Monday, 26 October 2009

Paid News

Reproducing P. Sainath's piece in The Hindu

The Assembly elections saw the culture of “coverage packages” explode across Maharashtra. In many cases, a candidate just had to pay for almost any coverage at all.
C. Ram Pandit can now resume his weekly column. Dr. Pandit (name changed) had long been writing for a well-known Indian language newspaper in Maharashtra. On the last day for the withdrawal of nominations to the recent State Assembly elections, he found himself sidelined. An editor at the paper apologised to him saying: “Panditji, your columns will resume after October 13. Till then, every page in this paper is sold.” The editor, himself an honest man, was simply speaking the truth.
In the financial orgy that marked the Maharashtra elections, the media were never far behind the moneybags. Not all sections of the media were in this mode, but quite a few. Not just small local outlets, but powerful newspapers and television channels, too. Many candidates complained of “extortion” but were not willing to make an issue of it for fear of drawing media fire. Some senior journalists and editors found themselves profoundly embarrassed by their managements. “The media have been the biggest winners in these polls,” says one ruefully. “In this period alone,” says another, “they’ve more than bounced back from the blows of the ‘slowdown’ and done so in style.” Their poll-period take is estimated to be in hundreds of millions of rupees. Quite a bit of this did not come as direct advertising but in packaging a candidate’s propaganda as “news.”
The Assembly elections saw the culture of “coverage packages” explode across the State. In many cases, a candidate just had to pay for almost any coverage at all. Issues didn’t come into it. No money, no news. This effectively shut out smaller parties and independent voices with low assets and resources. It also misled viewers and readers by denying them any mention of the real issues some of these smaller forces raised. The Hindu reported on this (April 7, 2009) during the Lok Sabha elections, where sections of the media were offering low-end “coverage packages" for Rs.15 lakh to Rs.20 lakh. “High-end” ones cost a lot more. The State polls saw this go much further.
None of this, as some editors point out, is new. However, the scale is new and stunning. The brazenness of it (both ways) quite alarming. And the game has moved from the petty personal corruption of a handful of journalists to the structured extraction of huge sums of money by media outfits. One rebel candidate in western Maharashtra calculates that an editor from that region spent Rs.1 crore “on just local media alone.” And, points out the editor, “he won, defeating the official candidate of his party.”
The deals were many and varied. A candidate had to pay different rates for ‘profiles,’ interviews, a list of ‘achievements,’ or even a trashing of his rival in some cases. (With the channels, it was “live” coverage, a ‘special focus,’ or even a team tracking you for hours in a day.) Let alone bad-mouthing your rival, this “pay-per” culture also ensures that the paper or channel will not tell its audiences that you have a criminal record. Over 50 per cent of the MLAs just elected in Maharashtra have criminal charges pending against them. Some of them featured in adulatory “news items” which made no mention of this while tracing their track record.
At the top end of the spectrum, “special supplements” cost a bomb. One put out by one of the State’s most important politicians — celebrating his “era” — cost an estimated Rs.1.5 crore. That is, just this single media insertion cost 15 times what he is totally allowed to spend as a candidate. He has won more than the election, by the way.
One common low-end package: Your profile and “four news items of your choice” to be carried for between Rs.4 lakh or more depending on which page you seek. There is something chilling about those words “news items of your choice.” Here is news on order. Paid for. (Throw in a little extra and a writer from the paper will help you draft your material.) It also lent a curious appearance to some newspaper pages. For instance, you could find several “news items” of exactly the same size in the same newspaper on the same day, saying very different things. Because they were really paid-for propaganda or disguised advertisements. A typical size was four columns by ten centimetres. When a pro-saffron alliance paper carries “news items” of this size extolling the Congress-NCP, you know strange things are happening. (And, oh yes, if you bought “four news items of your choice” many times, a fifth one might be thrown in gratis.)
There were a few significant exceptions to the rule. A couple of editors tried hard to bring balance to their coverage and even ran a “news audit” to ensure that. And journalists who, as one of them put it, “simply stopped meeting top contacts in embarrassment.” Because, often, journalists with access to politicians were expected to make the approach. That information came from a reporter whose paper sent out an email detailing “targets” for each branch and edition during the elections. The bright exceptions were drowned in the flood of lucre. And the huge sums pulled in by that paper have not stopped it from sacking droves of staffers. Even from editions that met their ‘targets.’
There are the standard arguments in defence of the whole process. Advertising packages are the bread and butter of the industry. What’s wrong with that? “We have packages for the festive season. Diwali packages, or for the Ganesh puja days.” Only, the falsehoods often disguised as “news” affect an exercise central to India’s electoral democracy. And are outrageously unfair to candidates with less or no money. They also amount to exerting undue influence on the electorate.
There is another poorly assessed — media-related — dimension to this. Many celebrities may have come out in May to exhort people to vote. This time, several of them appear to have been hired by campaign managers to drum up crowds for their candidate. Rates unknown.
All of this goes hand in hand with the stunning rise of money power among candidates. More so among those who made it the last time and have amassed huge amounts of wealth since 2004. With the media and money power wrapped like two peas in a pod, this completely shuts out smaller, or less expensive, voices. It just prices the aam aadmi out of the polls. Never mind they are contested in his name.
Your chances of winning an election to the Maharashtra Assembly, if you are worth over Rs.100 million, are 48 times greater than if you were worth just Rs.1 million or less. Far greater still, if that other person is worth only half-a-million rupees or less. Just six out of 288 MLAs in Maharashtra who won their seats declared assets of less than half-a-million rupees. Nor should challenges from garden variety multi-millionaires (those worth between Rs.1 million-10 million) worry you much. Your chances of winning are six times greater than theirs, says the National Election Watch (NEW).
The number of ‘crorepati’ MLAs (those in the Rs.10 million-plus category) in the State Assembly has gone up by over 70 per cent in the just concluded elections. There were 108 elected in 2004. This time, there are 184. Nearly two-thirds of the MLAs just elected in Maharashtra and close to three-fourths of those in Haryana, are crorepatis. These and other startling facts fill the reports put out by NEW, a coalition of over 1,200 civil society groups across the country that also brought out excellent reports on these issues during the Lok Sabha polls in April-May. Its effort to inform the voting public is spearheaded by the NGO, Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR).
Each MLA in Maharashtra, on average, is worth over Rs.40 million. That is, if we treat their own poll affidavit declarations as genuine. That average is boosted by Congress and BJP MLAs who seem richer than the others, being well above that mark. The NCP and the Shiv Sena MLAs are not too far behind, though, the average worth of each of their legislators being in the Rs.30 million-plus bracket.
Each time a giant poll exercise is gone through in this most complex of electoral democracies, we congratulate the Election Commission on a fine job. Rightly so, in most cases. For, many times, its interventions and activism have curbed rigging, booth capturing and ballot stuffing. On the money power front, though — and the media’s packaging of big money interests as “news” — it is hard to find a single significant instance of rigorous or deterrent action. These too, after all, are serious threats. More structured, much more insidious than crude ballot stuffing. Far more threatening to the basics of not just elections, but democracy itself.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Collusion between the Kerala police and Shiv Sena: Indifferent media

