New Delhi’s media circles have agog all this week with news of a “sting” operation on The Times of India by The Sunday Times of London.
Have the first shots been fired in a war between News Corp and Bennett, Coleman & Co Ltd?
Below is the full text of the article, carried without the permission of the publishers. And in the dock is not just ToI but Hindi heavyweights like Dainik Bhaskar, Dainik Jagran and Aaj, the first two of whom are listed on the stock exchanges.
India’s media demand cash to run favourable news
By Nicola Smith/ Delhi
The Indian government has condemned a rise in so-called “paid news”, in which newspapers and television channels accept money to run favourable articles about politicians, companies and celebrities.
The move by Ambika Soni, the broadcasting minister, follows a damaging report commissioned by the Press Council of India, which revealed that the practise of playing for positive coverage in the Indian media was widespread.
Soni, who proposed a new body to regulate broadcasting, said the phenomenon was undermining the credibility of new reports. “The paid news issue does not crop up during the elections but at other times as well,” she said.
The Press Council report criticised newspapers and broadcasters that demand money from politicians to run sympathetic stories about them. It said some papers misrepresent paid-for advertising as news and enter “private treaties” with companies that guarantee favourable coverage in exchange for free shares.
The report quoted a long list of politicians who disclosed that newspaper had asked them to pay large sums to write about their campaigns during state elections in 2009.
Harmohan Dhawan, a former aviation minister, was told that if he wanted coverage, he would have to pay two local newspapers, Dainik Jagran and Dainik Bhaskar, up to one million rupees (£13,600) each.
“Representatives of the print medium came to me and asked for money. They said their newspapers (would) give coverage if I paid them money. They offered a ‘package’ to me and in one such package I was told editorials would be written in my favour,” he said.
The story was echoed by Santosh Singh, a candidate for the ruling Congress party in Uttar Pradesh, who said he had been offered packages costing up to one million rupees by the Dainik Jagran and Aaj newspapers.
“The representatives of these newspapers who me said they were merely following orders given to them by their managements,” he said.
The Press Council report also highlighted the role of Medianet, a company created Bennett, Coleman & Co Ltd, which publishes The Times of India, The Economic Times and a range of other leading titles.
Medianet, for a price, openly offers to send journalists to cover launches or personality-related events, or arranges “news stories” based on a particular product to appear in the newspaper supplements.
A Sunday Times reporter telephoned Medianet last week posing as the public relations agent of a company wanting coverage for a party at Emporio, an exclusive shopping mall in Delhi.
Chandru Sambasivan, the head of Medianet’s Delhi office, said space could be bought in the Delhi Times supplement, the Times‘ society pages, for £27 a centimetre on the front page, of £16 inside.
He said it could “definitely” be dressed up as a genuine news story, as along it met a “celebrity quotient”. Celebrities were available to attend the event at an extra cost, he said.
“Once you are able to share it (the launch product) with us, we could always build a story around it and make an interesting article for the readers,” he said. “Basically, if you are looking at a launch, then it can go on ‘launch pad’, on page 3 of Delhi Times.”
Sambasivan confirmed that the latest launch pad feature, in which Katrina Kaif, the Bollywood star, promoted Uni-ball pens, had been paid for by a marketing company. The article, which has no writer’s name attached, does not make clear that it was sponsored.
In it, Kaif, 26, gushed: “I’m excited about being the face of a youthful, high-quality, international brand, which I have personally grown up with in the UK; and I particularly love Uni-Jetstream, which I think is the smoothest pen in the world.”
Ravi Dhariwal, the chief executive of The Times of India, said yesterday: “There is no paid in news in any of our main papers and titles. We do have advertising and promotional supplements which sometimes carry paid features.”
The practice of “paid news” has been widely criticised.
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, one of the authors of Press Council report, said adverts posing as new were “cheating” readers.