"Opinion governs the world, and in the end the philosophers govern men's opinion" - Voltaire
The French Revolution of 1789 was the outcome of numerous politico-socio-economic factors. However, "no revolution occurs in an intellectual vacuum". The ideological and literary impact of the "Men of Letters" like Rousseau, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot etc was profound as they played a huge role in shaping the mindset of the general populace. Pamphlets, manuscripts, debates and discussions in the intellectual circles led to the development of a French society which was educated about the concepts of "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite".
Then French society was divided into three estates - the Church, the nobility and the commoners. Each estate had a very distinct social role and a certain level of power. Acknowledging the increasing role of editors, writers, literary men and newspapers in the middle of the 19th century, people began referring to the "press" as the fourth estate. The coinage of the term is credited to Edmund Burke, who used it while discussing the French Revolution. However, Thomas Carlyle, a 19th century author, popularized it.
In the current societal set up, the fourth estate or the public press encompasses journalists, photographers, TV and radio broadcasters. We generally agree that the press has immense political and social power, as they shape societies while imparting news. For India, the press has played a very important role in its independence movement as well as in the period of Emergency. It continues to be acclaimed as the fourth important pillar after judiciary, parliament and the bureaucracy.
Misuse the news:
Because of the importance of journalism in society, most members of the fourth estate abide by certain professional ethics and are careful as a whole to protect the integrity of the press. But as we say, that "corruption" is the biggest challenge to our democracy and there is no sector which is free from the tentacles of this menace - not even the fourth estate.
Of late, after the 15th Lok Sabha elections, the phenomenon of "paid news" is being widely discussed. Simplistically speaking, "paid news" or "surrogate advertisements" is the practice of giving money to media companies by political parties for favourable coverage i.e. publishing any form of advertisements which masquerade as news. Much of this happens due to the unholy nexus between the media houses and political parties.
The system of "paid news" is seen by some critics as one of the greatest threats to media ethics and democracy in India. It goes beyond the corruption of individual journalists/media companies and has become highly organised. It is both sad and shocking, as this culture undermines the basic precepts of journalism which is expected to play a constructive role in the society.
During the course of elections last year, many politicians entered into a "package deal" with newspapers to print negative stories about rivals. Even two conflicting news items appeared on the same page because the paper would have reached an understanding both with a politician as well as his rival. Additionally, there were posts in competing newspapers which portrayed both rival candidates as winning - thus, clearly showing that how "sale-able" editorial space has become.
The size of the “paid news” market is estimated to be somewhere between Rs 300 crore and Rs 1,000 crore. Important thing is that, most of these operations are clandestine and are difficult to prove as they are not documented per se. Additionally, this process encourages the circulation of black money as this amount is not quoted in election expenditure - thus, raising legal and ethical questions.
In the process of maximising profits, the media companies attenuate the independence of press. Political parties too by colluding with them become equal partners in this pernicious practice. In the run-up to elections, candidates with less funding are left behind whereas the ones with strong financial backing indulge in means to promote positive publicity for self and negative coverage for their rivals - thus, openly flouting the process of elections and the spirit of democracy.
Umpteen number of cases were reported last year where electoral candidates were found to have spent extravagant amounts, disproportionate to their allowable limits, on publicity. In fact, some of them even agreed that they willfully "paid" for "news" to counter the negative publicity manouvered by their opponents. This includes advertisements that were published as "news" even within 24 hours prior to elections - a clear violation of directives of the Election Commission and its model code of conduct.
Post Lok Sabha elections, several groups like Editors Guild of India, Indian Women's Press Corps, Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists and South Asia Free Media Association [ India chapter ] etc have raised their voice against this syndrome. Some political parties and activists have also become strong votaries of amendments to the Representation of the People Act,1951 [ RPA ] to declare such news as an electoral malpractice.
Election Commission of India [ ECI ] views the practice of paid news as an attempt to bypass Sections 77 and 123 (6) of the RPA which prescribes accounting and ceiling of election expenses. To check the growth of paid news in print and electronic media, ECI has issued directives to state chief electoral officers [ CEO's ] to form a committee in each district so as to ensure a vigil during elections. The committee will scan newspapers and TV to come up with cases of inflated coverage, voters misguidance or unhealthy electoral operations.
A breakthrough in mitigation of "surrogate advertisements" can be achieved if RPA, 1951 is amended by Parliament to make the practice of paying for news coverage in newspapers and television channels an “electoral malpractice” or an act of corruption and made a punishable offence.
Steps can be taken to ensure the strict enforcement of section 127A of RPA which says that it is mandatory for the publisher of an election advertisement, pamphlet etc to print the name and address of the publisher as well as printer - failure attracts punishment or fine.
A ECI hotline can be set up which would welcome calls on instances of paid news. This should be followed by a firm and time bound action from the police and the judiciary. Directives of Press Council of India should also be religiously followed. These include compulsory disclosure of stakes of all candidates/political parties in newspapers/television channels on which their news is broadcast. Additionally, news can be clearly demarcated from advertisements by printing disclaimers or changing fonts.
The onus of holding free and fair elections in the country lies with the ECI. However, it has limitations due to which it can act with authority only during the elections. Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi has said that several political parties have told the Commission about paid news but no one has lodged a formal complaint. Let’s not forget that the ECI functions under the aegis of Article 324 of our constitution and is also bound by "laws of the land". It does have a major role to play in tackling this undemocratic and unethical practice but self-regulation by media, political parties and individual players is also required.
Thomas Carlyle said that writing gives people “a tongue which others will listen to”.
When the audience is the whole society, the "tongue" has an additional responsibility of maintaining an air of neutrality so that the people can judge facts for themselves. When news becomes biased, we cease to be a "democratic" nation in the true sense.
Much harm has been done to the credibility of the fourth estate owing to such "biasness". Only when an affirmative and sincere action is initiated and continued, the process of reversal can begin.
You have to poke Indira Mukherjee at email@example.com to know if she admires Indira Gandhi