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One morning in 2014, Deepika Saran,1 a young employee at an e-commerce startup in Mumbai, got a call from The Times Group, India’s largest mass media company.
“We’re interested in featuring your company in a supplemental spread on new startups in the city,” the representative said.
Saran was thrilled; the company was new, and the exposure would be great for them. The conversation went on, with the discussion of the logistics of how they would interview her at the office. At the end of the conversation came the curveball from The Times Group: “Great. So, that’ll be about 12.5 lakh rupees.”2
Shocked, Saran asked why and then muttered a follow-up question about why such an exorbitant price tag should be placed on such a small feature in a middle page of a supplement in the paper. The answer came nonchalantly, “If you’d like a larger feature, you can pay more.”
The Indian Media Landscape
India, in addition to being the largest democracy in the world today, is also the world’s fastest growing newspaper market. It is regularly cited in global media circles as a happy anomaly in the currently gloomy landscape of print journalism. This is for a few reasons: a fast-growing, English-speaking population, the low cost of production and delivery of newsprint, and the slow Internet news penetration.3 These factors have contributed to a thriving culture of reading news in print at a time when this is fading elsewhere.
This growth, however, has often come at the price of ethical standards, fostering a corrupt and flawed system of reportage where money is easily exchanged for coverage— “paid news,” as it is known in the local lingo.4 India was ranked #140 in the world in press freedom in 2014 by Reporters Without Borders,5 a shocking statistic for any democracy, let alone the largest one, which prides itself on its vibrant and booming press.
News, A Commodity
The Indian economic landscape is dominated by family businesses. Large family-owned multiconglomerates deal in everything from petrochemicals and telecommunications to steel and even hotels. They also deal in news.
News is then treated like any other household commodity that the family sells. Samir Jain, proprietor of The Times of India, owned by The Times Group, has in the past likened a newspaper to a bar of soap, an analogy that seems to have guided business decisions governing the newspaper industry since the liberalization of the Indian economy two decades ago.6 Jain family endowments enabled The Times of India to be priced extremely cheaply—a weekday issue of The Times costs less than Rs. 5 (about 8 US cents). In making virtually no money from subscriptions, as much as 90 percent of the newspaper’s revenue comes from advertising.
The Jains were the first in the world of Indian journalism to completely blur the lines between news and advertising. Vinod Jain, Samir’s brother and coproprietor at the The Times of India, has said that they are in the advertising business, not the news busi- ness. “Earlier, the newspapers were written more for the intellectual élites,” he said to Ken Auletta of The New Yorker in 2012.7
“It was too serious at some point. It was not relevant to our readers.” The Jains then pioneered a “dumbing down” of content, making investigative stories rare and turning their news arm into a timid bulletin of the previous day’s events.8
They began to expand their advertising efforts in many ways. First, they increased the sheer volume of ads that appear in and with the paper. They even started selling their entire front page in ads. Second, they started “Page 3”—a page in the newspaper devoted entirely to the social lives of India’s glitterati—which would be entirely paid for by PR. And thirdly, they instituted a policy whereby they often omit the name of a company, a sports team, or another entity in a news story, referring to it in ambiguous terms, un- less it is paid to appear. They do not believe in free publicity.
Pure advertorial content is supposed to be disclosed in the paper, though Indian media houses regularly flout this. It is often unclear what has been paid for and what is authentic. The Press Council of India (an essentially defunct supervising body for the Indian press) has commented on the dangerous prevalence of paid news, especially at election time.9 As Ravi Dhariwal, CEO of The Times Group, said in an interview with Outlook Magazine, “Even if you make an advertisement and put a circle around it, how is that important? Why is it important that it should be made clear to the reader? Are we writing something that is wrong? This kind of thing is only important to media persons.”10
In 2005, the Jains instituted an innovation they called “private treaties.” Under this program, a newspaper offers a deal to companies, accepts a stake in the company, and in return provides media coverage through advertisements, news, reports, and editorials.11 The Times Group currently has stake in over 350 companies; this accounts for 15 percent of its advertising revenue.12 Other media houses in India, such as HT Media and various television news networks, have followed suit, learning from the Jains how forays into advertising and private treaties can bring in significant cash flow.