B R P Bhaskar is a senior journalist writing for English and Malayalam publications on political, social and media-related issues. His blogs have been raising issues uncomfortable to the establishment and the media. His latest blog talks about the collusion between the police and Kerala's Shiv Sena in a case of murder of a senior citizen in Varkala.
I reproduce the post presuming that readers in Maharashtra may not be aware of the developments, as indeed I wasn't.

Varkala: A month later political links are coming in the open

Responding to a YouTube video on the atrocities committed against Dalits in Varkala in the wake of a murder, a young Facebook friend asked, “but, why did they kill him?”

Sivaprasad, a senior citizen with no known political affiliation, was killed while on a stroll on the morning of September 23, 2009. The local police quickly pinned the crime on Dalit Human Rights Movement, an organization which was working among Dalits in the state for a few years but had attracted little public attention. It said DHRM had committed the murder to proclaim its strength.

The Facebook friend’s question did not surprise me. It is a question decent human beings have been asking one another since the media reported the police theory and embellished it with insinuations of Dalit extremism. After I visited Varkala as a member of a fact-finding team and wrote in my Malayalam blog about facts suppressed by the police and the media, a veteran journalist and good friend asked me the same question, “but, why did they kill him?”

Another senior journalist and friend, commenting on the collusion between the police and Shiv Sena, to which I had referred in the blog post, said it was difficult to believe that all media would knowingly spread the same lie. In response, I reminded him that all media had joined hands to spread the same lie in the ISRO espeionage case. The primary source for that lie, too, was the police, which was ably assisted by two Central intelligence agencies.

