P Sainath writes a powerful piece on how the Press Council of India hid the inconvenient report of the sub-committee that looked into the paid news scam. First the background:
No scandal has rocked the Indian media more in recent decades than that of paid news. Most of all when it emerged during the last Lok Sabha and subsequent Maharashtra polls that hundreds of crores of rupees had been spent to buy “news” in large dailies and television channels. Major parties and candidates overshot poll spending limits many times over on this one expense alone. It was and remains a nauseating form of corruption.
Outrage grew over the idea of the media acting as extortionists — the very term that many a candidate used to describe the practice of “paid news” during the last Lok Sabha polls. Indeed, a few top politicians complained of it in those terms. The political class did not, as some imagine, go out and “seduce” the media. The media went out and sought “package deals” with them whereby they forked out huge sums of money — or were simply blanked out of the coverage of the paper or channel. The “selling” points were: this way, you can spend as much as you like and not get caught by the Election Commission of India for mocking the spending limit. This way, you are able to take your campaign to millions of voters — for millions of rupees. You can also have your opponent blanked out — or trashed, if you pay that little extra. And neither you nor we attract the taxman's knock on this all-cash transaction.
So the Press Council of India set up a sub-committee to look into the matter.
What did they do with the sub-committee's report? They made it disappear completely!
Acting promptly at the time, the Press Council of India suo moto set up a sub-committee to probe the phenomenon of paid news. The two-member sub-committee of Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and K. Sreenivas Reddy produced a devastating report (see The Hindu April 22, 2010). One that observed all the norms and ethics you could demand of such an exercise. It did not carry a single allegation without full attribution. It took no recourse to “sting” journalism, going for a thorough inquiry instead. It spared no effort to obtain the responses of the groups accused of playing the paid news game. Laying the charges squarely before them, it gave them ample right of — and space to — reply. It recorded depositions from scores of individuals. In one instance, a media organisation apologised for what it had done. In another, a candidate from Andhra Pradesh placed on record the results of his own “sting” operation against a major media group. Some of these depositions were in the form of affidavits.
The sub-committee finds passing mention in the “final” report. Its outstanding effort stands reduced to a footnote (yes, a footnote) in that report. The footnote says the sub-committee's report “may remain on the record of the Council as a reference document.” That's right. It goes to the archive. There is no sign of this “reference document” on the website of the Press Council. This is the standard the PCI sets for the Indian media?
Why did they do that?
Over the months since the scandal hit the fan, some members of the PCI — mainly those representing media owners — worked to scuttle the explosive original report. They had two basic issues with it. First: Why name names? Why get into the ugliness of that? Fascinating, at a time when the media are baying for names and blood on the corruption in the Commonwealth Games scam. So firstly, we now have a double standard: exposure for corruption in the Games, privacy for it within the media. Secondly, they fiercely opposed any reference to the Working Journalists Act. In this, they acted as owners and employers. Not as members of the PCI guarding the integrity of the press and its standards.
That's the kind of fourth estate our country needs, indeed.
Update: The draft report of the sub-commitee is here.