'Paid News' Is Rotting India's Democracy: Choudhury

In a first in India's electoral history, a sitting legislator, Umlesh Yadav, was disqualified from office last week by the Election Commission of India for providing a false account of the expenditures incurred on her election campaign.

At first glance, the disqualification didn't appear to be of great consequence: it applied not to a member of Parliament but rather to a lawmaker in a state legislative assembly; the politician in question belonged to a minor political party; she was disqualified on what appeared to be an accounting technicality; and she had only four months left of her tenure in any case. But the precedent set by the Election Commission's decision had enormous implications for India's rambunctious and rule-bending electoral politics, where the stakes are so high and money flows so freely that politicians (many of whom own or control media outlets themselves) have succeeded in buying out sections of the fourth estate at elections, guaranteeing masses of propaganda that are published in newspapers as reporting.

The EC's decision, in effect, blew the cover off the phenomenon of "paid news" -- the very moniker exposes the deceit intrinsic to the idea -- in India. It would also have shaken two high-profile politicians who are in the dock before the EC for similar infringements. On Oct. 21, the Hindu reported:

The Election Commission delivered a historic verdict on Thursday by disqualifying Uttar Pradesh MLA Umlesh Yadav from contesting again for three years for not including in her official accounts of expenditure the amount she spent on advertisements in two Hindi dailies that were masquerading as news items.

The EC rejected [Yadav's] contention that she did not authorise or incur the expenditure for the publication of the advertisement or paid news, and, quoting the various verdicts of the Supreme Court, maintained that it ought to have been included in her election expenditure under Section 78 of the Representation of the People Act.

In the EC pipeline next are the cases against former Maharashtra Chief Minister and MLA from Bhokar Ashok Chavan and former Jharkhand Chief Minister and Singhbhum MP Madhu Koda.

The blatant infringements of the electoral code of conduct by Ashok Chavan, the former chief minister of one of India's most populous states, Maharashtra, when he returned to power in the 2009 Assembly elections are especially well-documented. In late 2009, the journalist P. Sainath published a series of exposes (1, 2, 3) that showed the extent to which the political class and the fourth estate were in bed together, leading to the hollowing out of democracy by big money.

What was previously a fringe practice by individual journalists or undependable periodicals had now gone mainstream, with the marketing departments of most media concerns putting together elaborate "coverage packages" for those who could buy them. This has led to an almost complete marginalization by the press of independent candidates or those from small parties. This journalistic selling out at election time makes a farce of a newspaper's attempt to provide a critical perspective on political performance in what one might call electoral peacetime. In what must rank as one of the classics of Indian journalism, Sainath wrote in a piece called "Mass Media: Masses of Money?":

“Young dynamic leadership: Ashokrao Chavan,” read the headline of a prominent news item in the Marathi daily Lokmat (October 10). That was 72 hours before the people of Maharashtra went to vote in the State Assembly polls. The item was attributed to the newspaper’s "Special Correspondent," making it clear this was a news story. The story showered praise on the Chief Minister of Maharashtra for having achieved so much for so many in so few months. The same story also appeared word for word the same day in the Maharashtra Times, a leading and rival Marathi daily. Two minds with but a single thought? Two hearts that beat as one?

A cute and comforting thought. Except that the very same story (again word for word, only with a different headline) had appeared three days earlier in the Marathi daily Pudhari (October 7). In that case, with a reporter’s name at the bottom of the item. [...] Unless the bylined reporter of Pudhari moonlights as 'Special Correspondent' for Lokmat, while also being a ghost-writer for the Maharashtra Times, the appearance of the same piece verbatim in the three rival newspapers does seem odd. But maybe not so odd? Mr. Chavan seems to have gained greatly from what is now called ‘package journalism’ or ‘coverage packages.’

This flood of ‘news’ did not harm Mr. Chavan’s prospects. He won the Bhokar Assembly seat of Maharashtra’s Nanded district by defeating independent candidate Madhavrao Kinhalkar by a margin of over one lakh (120,849 against 13,346) votes.

All candidates are required by law to submit their campaign expenses accounts to the district election officer within 30 days of the declaration of results. Mr. Chavan’s accounts, which are in The Hindu’s possession [...], claim a total expenditure of just Rs. 11,379 [about $250 at the time] on advertising.