Another friend put his finger right on the middle class mind. “We may have differences about the perpetrators of the crime, the plotters, abettors, police, politicians and media. But what about the victim -- that middle class malayali, guilty of enjoying the leisure of a morning walk? All the inquiries should start from him --because he is you and me.”

The real question, indeed, is how safe are you and me amidst plotters, abettors, police, politicians and pliant media persons.

One FB friend found my reference to collusion between police and Shiv Sena not very convincing. He asked, “Do you mean there was not one single cop available to reveal the foul-play or the nexus? Do you mean all the cops in this state are hopeless? I am sorry sir, … I have seen enough number of cops with strong spine, regardless of innumerable punishment transfers.”

I presume this good friend believes Varghese was not killed in the Wayanad forest, Rajan was not tortured to death in the Kakkayam camp and Udayakumar did not die in the Fort police station, because no cop with strong spine revealed the foul play.

I am not overlooking Ramachandran Nair, the cop who spilled the beans about the fake encounter in Wayanad. He did confess to having pulled the trigger on Varghese. That was years after the event. He is no more. A case registered on the basis of his confession is still pending, with the prosecutors apparently waiting for the surviving accused also to die so that they can close the case and live happily ever after.

This FB friend voiced two other criticisms about the video, which was taken by a member of the fact-finding team. One is that there are no men in sight. The other is that the women refer to RSS, not Shiv Sena. The answer is simple. No men are in the video because they are all in police custody or hiding to avoid arrest and torture. The women mention RSS because they lack the sophistication needed to distinguish between different elements of Hindutva.

One month after the murder, political interests which were not visible until now have started surfacing. What has prompted them to come out is the intervention of the State Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, a body which has a mandate to look into the problems of Dalits and Adivasis.

On Wednesday, October 21, the Commission’s Chairman, Dr. P. K. Sivanandan, went to Varkala with some other members to study the situation in the Dalit colonies. They visited the Thoduve colony and the Ambedkar colony at Vadasserikonam and took evidence from a number of Dalits.

The next day, the Chairman of the Varkala Municipality, K. R. Biju, in a statement, accused Dr. Sivanandan of adopting a stance helpful to murderers. He said Dr. Sivanandan had visited the house of the accused and taken evidence in a partisan manner which was not consistent with the Chairman’s status. The other members of the Commission did not act in the same manner, he added.

Biju, who is an advocate, has either a poor understanding of the law and the mandate of the SC/ST Commission or his partisanship overruns his legal knowledge. The Commission is charged with the task of bettering the lot of Dalits and Adivasis. It visited Varkala not to investigate the murder but to look into complaints of atrocities against Dalits and Adivasis. Registration of a murder case against Dalits does not cut out the Commission’s jurisdiction over Dalit affairs.

Biju’s attempt to put the Chairman and members of the Commission on different planes is significant. The Chairman is a former IAS officer. The members' posts are political sinecures.

The State Committee of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Aikyavedi (united front), in a statement issued in Thiruvananthapuram, demanded the Dr. Sivanandan's removal from the chairmanship of the Commission. It alleged that he had visited the houses of murder case accused. It further accused him of scolding police officers in the presence of criminals.

The major media institutions did not cover the Commission’s visit to Varkala, although they had prior knowledge about it. That, however, did not inhibit them from playing up the statements critical of the Commission’s visit. There was nothing to indicate that they had sought the Commission’s response to the allegations.

Incidentally, Malayala Manorama and Mathrubhumi which have consistently ignored the police’s month-long Dalit hunt, found time to pursue the appearance of mysterious white drawings at the site of Sivaprasad’s cremation. The latest police theory is that it is the work of a person of unsound mind.

The statements against the Commission’s visit and the personal attack on the Chairman reveal the convergence of various vested interests in Varkala. The Municipal Chairman belongs to the CPI-M. The SC ST Aikyavedi is an outfit of the Hindutva camp. Their statements bear out their common interest in protecting the police which has let loose a reign of terror in the Dalit colonies.

Dr. P. K.Sivanandan, who is a trained engineer, holds a Master’s degree from the University of Sussex, M. Phil from the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Ph.D. from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. Political riff-raff may be forgiven for not being able to appreciate his credentials.

