loosely classified as left of centre in their ideology, whereas mimicking the lack of right wing ‘intellectual’ voices in Indian academia and mainstream media, there are fewer such credible websites on the right, couple of them being Swarajya (to an extent) and (the erstwhile) Niti Central. A 2013 research found that there are 140 alternative media websites in South Asia.
This type of independent journalism is the antithesis of the mainstream media that many people have come to loathe; the former promotes freewheeling debates, disagreements, bottom-up reporting, issues pertaining to the poor, the marginalised and the un-glamorous, controversial and diverse opinions, frequent collaborations and courage of conviction. While there are often allegations (as can be seen in the comments section of any article) of rampant ideological biases, selling out to certain political groups, or even being a part of the paid media phenomenon, these websites provide fresh, pluralistic and rarely heard perspectives, relevant contexts, critical facts and conjunctures, and in-depth reporting on issues that, at best, may only find a passing mention in the country’s leading newspapers, magazines and news channels. Fierce, independent journalism necessitates the lack of moneyed overlords and this is exactly why their voices cannot be suppressed. The depth and quality of news and analysis offered by alternate media on matters like the Maoist struggle in India’s rural hinterlands, Kashmir, the oft-ignored northeast, student politics, Dalits and lower classes is quite unparalleled and ought to be read and seen by every Indian, if only because we deserve better than the drivel bestowed on us by established media. For instance, the workers’ strike that has been going on in multiple factories across the Gurgaon–Manesar industrial belt for years now is rarely covered by traditional media—or at times given lip service by newspapers like The Hindu. For a cogent and deep analysis of these strikes and the underlying reasons as well as the struggles of these workers, alternative websites are the only recourse.
The emergence of alternative media in India closely follows a worldwide trend wherein small, independent websites, along both lengths of the ideological spectrum, have become the go-to sources for people seeking for radical, offbeat options when it comes to news. Some fairly well known ones are Democracy Now, CounterPunch, Alternet, Breitbart (the keepers of the alt-right), South Asia Citizens Web, Mother Jones, In These Times, TruthOut, Drudge Report, Jacobin, etc. These usually depend on subscription fees and/or individual donations for their running and maintenance.
Social media as the white knight?
Any discussion on alternative media, however, isn’t complete without touching upon the elephant in the room – that is, social media. The rapid proliferation of this type of media over the past decade has meant that a substantial chunk of the time spent on the internet is devoted to them. Leading the way is the radio and TV of our times, Facebook (and to a lesser extent, Twitter), which is increasingly the main source of news information for most people (66 per cent of Facebook users get their news through the site). Both mainstream and independent media outlets have thrived on it and seemingly ordinary Facebook pages have gathered enough followers to diversify into separate websites.
While social media does provide access to a treasure trove of diverse and independent news reports and opinion pieces, it has the tendency of turning into an echo chamber wherein one’s beliefs and ideologies get reinforced over and over again. In other words, instead of being open to multiple viewpoints, people seek confirmation of their existing opinions and participate in the herd mentality of their own choosing. Facebook’s mysterious algorithms that dictate the news feed page and suggested posts are supposed to be unbiased and merely tweaked to the user’s interests, but algorithms aren’t neutral simply because the criteria, parameters and limitations imposed upon them are decided by humans. And humans are not exactly known for being objective. Same is the case with Google, Twitter, or for that matter any technology-based platform that purports to give its users free information. The search results, the newsfeed, the trending topics that have become the online libraries, universities and debate podiums for a supposedly free thinking public are, in fact, curated by these tech giants who, while refraining from the kind of paid news sleaze and outright propaganda indulged in by traditional media, have become a sort of a supreme editor-in-chief (if you will) on their platforms. Even then, with the growing distrust towards mainstream outlets and the corporatisation of media, there’s much reason to celebrate the internet’s democratisation of news, aided by social media, which has the unique ability to highlight, disseminate and amplify voices (think of the Arab Spring, Occupy and BML movements) that in another world, another time, would have been curbed. Of course, as with any entity that has enormous and unaccountable leverage over our lives, one needs to be careful and vigilant about social media as well.
The commodification of media as another extension of big business and dirty politics needs to be urgently identified and opposed by anyone who wants to maintain some semblance of a working democracy in India. It is bad enough that crony capitalism, widening inequality and jingoistic nationalism have become prominent features of this country – a media that fails to call out these issues and instead focuses on the self-serving interests of its masters may as well shut down. Better no information than ‘sponsored by’ information. Unfortunately, the discourse around paid media has degenerated into a mudslinging match wherein supporters of all political hues level charges against the integrity of any media outlet or journalist that doesn’t subscribe to their world view. Hence the mostly vile language filled with pejoratives and abuses but with little factual reasoning or logic. The fallout of this kind of misguided understanding is that the real problems of media corporatisation/politicisation and the paid news phenomenon become fringe topics. When one should be talking about potential ways to minimise their harmful effects – autonomous regulatory bodies with the power to penalise guilty parties, less reliance on self-regulation (favoured, naturally, by most media houses), restrictions on cross-media ownership and vertical integration, prohibitions on political organisations from holding broadcasting licenses and media outlets, mandatory disclosure on revenues and ownership, strict guidelines on disclaimers related to advertorials or any kind of sponsored content, full disclosure on news related to private treaties partners, etc. – debates and discussions on paid media merely become another tool to discredit one’s opponents.
It is imperative that the narrative shifts to a solution-oriented discussion in order to educate the public, which is usually apathetic towards information/communication rights, as well as to maintain and promote a lively, combative, independent media that actually checks and balances power. There’s little point in bragging about India’s status as the world’s largest democracy or how we are better than some of our neighbouring countries because we have freedom of speech, if that speech is coloured by misinformation or extreme biases. The country’s myriad problems related to extreme poverty, inequality, caste and class discriminations, stunting state support, and disenfranchisement of vast swathes of the population need to be urgently highlighted and given the highest priority. This is where a fair, frank and bold media plays its part in shining light on the dark, ugly truths and holding those with privileges accountable for their actions. A media that sells itself to the highest bidder and is a mere puppet of the privileged few will never be able to fulfil these responsibilities.
Similarly, the role of the public is to be aware and vigilant about the sordid side of the media and not accept everything that is fed to them as the gospel truth. It is important to question, research, think and evaluate the deluge of information that is provided to us every single day, and continuously challenge conventional wisdom, even if it goes against our preferred way of thinking. Just like we deserve a fair, independent and provocative media, the media needs a discerning, intelligent and argumentative audience. That’s how a democracy is kept alive.