Paid news undermines democracy. Yet, as a sting operation goes public, why aren’t we more concerned?
You didn’t need a survey to predict the reactions. As TV channel News Express broadcast a sting operation that showed as many as 11 polling agencies willing to tweak results for a price, the reactions by political parties played out to a script.
The Congress, which most surveys predict will be ousted in this year’s elections, reiterated its demand for a ban on polls. AAP wants regulation and transparency rather than a ban. And the BJP, at the top of poll predictions, raises the point: If you ban polls today, someone will want to ban political analysis and commentary tomorrow. Where does it stop?
Opinion polls have been under scrutiny since 1998 when the Election Commission (EC) first sought to issue guidelines for more transparency and regulation. Since then, polling agencies have only proliferated.
The larger issue of paid news has been of concern since the 2009 election. A Press Council of India report detailed how packages and rate cards were structured by some media organisations to ensure favourable coverage of candidates. This was not about individually corrupt journalists but an entire organisation colluding to distort and suppress the truth (access the report at: http://tinyurl.com/kh4m3nj).
Although the report was finally placed on the Press Council website in 2011, it has scarcely made headlines or set off alarms.
But the EC managed to make some headway with opinion polls when it banned their publication and broadcast 48 hours prior to an election. Even so, when in November last year it wrote to the government asking for polls to be suspended once the elections had been notified, 14 out of 15 political parties agreed. But despite this apparent political eagerness, no laws were brought in. On the ground, nothing changed.
At the very best, an opinion poll can only indicate a trend. The more important question: Do they influence voters? Certainly they can nudge undecided voters to look more favourably towards perceived victors. In an electoral system that follows the first-past-the-post system, a majority of even one vote plays a decisive role.
Paid news and manipulated opinion polls are unethical at any time — and let it be clarified that not every media house or every polling agency is complicit. But during elections they become particularly insidious. Paid news, says Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, one of the authors of the Press Council report, makes it impossible for “consumers to distinguish the difference between content that has been paid for and that which has been subject to the ordinary rigours of an independent journalistic process.” Paid news, he adds, “undermines the essence of a democratic process”.
Paid news is not new. Worries about opinion polls are not new. And yet there seems to be no will to do anything about either. Why haven’t media houses, particularly those with credibility, moved to expose the practice of paid news? And why is there no legislation despite the EC’s concerns?
The sting operation should be a starting point for a debate on transparency in media. If you’re going to run a poll, I have the right to know your sample size and methodology. Sorting out the problem requires will, not genius, and certainly not a ban. Polling agencies could come under a regulatory body, with stiff penalties including a blacklist and possible criminal charges against those who transgress.
Paid news is a somewhat trickier problem to tackle since payments are clandestine and hard to prove. But certainly a beginning would be an amendment to the Representation of the People Act to declare payment for news during election time to be an electoral malpractice. Yet, within the media and the political class — both benefit from paid news — there is great opacity, a law of omerta that prevents naming and shaming. There is no consensus on how best to tackle this problem. Self-regulation hasn’t worked, but nobody wants to see greater government control either.
Elections 2014 could well be the dirtiest, toughest election ever fought. At stake is not just the credibility of political parties but the credibility of the media. For now, nobody is very optimistic.
Twitter:@namitabhandare | The views expressed by the author are personal