Paid news is the frightening consequence of this murky network between business, politics, and top news management. Media houses insist that coverage is not for sale, but increasingly more instances have come to the fore that indicate otherwise. Several “sting operations” have implicated top businessmen, politicians, and journalists in the country.13 Recently, The Daily Show even managed to successfully plant an entirely fake and bizarre story in a Delhi newspaper with the help of some cash.14 As P. Sainath, an Indian journalist and commentator, articulated in a testifying statement to the Standing Committee on Information and Technology, “It is not about corruption of individual rogue journalists. But . . . complex, highly structured trade involving the media, corporations and . . . the political class.”15 India seems to lack an agreed-upon philosophical framework for media or a sense of duty within media to try to rid itself of external influence. There is no agreed upon definition of the role of a journalist and the conduct of freedom of speech. The public existence of private treaties perturbs very few, and without these agreed-upon frameworks, the Indian citizenry largely believes it receives information from a vibrant and courageous media industry.
In the West, the sales and editorial sides of newspapers are divided, and while this divide is no iron curtain, there is a general sense that close interplays between them make for conflict of interest and, at the very least, require disclosure. In India, these interplays are not only the norm but also a pioneering business practice that has allowed the journalism industry to stay afloat. The dubious practice of selling an entire front page ad to a single entity while covering the same entity in the pages that follow is hardly questioned. Editorial independence is not part of the conversation on how best to run a media business. Indian media barons have broken down the walls between newsrooms and sales departments to an unprecedented degree.
Media, Business, Government: A Murky Nexus
One must ask oneself, then, if money is exchanged so freely over reportage on issues for which the stakes are relatively low, what happens when the stakes are high? Namely, what happens at election time when this country of over a billion people votes and relies on the media for accurate information?
Newspapers in India have tiptoed around powerful and deep-pocketed figures in politics and business, succumbing to pressure to change headlines and withhold inconvenient stories. A report by the Press Council of India stated that paid news had “acquired serious dimensions,” with references to several instances of paid coverage during the 2009 general election in India.16 The most recent 2014 election saw an unprecedented $100 million plus being spent on campaigning and advertising.17 The result is not only skewed reportage available to the highest bidder but also proprietors who are willing to self-censor to favor deep-pocketed and influential politicians.
Modi and Media
Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), initially a controversial candidate for Indian Prime Minister due to the human rights violations that took place under his watch in 2002 in his home state of Gujarat, was elected to power in a landslide election in 2014.
During the pre-election period, tolerating dissent had never been one of Modi’s strong points, something his critics had vocalized often. He famously walked out of interviews and canceled appearances at the last minute because he did not know what ques- tions were to be asked. His love for content control has deeper roots. In 2009, Modi launched a well-known, highly effective PR campaign that successfully transformed his image over the years from massacre minister into development guru. Modi hired APCO Worldwide—an image-building PR firm—for approximately $25,000 a month. APCO emphasized Modi’s track record of growth in his state of Gujarat and forged favorable al- liances worldwide, especially in the business community.
The combination of Modi—a strong-man, compared often to the likes of Erdogan and Putin—and a pliable media industry willing to silence dissent in return for a generous fee made for a uniquely dangerous threat to democracy.
Modi stopped paying APCO Worldwide for its services early in 2013. As a senior leader from Modi’s party confided to Open magazine in 2013, “Modi does not need either the party or PR agencies; television news media is doing the job for us.”18
Corporate overlords of Indian media outlets tend to be pro-Modi business magnates. Modi offered the promise of a business-friendly India, a future not marked by the previous party’s (the Indian National Congress) exhausting inefficiencies. The crumbling of journalists’ unions coinciding with the opening of the Indian economy two decades ago left journalists more susceptible than ever to the whims of proprietors. As Jug Suraiya, a well-known satirical columnist for The Times of India, put it in an inter- view in 2011, “Writing is a Grade C activity, management is a Grade B activity, and the creation of managerial policy is the Grade A activity.”19
The Caravan magazine devoted its December 2013 cover story to how Network18, a leading media conglomerate, shifted its coverage to the right during the campaign months, coinciding with the Ambani family of Reliance Industries taking majority financial control of Network18.20 A study conducted by the Center for Media Studies, an independent think tank in Delhi, showed that CNN-IBN gave Modi four times more on-air coverage on average than it gave to opposition leader Rahul Gandhi—a starker difference than at any of the other four channels surveyed.21 Top Network18 journalists even took to Twitter to speak out about the pressure they faced within the organization to provide a certain angle in their news.
