Chief Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi observed dryly at a panel discussion last year that the politicians and parties who did not need to go in for paid news were those who owned media outlets. He added that the EC was mulling over the issue because of the unfair advantage such ownership conferred at the time of an election.
There is a delicious little illustration of this playing out in Haryana, in the media outlets owned by the family of Venod Sharma, whose son Manu Sharma was convicted in the Jessica Lal murder case. In the Haryana assembly elections last year Sharma popped up in reports in Dainik Bhaskar and Punjab Kesari which had all the signs being of paid coverage. This year as the elected Congress MLA Mr Sharma has the advantage of being the proprietor of a newspaper his family has started, Aaj Samaj. He gets generous coverage in his own newspaper, as the clips used here show.
And his paper is now campaigning against paid news. The issue of January 23rd had prominent coverage of Venod Sharma with large photographs. The sort of PR coverage of an event that a politician would normally pay to get. It also has an editorial decrying paid news written by his son Kartik Sharma who runs the newspaper. A front page editorial, no less.
Titled “Paid news ghatak hai” (Paid news is fatal) it goes on to sermonise about how paid news is injurious to democracy and refers to the Press Council of India’s report on the issue. The edit says, “Due to paid news the media itself is destroying its importance and independence and on the other side it is hurting the democracy by influencing independent and unbiased elections. It is the responsibility of Press or Media that it should publish the news or broadcast the news keeping in view the importance of general public welfare ,because this is the only source where it can follow or exercise the right of conveying the news . The common man has the right to get information.” (Translated from Hindi).
Laudable sentiments. Evidently, this is one evil that political ownership of the media can help negate. When you own the paper you don’t have to pay for the coverage it lavishes on you.