By Saif Ahmad Khan
In a statement issued to IANS in May 2014, Election Commission Director General Akshay Rout stated, “We (EC) served 3,053 notices, 694 of which were found to be genuine cases of paid news by our Media Certification and Monitoring Committee.” Considering the fact that the phenomena of paid news was rampant during the 2014 General Elections, it becomes essential to review the manner in which it influenced the overall democratic decision making process in the country.
Press Council of India’s report on paid news defined it as “Any news or analysis appearing in any media (Print & Electronic) for a price in cash or kind as consideration.” The report opined that the practice of paid news was “old” and “deep rooted in system” but it became largely visible during the 2009 General Elections.
The 2014 General Elections provided a historic mandate for the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The saffron outfit managed to gain a simple majority with 282 seats. Simultaneously, National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by BJP, registered a total count of 336 seats in Lok Sabha, the lower house of Indian Parliament. Journalist P Sainath noted that the 2014 elections led to “the biggest ever corporate-media drive in the favour of a single party and individual.” He further mentioned how corporate houses with stakes in media helped in propelling the Modi mania.
It has been four months since the 2014 General Elections concluded but so far the Election Commission of India has not yet forwarded any official statement about paid news to the Press Council. In the absence of such a statement, the PCI cannot issue show cause notices to the news organizations involved in paid news. With individual cases of paid news in 2014 General Elections still far from having surfaced in public domain, one is left with very limited options to figure out as to how it influenced the outcome of the same. However, on viewing the data presented by media organizations the picture doesn’t remain that gloomy.
As per data produced by CMS Media Lab, Narendra Modi received 2575 minutes of prime time television news media coverage during the months of March and April. Interestingly, other top leaders who were covered by the media including Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal just got 2046 minutes of coverage. Modi alone was drawing more coverage than all other leaders put together! In such sort of a media scenario, how can the voters have opted for someone else other than the one beaming on their television screens most often? Keeping in view the titled nature of prime time television coverage, Modi’s meteoric rise to 7 Race Course should not have come as a surprise for anyone.
The elections of 2014 were held in the backdrop of successive corruption scandals which included 2G Spectrum Scam and Coalgate. These scams had marred the credibility of the Manmohan Singh Government and were expected to play a critical role in determining the outcome of the elections. While the impact of these corruption scandals on the downfall of the Congress can certainly not be discounted, corruption remained far from being at the centre of the election debates. Since the very inception, the BJP sought to craft the elections into a personality contest between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. India being a parliamentary democracy should ideally have refrained from plunging into a presidential form of election but it didn’t happen so.
CMS’s analysis shows that while the issue of corruption received a meagre 3.64% of prime time coverage during March-April, personality related issues hogged 7753 minutes or 37.66% of media coverage. The facts in public domain clearly indicate how prime time television coverage helped in furthering the agenda of one man and party who eventually swept the elections.
Sam Balsara, Chairman and Managing Director of Madison Media had told Al Jazeera that the 2014 General Elections happened to be “one of the major reasons for 17 per cent growth” in the advertising sector. The huge amount of money which the media was receiving in the form of advertisements did come at a cost. The elections saw many channels altering formats and airing interviews which appeared more of a PR exercise rather being journalistic in nature. A case in point could be Narendra Modi’s appearance on India TV’s show ‘Aap Ki Adalat’ on 12th April, 2014. The interview, widely alleged to be fixed, led to the resignation of the channel’s editorial director QW Naqvi who was reportedly uncomfortable with the channel turning into a mouthpiece for Modi and BJP. However, India TV’s Rajat Sharma denied the allegations.
Similarly, the format of ABP News’s show ‘Ghoshna Patra’ was altered during Modi’s appearance on the programme. The show, which involved questions from the studio audience, was converted into a different sort of a programme dubbed as “interview-based-special-show” with Modi answering questions thrown at him by the channel’s editors. Why there was such a sudden change in the format was never explained. But the move nevertheless earned ire on social media.
News X too ran clips from Narendra Modi’s conversations with activist Madhu Kishtwar during her visit to Gujarat. Modi’s monologues, shot using a single camera, were aired by News X and billed as an “interview”. Why such concessions were being made solely towards one individual is definitely worth suspecting. With the arrival of the new government in Delhi, it seems like the Election Commission too has been crippled which best explains its lack of corrective action against errant media groups.
The fact that Congress’s Ajay Maken and Aam Aadmi Party’s Rajmohan Gandhi incurred election expenditure which was inclusive of paid news shows that the practise wasn’t limited simple to BJP and Mr Modi. However, the success which the BJP registered in elevating Modi to near-Messianic status using the media had no parallel. In the words of Rajdeep Sardesai, some journalists were doing “cheerleading or supari journalism” during the elections which ended up disturbing the electoral equilibrium and giving India its new Prime Minister in the form of Narendra Modi.
(The writer is pursuing MA Convergent Journalism from AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia.)
Press Council of India. Report on Paid News. New Delhi, 2010
CMS Media Labs. It is Modi driven Television Coverage – 2014 Poll Campaign. New Delhi, 2014
Dhawan, H. “Editor quits over Modi interview, sparks row.” Times of India, April 16, 2014. Accessed October 7, 2014.http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/news/Editor-quits-over-Modi-interview-sparks-row/articleshow/33797939.cms
Umar, B. “Paid news clouds India elections.” Al Jazeera, April 21, 2014. Accessed October 7, 2014.http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/04/paid-news-clouds-india-elections-2014416121619668302.html
“Almost 700 paid news cases detected in 2014 Lok Sabha elections.” DNA, May 18, 2014. Accessed October 7, 2014.http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-almost-700-paid-news-cases-detected-in-2014-lok-sabha-elections-1989485
Sainath, P. “Many waves and a media tsunami.” NewsClick, May 21, 2014. Accessed October 7, 2014.http://newsclick.in/india/many-waves-and-media-tsunami
Bhakto, A. “Election Commission sleeping on paid news cases.” The Economic Times, September 14, 2014. Accessed October 7, 2014. http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2014-09-14/news/53903988_1_paid-news-media-certification-ec-officials
“Rajdeep Sardesai and Arnab Goswami poles apart on future of journalism.” IndianTelevision.com,http://www.indiantelevision.com/television/tv-channels/news-broadcasting/rajdeep-sardesai-and-arnab-goswami-poles-apart-on-future-of-journalism-140608