Monday, 5 October 2009

The Costs of Becoming a Journalist

Colleague Rahul Gadekar forwarded this report to me. Shouldn’t it trigger similar studies in India and other countries? Do please read the comments to the original post,

A report by the British Cabinet Office released this summer offers stark evidence of the disappearance of the working class from the journalism profession, and the study offers some relevant observations for American media as well.
The report, Unleashing Aspirations, notes, among other things, that journalists born since 1970 predominantly come from middle class to upper middle class backgrounds. And Journalism ranks third in the list of the most socially exclusive professions, just behind doctors and lawyers.
The study finds that:
Between the 1958 and the 1970 birth cohorts, the biggest decline in social mobility occurred in the professions of journalism and accountancy. For example, journalists and broadcasters born in 1958 typically grew up in families with an income of around 5.5% above that of the average family; but this rose to 42.4% for the generation of journalists and broadcasters born in 1970.
The National Union of Journalists told the panel compiling the report that a 2002 Journalism Training Forum poll showed that fewer than 10 per cent of new journalists came from a working-class background and only three per cent came from homes headed by semi-skilled or unskilled workers.
One of the many troubling findings of the report, and the one most readily applicable to the profession here in the US, is that a prerequisite for entrance into a career in journalism is at least one internship experience, and that many, if not most, are unpaid. A cursory glance at available internships here in the US reveals that of 50 intern opportunities listed on, only 15 offer pay. Of the 50 internships posted, another 15 offer no pay but college credit, which at many universities, ours included, means that doing an internship actually costs a student tuition money. Here at YSU, students can earn six hours maximum for internships, but at many universities, 12 to 16 are allowed, paving the way for students to spend several thousand dollars (at least) to get an entire academic semester of work experience.
If the student can afford this luxury and the cost of living in the city in which he or she interns, s/he in theory gains the passkey to an entry-level position somewhere upon graduation. Of course, many of the most prestigious internships are located in the media hubs of New York and Washington D.C. where the costs of living are beyond the reach of a student from an average, let alone below average wage earning household.
Of the 15 internships listed that offer pay, the average salary is just under $250 per week for an average of 35 hours, before taxes. If a student is working to pay his or her tuition and rent and also, in many cases, supporting a family while going to school, even the paid internship is an impossibility.
This means, of course, that only students who can afford to work for free for several months are gaining the credentials to access their chosen profession.
The broader implications of this exclusion from the journalism profession are obvious and have been documented by ourselves and others—fewer opportunities for working- class students to enter the profession equals fewer journalists attuned to the complex issues facing the working class and fewer stories about the issues facing working-class people.
Of course, the best-case scenario to remedy this inequity would be if news organizations paid living wages to interns, but in the current media market, one in which many outlets are struggling to survive, this seems unlikely.
And, if the current enrollment trends in journalism programs continue, there will be ample supply of candidates ready to pay to work or work for no pay. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that despite the dismal outlook for jobs upon graduation, more and more students are choosing journalism majors, increasing the competition for scarce jobs and furthering the entrenchment of unpaid internships as a means to gain a leg up on the competition.
The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson even suggests that while the current practice is clearly exclusionary, “It’s not the responsibility or the interest of the businesses like magazines and non-profits who operate on slim budgets and narrow margins to design an internship that can accommodate even the least fortunate.” Rather Thompson argues that colleges should instead expand their acceptance of accredited internships or provide financing.
Some schools, like Dartmouth College, have done just that by providing financing for students to complete internships. The college has grants available for students to take on unpaid internships, and offers additional funds for financial aid recipients based on need.
But for working-class students at colleges and universities that lack the deep pockets of Dartmouth the choice still most often comes down to an unpaid internship that will drive them deeper into debt or a job that allows them to pay another year’s expenses– not much of a choice.
The consequences of this increasing social exclusivity of the profession are dire, and more complex than a matter of equal class representation within the ranks of professional journalists for the sake of equality or diversity.
If journalists increasingly come from a more privileged social class or segment of society, even the best of them will likely not question the master narratives that have victimized the working class for decades: maximum profit takes precedence over fair and equitable treatment, what’s good for business is always good for America, and so on.
The end result will be more stories that fail to question these fundamental assumptions, stories that inevitably reduce the worker to a trite anecdotal device, a narrative stepping stone to “really important” people and issues.