By Shuchi Bansal
New Delhi, Dec 15, 2009: The Press Council of India (PCI), in a Tuesday meeting condemned the phenomenon of newspapers passing off advertisements or so-called paid-for content (or “paid news”) as news.
“The Press Council strongly objects to the paid news phenomenon. We will come up with recommendations which will be sent to the government for being implemented as guidelines,” said a PCI member who did not want to be identified. A sub-committee of PCI met in Delhi to take up a complaint by a journalists union from Andhra Pradesh alleging that owners and editors of dailies in the state accepted money from political parties and individual candidates for coverage during the elections.
The “paid news” controversy has gathered momentum after The Hindu raised the issue in a story on Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan’s campaign during the recently concluded elections in the state. According to The Hindu, Chavan spent a little over Rs11,000 on paid advertising but he received coverage worth much more in newspapers such as Maharashtra Times and Lokmat through paid ads masquarading as newspaper reports.
A Mint story dated 2 December showed the volume of advertising in dailies during the Maharashtra polls had declined by around one-fifth compared with 2004, when elections were last held in the state.
PCI was set up to preserve the freedom of the Press and to maintain and improve the standards of newspapers and news agencies in India. The only power the body has is to inquire into complaints against newspapers and journalists if it has “reasons to believe that a newspaper or news agency has offended against the standards of journalistic ethics or public taste or that an editor or working journalist has committed any professional misconduct”. After giving the erring party a hearing, the council may “…warn, admonish or censure the newspaper, the news agency, the editor or the journalist or disapprove the conduct of the editor or the journalist, as the case may be.”
It can ask the newspaper to publish the particulars relating to an inquiry against it, but cannot levy a penalty or pass any other sort of judgement. The PCI member mentioned in the first instance said that since the body did have real powers to implement guidelines for stopping the practice of paid news, it would leave it to the government to do the needful.