The 12 page Press Council of India (PCI) report on Paid News dated July 30, 2010 offers generous advice to the Election Commission to constitute a special cell to go into the complaints of paid news, to the publishers on the virtues of self regulation, to the I&B Ministry to conduct workshops and debates to discuss and find a solution to the problem and to Parliament to amend Section 123 of the Representation of the People Act to make paid news a punishable offence.
What does it say about its own role? It laments that PCI is just a quasi judicial body with limited powers to “admonish, reprimand and pass strictures”, that it cannot penalize the errant, that its jurisdiction is limited to the print media and that its request for amending Sec 15(4) of the Press Council India Act to make its directions binding has been pending for a long time. Does it acknowledge the fact that there is evidence of paid news? Yes, it does. It says it is in possession of “large volume of circumstantial evidence which indicates that monetary consideration was exchanged for favourable coverage, reporting and telecasting.”
The PCI finalized its report on July 30, 2010 and it has not chosen during the last 15 months to exercise the ‘limited powers’ it has u/s 14(1) of the Press Council India Act. Considering the fact that Sec 23(1) protects the PCI and its members from any legal proceedings, one wonders what stopped it from warning, admonishing or censuring the erring newspapers. Does it not stand to reason that the PCI first censures the guilty before asking for more powers? Would such a step not demonstrate to the print media that the PCI is serious about its business? Would it not add weight to its demand for additional power?
Far from taking any such meaningful step, the PCI in fact chose to withhold the detailed report of its sub-committee on the subject for 18 long months. Finally it took an RTI application to force the PCI to release the report of the sub-committee. Release, it did with a disclaimer that the report was not accepted by the Council.
Now that the report of the sub-committee is released one wonders why the PCI tried to suppress it in the first place. Was it because the report named publishers like Dainik Jagran, Lokmat, Maharashtra Times, Hindustan, Eenadu, Andhra Jyothi, Sakshi, etc?
Outlook carried an article in August, 2010 suggesting that 12 members of the PCI were not in favour of releasing the sub-committee’s report as it would affect the “long term interest” of publishers. P Sainath suspected that the report was being suppressed because it “named and shamed the perpetrators of paid news”.
But the report does not go beyond mentioning the allegations against specific publishers and recording their defence. It does not analyze truth or falsity of the claims and counter claims. It does not express any opinion nor does it draw any conclusion against any particular paper. Seen in this regard, the report is no more than a long column in a newspaper or a research article.
If the very mention of the names was so disturbing to the members of the PCI, were not most of these names mentioned earlier in the context of paid news? The women journalists of Andhra accused all the Telugu papers in their complaint to the Chief Electoral Officer dated April 7, 2009. Sainath, in October, 2009 - five months before the sub-committee finalized its report - named Lokmat, Maharashtra Times and Pudhari in his column. If the publishers were not incensed in 2009, why would they be in April, 2010?
The next question that arises is why the sub-committee’s report was rejected by the Council. The final report of the Council does not dispute any of the findings or recommendations of the sub-committee. Still for some inexplicable reasons it chose not to accept the report.
As the PCI is dragging its feet on this old issue, fresh instance of paid news has surfaced. The Hindu published, on November 2, transcripts of a telephone conversation between the Marketing Manager of Herald, Goa and a freelance journalist faking as a politician which shows that the newspaper had published favourable interview of a candidate in for Rs 2 lacs and was offering similar package to the freelance journalist. If the transcripts are genuine, they would provide the much needed “hard proof” which the sub-committee had asked for.
Within a month of assuming charge, the new Chairman of the PCI, Markandey Katju, has started asking for more powers and also control over electronic media. He needs to understand that there is enough muck in the Print Media to be cleaned before asking for control over electronic media.