Sagarika Ghose and her husband Rajdeep Sardesai, the then editor-in-chief at Network18, both resigned from the company shortly after the Reliance takeover. In his resignation letter, Sardesai said, “Editorial independence and integrity have been articles of faith in 26 years in journalism and maybe I am too old now to change.”22
Open magazine, known for its trailblazing exposés of corruption within politics and media, quoted several instances of journalists there receiving instructions from the top on Modi-related coverage.23 Reporters were ordered to maximize footage of Modi rallies and to minimize anti-Modi cover- age. Sadly for Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor at Open, this story was one of the last articles he oversaw at the magazine. He was fired soon after, in November 2013, without explanation, though Manu Joseph, Open’s editor-in-chief, later revealed that the magazine’s proprietor had said that Bal was “making too many enemies . . . political enemies.”24
Bal was not the only one. Siddharth Varadarajan, a vocal critic of both the BJP and the Congress, was appointed editor-in-chief of The Hindu, a 135-year-old, family-owned newspaper, in 2011. Less than two years into his tenure, he was removed from his position by the board, who said that they were concerned with Varadarajan’s “underplaying of Narendra Modi.”25 A frustrated Varadarajan also took to Twitter to lambast media owners for self-censorship.
The trail of media casualties extended beyond the national level; this pattern was documented only by foreign news outlets, or select online Indian ones such as Scroll. in.26 Thiru Veerapandian, a regional anchor for Sun TV, lost his television show in 2013 merely for telling voters that they should think before they vote for Modi.27 Within Modi’s own state of Gujarat, he has overseen an even more brazen approach to media suppression, with a record of journalists being unfairly charged for sedition28 and of films that spoke of the 2002 Gujarat riots—the main stain on his human rights record—being censored.29
On the sunny April 2014 morning in Mumbai when the city went to the polls, the morning newspapers all had cover page ads for Narendra Modi, the BJP, and its local state affiliate in Mumbai, the Shiv Sena. This is the equivalent of The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Wall Street Journal all arriving at the door with front page ads for the Republican party on election morning in the United States.
The Road Ahead
Indian media is currently in a state of pliable crisis, susceptible to the external influences of various branches of government and business. This is a grave policy issue. Media guards democracy; paid news and pliable journalism put public opinion at the mercy of money and advertisers. To be clear, Modi has not had this effect directly on the media—it was subpar in its ethical standards long before Modi entered the scene, and paid news at election time was reported to be a grave problem even in the election of 2009. It is the combination of a leader with little tolerance for dissent and a self-censoring journalism industry that make the current scenario uniquely worrying.
In an interview with Reuters post election, Sardesai said about Modi, “He has contempt for the media, but he knows that he can’t do without the media. So, it’s a peculiar love-hate relationship. Now, he doesn’t give interviews. He used to. Now, he relies on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, which is a single-way communication where he wouldn’t have to face questions.”30 It remains to be seen where this precarious Modi-media relationship will go in the future, though optimists say that the attention drawn to this issue has emboldened media outlets across the country post election.
The establishment of media as an independent, critical, analytical Fourth Estate for any democracy is crucial. It is time in India for introspection for owning up to mistakes, for raising ethical standards, and for redefining what journalism’s responsibility is. It is also time to rethink the current economics of the news business—the universal problem of making independent journalism financially sustainable. There are several potential steps that can be taken to ameliorate the situation as it currently stands.
One is from a regulatory standpoint: reinvigorating and redefining the Press Council’s role and also sparking more conversation through media watch organizations (The Hoot is an example of a successful such website, as is Newslaundry though they are yet to gain much traction). These regulatory institutions can work toward stopping systems of private treaties or at least enforcing news outlets to disclose fully and publicly when reportage does involve companies that sign on to the treaties. Also, ensuring that journalists know what their legal protections are will make it more difficult for them to be fired by self-censoring media proprietors.
