In the context of Radiatape, it may be interesting to know about former chief election commissioner T.S. Krishnamurthy's take on 'paid news'. Krishnamurthy, who retired after spending 36 years in the civil service, was addressing members of the Public Relations Society of India, Chennai Chapter some months ago. The first revenue officer from the Indian Revenue Service to become secretary to the Department of Company Affairs, Krishnamurthy was appointed election commissioner in 2000. Between February 2004 and May 2005, he was India's chief election commissioner.
Paid media is a dangerous phenomenon threatening the integrity of democracy in India, according to Krishnamurthy. According to him, some journalists are falling prey to temptation and making money on the sly. In a country which was once proud of its values, where leaders sacrificed their lives for freedom, it is an unfortunate occurrence, he says, and calls for speedy action to remedy the ills.
Paid media in the present political scenario would almost seem like a topical subject, having gained a lot of importance in recent times. “‘Paid news’ itself is a misnomer, because all news is paid for – by management, by shareholders of a company who own it, or subscribers to newspapers and television channels. Whatever it is, this particular expression has gathered momentum in recent times to mean it is paid for clandestinely, more to masquerade as news, and the person who pays the money may be visible or invisible. It is prevalent all over the world in a different garb,” said Krishnamurthy, giving the example of lobbyists abroad who lobby through media for their own particular interests.
Krishnamurthy made the point that in India, paid news had a special connotation because there was a ceiling on the expenditure of candidates. The objective was to ensure that a person who spent money on getting elected did not have undue advantage over an opponent who was not affluent, according to him. He added that to offer a level playing field, the Election Commission, under the Representation of People’s Act, had been prescribing ceilings. “The history of ceiling on expenditure has gone through rough weather; it has varied depending on inflationary conditions. The law provides many loopholes,” said Krishnamurthy, adding that there was no ceiling on the expenditure of political parties and expenditure incurred by associates and friends was not included in the ceiling.
To improve matters, to plug loopholes, the government brought about an amendment but it brought a fresh set of problems, according to Krishnamurthy. For instance, there was no limit on the number of party leaders who could canvass for a candidate. This was brought to the notice of the government, he added, and lauded the media for playing a significant role in bringing to light various ills plaguing the election system.
Krishnamurthy referred to the post-Independence period and to India’s Constitution – the longest written one – that was framed to nurture, protect and preserve democracy in the country. He spoke about India’s first general election, in 1951-52, when there were only newspapers and radio and candidates reached out to voters through posters and at public meetings. Krishnamurthy estimated that there were thousands of television channels across the country run by different cable operators. “It is just impossible to regulate all of them,” he said and referred to persons owning television channels being associated with political parties. “They were merrily carrying programmes that had subtle political advertising,” he said, recalling his experience. It was thus a clear infringement of the Election Commission rule that no political advertisement be carried on electronic media. He mentioned a Tamil channel telecasting a mythological story that had political overtones.
Krishnamurthy said that it was the duty of the district election officer to regulate advertisements of political parties by getting them screened and cleared by the local constituency committee. Such a proposal sent by the Election Commission to the Supreme Court was indeed approved by the latter and was supposed to be in operation. However, on the ground, it did not make a major difference because there were a number of serial programmes that could not be regulated, although to some extent it arrested the misuse of media.
In the 2004 elections, the aspect of ‘biased media’ became more pronounced, Krishnamurthy said. He pointed to a feature in India’s leading weekly magazine called Impact that consisted of paid news – paid for by the government or state. “The payment would be made after the elections. It acquired new heights in the 2009 elections and subsequent by-elections.”
Media was once considered the fourth pillar of democracy and 20-30 years ago journalists took pride in being independent or neutral, though there were occasional offenders, Krishnamurthy said and added that during the Emergency the media played a significant role and asserted its authority. Two or three newspapers even blanked out editorials to send a silent message to the government, that curbing the freedom of the press was not appreciated. Press freedom was thus “jealously and zealously” guarded by the journalist and the media. It was, according to former chief election commissioner, “the best period for media in India”.
“Over the years journalists got tempted by certain developments. Not only were journalists making money on the sly, there was also management and corporate lobbying. They started contacting political candidates. Payment was very often clandestinely made to individual journalists, or made in kind. The media has tasted the fruits of paid news,” said Krishnamurthy and gave the example of a Bombay-based newspaper that did not disclose information sought by the Election Commission. “They have started systematically exploiting the loopholes. It’s a pity that this development is undermining democracy. In a country which was so much proud of its values, where so many leaders sacrificed their lives for freedom, it is unfortunate. This has become popular because there has been a media boom, high growth of literacy, influence of print and electronic media, and the price for paid news is becoming more and more attractive”
At the time of conducting elections, the media plays a very important role in disseminating information about candidates, about political parties, manifestos and arrangements made for the conduct of elections. “The Code of Conduct for political parties (remains in force from the announcement of elections to the announcement of results) is not law but an agreed method to provide a level playing field, in particular to arrest the tendency of the ruling party to influence elections,” said Krishnamurthy.
In 2004, which was known as the E-election thanks to the use of electronic voting machines, all forms of media were used, every known method of communication was exploited, he said, and added that he had not quite seen the kind of political activity displayed in India, in countries he had visited – Mexico, Russia, the US and African countries. “Even in Zimbabwe, there is a restriction on the size of posters. We thought of bringing the rule here, but met with opposition,” he said. In Mexico, candidates reached out to voters through television and small posters. In the US, television played an important part, though not to the extent it did in India.
“Channels here are becoming a law unto themselves,” Krishnamurthy said, pointing to the kind of media biases – innocent biases (ignorance), informed biases (certain information is deliberately fed through journalists or government), and influenced biases (people in remote areas being easily swayed), which he termed “most dangerous”. Over a period, such misrepresentations began to take an important role and influenced the minds of voters. Even corporates were willing to support the trend, he said.
Wrapping up his speech, Krishnamurthy said paid media was a dangerous phenomenon threatening the integrity of democracy. “Media can play a constructive role during elections to enhance the quality of democracy in this country. Unfortunately, in the last few years under the influence of globalisation, media seems to have degenerated, undermining the quality of democracy,” he said.
Although one suggestion was to make paid news an electoral fraud, a misdemeanour, a legal provision might not be effective, Krishnamurthy said. “It will take five to ten years to arrive at some finality; especially in the case of paid media, it is very difficult to substantiate the truth. Very often the payment part is camouflaged, unless you can prove by circumstantial evidence.”
Krishnamurthy wondered whether it would be possible to provide more teeth to the Press Council. “Self-regulation is desirable for media but I find in this country self-regulation does not take off easily because each person has his defence. The sooner we take steps to stop this (paid news), the better it is for our democracy,” he said and urged a few voluntary organisations to support independent journalists with recognition for displaying integrity in presenting news. He named the government, the press and the public as stakeholders in the exercise to purge the system of corruption.