In prosperous Gujarat, everybody can buy media

GIRISH NIKAM writes from New Delhi: Now that the elections are over and done with in Gujarat, one needs to look at the role of the media in that State, its pliant nature and the increasing commercial angle in its reportage.

Whether newspapers or TV channels, the Gujarati language media by and large tried to avoid discussing “controversial issues” like the 2002 pogrom, the status of the riot-affected victims, or any of the raging controversies.

Angrezi media ki tarah, hum (Narendra) Modi ko ungli nahin karte (unlike the English media, we do not finger Modi),” was a revealing comment a Gujarati TV channel reporter in Ahmedabad made.

So much so, what was being heatedly discussed in national newspapers and TV channels based outside Gujarat, and also by some of the English language newspapers in the State, was completely avoided by the local language media. All through the campaign, Modi, who was visibly hostile to journalists from the national media or downright cynical, was seen in an unusually good mood on a Gujarati TV channel, while on a “live” programme.

There were no questions asked about the various allegations being made against him by the Congress leaders; no questions about the Tehelka expose which had brought out how the 2002 carnage was perpetrated, in the words of the perpetrators themselves; no questions about the status of the court cases; no questions about the Sohrabuddin issue.

“We are clearly told earlier, before Modi accepts to give an interview, that none of these questions are to be asked and we in the Gujarati media stick to it,” the TV channel reporter confessed.

In fact, the channel went out of its way to ensure during the claimed “live” programme that Modi did not have to face any “inconvenient” questions from the viewers. “It was not a ‘live’ programme. If it was ‘live’ and viewers were free to ask him questions, then why were no telephone numbers being flashed on the screen for the viewers to call,” a journalist of a leading English newspaper in Rajkot, pointed out.

If the tendency to toe a suggested line is worrisome, what is equally worrisome about the Gujarati media is the increased commercialisation of the news space.

“Whether it is the news columns or the editorial page, everything is available for a price in the Gujarati media,” a senior Congress functionary who was actively involved in the Congress campaign, revealed. “We had a separate budget earmarked for the media. If we did not pay, our news stories would not appear at all in these newspapers.”

In other words, the political parties not only had to pay for the advertisements which appeared under the party’s banner in these newspapers but also had to pay for the news items of any event or meeting held by it. “If we refused to pay to cover a rally or a meeting, and sometimes even a press conference, there would be no news about it next day, except for big rallies involving names like Sonia Gandhi or the Prime Minister,” the AICC functionary added.

This was corroborated by any number of reporters and agents cum reporters of various Gujarati newspapers across the State. “Paid news”, as it has become known in the media vocabulary in the State, has become a standard fixture, and the rates are fixed.

Pointing to a double-column story in a Gujarati newspaper, a stringer-cum-agent of a Hindi newspaper in Navsari district says, “See, for this story, the BJP candidate had to pay Rs 12,800.”

Who pockets the money? The stringer says 85 per cent of it goes to the newspaper’s management; the agent-cum-stringer of the town who gets it is paid a commission of 15 per cent. “Everyone in the edition shares it,” he adds with a tinge of regret as his newspaper is not “in demand” and he is losing out on the commission.

The “news report” is obviously heavily tilted in favour of the candidate who has paid for it, with all the positive reasons being written about how he is going to win. This kind of commercialisation has resulted in readers being left utterly confused, as they are unable to decipher what has been paid for in their newspapers and what come to them without any strings attached.

One of the leading newspapers, as if to keep its conscience clean, uses a technique to justify its decision to sell editorial space. “There is a dot (dingbat) at the end of the story, which signifies that it is paid news,” says a stringer-cum-agent of a Gujarati newspaper in Surat district, pointing to a story. But this is confined to only one of the leading newspapers. Others don’t have any such qualms.

Result: readers are left high and dry when it comes to getting honest news, views or trends about the elections.

A hotel owner in Himmat Nagar in Sabarkantha district expresses this confusion of the readers by pulling out the previous day’s leading Gujarati newspaper. On one page, side by side, are two stories, both double-column stories of the same size, about the two rival candidates in a particular constituency.

“Look at this, this story says this candidate is surely winning the elections, while the adjoining story about the rival candidate also says exactly the same thing, that he is going to win!” points out the hotel owner. “These newspapers are making fools of all of us. Sab bikhau hai (everything is on sale).”

The candidates have now come to believe that the only way they can get publicity is by paying the journalists. Even a journalist whose intentions are nothing but journalistic also is seen through the same eyes by the political parties and especially the candidates.

“When I went to talk to a candidate to get details about him and his campaign, I was asked, ‘Yeh sab chodiye, yeh bataiye kitna dena hai (that’s all right, just tell me how should I give)”, and he pulled out bundles of one -hundred and five-hundred rupee notes from his pocket,” revealed a young reporter of a Hindi daily newspaper in Surat.

After a fact-finding enquiry undertaken by the Editors’ Guild of India following the 2002 carnage in Gujarat, Dileep Padgaonkar had remarked about the role of Gujarati media: “I feel their prime interest is commercial.” It is only getting worse going by the recent experiences in the Gujarat election. The only people who stand to lose in this politician-media nexus are the ordinary readers, and of course, the cause of good journalism.

A translated version of this piece appears in the latest issue of Outlook Saptahik

Also read: ‘Media is now part of a conspiracy of silence

SUCHETA DALAL: How The Times of India sells its editorial space

SUNIL K. POOLANI: Selling editorial space; changing times

Cross-posted on churumuri

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