Some might say that the Election Commission's interdiction of Yadav related to the small infringement of non-disclosure of electoral expenditures and not to the much greater moral infringement of "paid news," a crisis taken up, separately, by the Press Council of India in a damning report produced last year. The fact of the matter is that the two misdeeds are joined at the hip. Although, as a survey by Outlook magazine in 2009 showed, the practice of "paid news" is now rampant, no politician can admit to having made the practice an election expenditure. Politicians who pay clandestinely for propaganda and advertising dressed up as news, must by the very fact of their investment grossly misrepresent their spending on their campaigns (as the figures involving Chavan show). They can -- and hopefully from this point onward should -- be held accountable.

One can't help thinking, though, that the greater crisis is in Indian journalism, a field with more newspapers and television channels than any other country in the world, most of them less than 10 years old. In this highly competitive environment, the logic of the market and weak regulation have emboldened entrepreneurial minds to test long-established ethical boundaries in the decades following the partial liberalization of the Indian economy in 1991.

In this new, fluid world, the Indian media has proved, in parts, highly receptive to the idea that journalism is at the end of the day just another kind of business, that all information can be reduced to "content," and to the mingled cynicism and hypocrisy of calling out corrupt politicians, businessmen, and activists while rarely ever asking if its own house is in order. I've lost count of the number of times in the last decade that I've heard people in the media performing, in private discussions, impressive acts of moral calisthenics to justify publishing, without full disclosure, advertising that is loosely and clumsily dressed up as journalism. They insisted though that they knew exactly how far to go and that there were certain boundaries they would never violate.

But this is the slippery slope that leads to the scandal of "paid news" and to the erosion of the ideals of democracy. In a piece in the Daily News and Analysis called "What Your Morning Newspaper Forgot to Tell You," the writer and journalist Annie Zaidi wrote:

Heard about a recent report released by the Press Council of India? No? If your newspaper or favourite news channel was interested in serving as a pillar of democracy, it should have published the Press Council’s report on how media houses have been taking money from candidates during recent elections. [...]

Go to this link and look at the column on the left. Click on the link that says ‘Report on Paid News’. Read it.

Here are some extracts: “The concerned newspapers and television channels typically receive funds for paid news in cash and do not disclose such earnings in their company balance sheets or official statements of accounts. Thus, by not accounting for the money received from candidates, the concerned media company or its representatives are violating the provisions of the Companies Act, 1956 as well as the Income Tax Act, 1961, among other laws.”

“The entire operation is clandestine. This malpractice has become widespread and now cuts across newspapers and television channels, small and large, in different languages and located in various parts of the country... 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...”

And Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, one of the authors of the muckraking report on "paid news" that was almost scuttled by the powerful publishers' lobby in India, wrote last year in an essay called "Cut-Rate Democracy":

Substantial sections of the media have become participants and players in practices that contribute to this growing use of money power in politics. This in turn undermines democratic processes and norms while hypocritically pretending to occupy a high moral ground. It has also tarnished the country’s reputation as foreign newspapers have started writing about, and commenting adversely on, such malpractices. Media companies that put out ‘paid news’ damage—if not destroy—their own credibility. Whereas such malpractices were confined to individual transgressions and to a few newspapers and TV channels till the recent past, the sheer scale of what is taking place now is alarming and frightening. Indeed, it strikes at the very core of democracy, turning the media from being the fourth estate and a watchdog of society into a ‘first estate’ of sorts by influencing democratic processes.

In July 2009, a two-member subcommittee of the Press Council of India, comprising K. Sreenivas Reddy and myself, was constituted to examine the phenomenon of paid news. The subcommittee, after meeting people in different parts of the country and receiving written and oral representations, submitted a detailed report running to over 36,000-words to the Council in April. [...] During the course of our investigations, we received representations from around 100 people from across India. There were many complaints against Hindi daily Dainik Jagran, the largest circulated daily newspaper in India and among the five most widely circulated dailies in the world. We also received complaints against Dainik Bhaskar, the second highest circulated daily; Lokmat, the most widely circulated Marathi daily; Hindustan, Punjab Kesari, Eenadu, Sakshi and also against the largest circulated English daily in the country, The Times of India, among others. It used to be claimed that the ‘leader guards the reader’ [a Times of India advertising slogan] but in this instance, the leaders themselves took the lead in cheating the reader and lowering ethical standards.

It seems clear that, if it isn't weeded out, the practice of "paid news" will eventually devour Indian journalism, pressuring media companies to play along or else go into the red financially. With its judgment last week -- and hopefully in its hearing of the high-profile Ashok Chavan case due Nov. 4 -- the Election Commission of India has set a precedent, on the political side of the "paid news" malaise in Indian democracy, that hopefully will be followed up on the journalistic side by the nation's supine press regulators.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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