Finding alternative funding models, currently being taken on by entrepreneurs and new media outlets, will be a key part of the solution. India is only just moving into the digital age, with tremendous potential in the mobile and smartphone spaces. These new mediums could be a lifeline in shaping changes to delivery of accurate information. If enough people stand behind journalism’s cause and push for change, the industry will have the chance to truly serve the public as the gatekeeper of Indian democracy.
Uzra Khan is a Master in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is a Shorenstein Center scholar for media, politics, and public policy and Editor-in-Chief of the Kennedy School Review. A graduate of Yale University and Yale’s Journalism Initiative, she worked in journalism before graduate school in both India and the United States—most recently at Reuters in New York—and then conducted freelance research and reporting out of Mumbai during the course of the 2014 Indian election.
1. Name changed to protect identity; conversation as recounted by source.
2. 1,250,000 rupees, or close to $20,000.
3. “Where Print Makes Profit,” The Economist, 23 September 2010; Ken Auletta, “Citizens Jain: Why India’s Newspaper Industry Is Thriving,” The New Yorker, 8 October 2012.
4. “Paid News,” Election Commission of India, January 2014, Powerpoint; Tom Wright, “India Media Buries Paid News Report,” The Wall Street Journal, 18 June 2013.
5. “World Press Freedom Index 2014,” Reporters Without Borders, 31 January 2014, 31.
6. Samanth Subramanian, “Supreme Being: How Samir Jain Created the Modern Indian Newspaper Industry,” The Caravan, 1 December 2012.
7. Auletta, “Citizens Jain.”
8. Subramanian, “Supreme Being.”
9. “Report on Paid News,” Press Council of India, 30 July 2010.
10. Anjali Puri, “Our Paper Isn’t for Our Editors. It’s for People,” Interview with Ravi Dhariwal, Outlook, 1 November 2010. Subramanian, “Supreme Being.”
11. Subramanian, “Supreme Being.”
12. Auletta, “Citizens Jain.”
13. Anuradha Sharma, “In Need of a Leveson? Journalism in India in Times of Paid News and ‘Private Treaties’,” Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 2013.
14. Jason Jones, “India Jones and the Election of Doom–Media Bias,” The Daily Show, 21 May 2014.
15. Sharma, “In Need of a Leveson?” 8.
16. “Report on Paid News,” 1.
17. Devjyot Ghoshal and Manu Balachandran, “It Cost Narendra Modi $100 Million to Win the Indian Election—Here’s How He Spent It,” Quartz, 16 January 2015.
18. Sandeep Bhushan, “Modi, Media, and Money,” Open, 16 November 2013.
19. Jug Suraiya, Interview with author, Yale Journalism Initiative, 2011.
20. Rahul Bhatia, “The Network Effect: Reliance and Right-Wing Politics Gain a Foothold in Raghav Bahl’s Media Empire,” The Caravan, 1 December 2013.
21. S. Rukmini, “Modi Got Most Primetime Coverage: Study,” The Hindu, 8 May 2014.
22. Vikas Pandey, “Questions Asked About Media Freedom in India,” BBC, 7 August 2014.
23. Bhushan, “Modi, Media, and Money.”
24. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, “Bal, Open, and the Perils of Political Journalism,” The Hoot, 15 November, 2013.
25. Sevanti Ninan, “The Hindu Returns to the Family Fold,” The Hoot, 23 October 2013.
26. Shivam Vij, “Why CNN-IBN’s Sagarika Ghose May No Longer Criticise Modi,” Scroll.in, 9 February 2014.
27. Anuradha Raman, “Clogging the Ink,” Outlook, 3 February 2014.
28. Jatin Desai and Sushovan Dhar, “Dictatorial Behavior of the Modi Government,” Outlook, 7 September 2006.
29. Monica Chadha, “Gujarat Riots Film Banned,” BBC News, 13 March 2003.
30. Mayank Bhardwaj, “Interview: Rajdeep Sardesai on Modi, the Gandhis, and Politics in India,” Reuters, 11 November 2014.