Report No. 255
Paid News and Political Advertising
7.1. Paid news, both generally and during election campaigns, is a widespread and pervasive phenomenon today. The scale of the problem is demonstrated by the fact that, according to the ECI, in the assembly elections held in the period 2011-2013 alone, there have been 1987 cases where a notice for paid news has been issued to the candidates and 1727 cases where the practice of paid news has been confirmed.229
229. Election Commission of India, Handbook for Media, General Election to the 16th Lok Sabha, 2014, para 3.5,
7.2. The phenomena of paid news and its cognate, political advertising being presented as news, cannot be seen in isolation. They are integral to the ways in which the news industry, both print and electronic, has developed over last few decades. There has been a significant shift in the way media business is carried out. Media is growingly seen as a revenue generation model by almost all leading media houses. Traditionally, the two pillars of media, namely advertisements and editorial content, have been handled separately.
The sustenance of any media house was dependent on the credibility of information circulated through news. Revenue driven news or editorial content was traditionally seen as damaging credibility of media houses. Therefore, though revenue generation through advertisements remained important, it certainly was not the priority of media houses. However, in recent times, the compulsions of revenue generation to run the newspapers and other media, have led to the growing importance of advertisements in the running of media houses.230
230. Anuradha Sharma, India Needs its Own Leveson? Journalism in India during the time of paid news and private treaties, Reuters Institute Fellowship Paper (2013)
7.3. Another important development has been the internal change in the relation between advertisements and editorial wings of media. Mr. P. Sainath (former Rural Affairs Editor, The Hindu) suggests that the spread of the phenomenon of paid news can be attributed to the change in the employment model of journalists.231 This new model of employment applied by several media conglomerates curtailed the collective bargaining position of journalists.
This led to the concentration of power in the management wing of media houses and significantly curtailed the independence of journalists.232 Further, it also weakened the editorial wing of the media as journalists were now controlled by management instead of editors.233 Therefore, the needs of commercialisation and the requirement of revenue bolstered the advertisement/management wing of media houses over the editorial wing.234 With managers becoming more influential in the selection and presentation of news, the importance of news started getting determined by the revenues that would be generated.235
231. Submissions made by Rural Affairs Editor, The Hindu (P. Sainath) to the Standing Committee
232. Submissions made by President, Indian Journalists Union (Mr. S.B. Sinha) to the standing Committee
233. APUWJ submissions to the Press Council of India (2010)
234. Speech by Justice G.N. Ray, 'The Changing Face of India'
235. Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Issues Related To Paid News, 47th Report of Standing Committee on Information Technology, Fifteenth Lok Sabha, (2012-2013), at 17
7.4. It must also be noted that whil.- as the above arguments sugges.- paid news is widespread through the Indian media, it is by no means suggested that every newspaper or media entity is involved in the dissemination of paid news. In fact, journalists and newspapers have themselves, at times, strongly criticised the practice of paid news.
However it is a fact that news driven by consideration, or advertisements thinly disguised in the form of news, have grown exponentially over last few decades in the arena of electoral politics. This part looks at the issues of paid news and political advertising specifically in this context. It does not suggest systemic reforms for media regulation in general, as that issue is being examined separately by the Law Commission and will form part of a distinct and holistic report on the subject.
7.5. At a Consultation on Media Law, held by the Law Commission, which sought responses from media entities, journalists and Law School, there was a detailed examination of the issues. Respondents included the Press Council of India, the News Broadcasters Association, the Delhi Union of Journalists, Times Internet Limited, Mr. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, National Law School of India University, National University of Juridical Sciences, and so on.
Eleven Respondents out of fifteen suggested making paid news an offence under the Representation of the People Act. There were numerous suggestions pertaining to defining the offence, the nature of the offence, standards and burdens of proof, and so on. From the basis of wide consultations held by the Law Commission, it is clear that there is a general consensus, among the relevant stakeholders, in regulating the phenomenon of paid news.
7.6. In a speech during a public consultation organised by the Law Commission on the 27th and 28th of September, 2014, the CEC, Mr. V.S. Sampath, highlighted the problem of paid news. According to him, the problem had become particularly acute during the 2009 elections, when several prominent journalists approached the EC about paid news.
Mr. Sampath further noted that the present legal framework did not deem paid news to be an offence, and that therefore, it was inadequate to deal with the problem. Consequently, the only option before the EC was to treat paid news as part of undisclosed expenditures, which it was doing. Naturally, this was a round-about and unnecessary procedure, and ought to be changed.
7.7. Consequently, this Part is divided into seven section. First, it looks at the definitional aspects of paid news and political advertisements. Second, it describes the ways in which the practices of paid news and disguised political advertising are prevalent in electoral coverage by the print and electronic media. Third, it analyses the current legal regime regulating such practices including seminal judicial decisions.
Fourth, it considers recommendations made by previous committees and commissions on the subject of paid news. Fifth, it highlights the key constitutional issues surrounding regulation of paid news. Sixth, it describes the way paid news is being regulated in other jurisdictions. Finally, it suggests legal reform to gradually weed out the scourge of paid news from the electoral system.