By PAUL BECKETT
Ajay Goyal is a serious, independent candidate contesting for a Lok Sabha seat in Chandigarh. Never heard of him? Neither, probably, have a lot of people in Chandigarh because when it came to getting press coverage for his campaign he was faced with a simple message: If you want press, you have to pay.
So far, he says, he's been approached by about 10 people – some brokers and public relations managers acting on behalf of newspaper owners, some reporters and editors – with the message that he'll only get written about in the news pages for a fee. We're not talking advertising; we're talking news.
One broker offered three weeks of coverage in four newspapers for 10 lakh rupees ($20,000). A reporter and a photographer from a Chandigarh newspaper told him that for 1.5 lakh rupees ($3,000) for them and a further 3 lakh rupees ($6,000) for other reporters, they could guarantee coverage in up to five newspapers for two weeks.
"We would do good coverage for you," he says they told him. All of those who approached him either were from national Hindi language papers or regional papers, Mr. Goyal says.
“You want a front page photo for free? This is something people pay for.”
In one case, he went along to see what would happen: a press release he submitted full of falsehoods – claiming he had campaigned in places he had never been, for instance – ran verbatim. One thing he has never seen on his real campaign: a reporter there to cover the story.
"It's disappointing," Mr. Goyal says. "What good is literacy and education if people have no access to real news, investigation, skepticism or a questioning reporter."
At the nexus of corruption in India, the nation's newspapers usually play either vigilante cop exposing wrongdoing in the public interest (on a good day, at a few publications) or spineless patsy killing stories on the orders of powerful advertisers. Many papers also engage in practices that cross the ethical line between advertising and editorial in a way that is opaque, if not downright obscure, to readers.
But it is of another order of magnitude to see reporters, editors and newspaper owners holding the democratic process to ransom. A free (in every sense) press is an integral part of a vibrant democracy. A corrupt press is both symptom and perpetrator of a rotten democracy.
"I'm not saying all media is biased but there is a growing sense in people's minds that a lot of the media is biased," says Anil Bairwal, national coordinator of National Election Watch. "Some do it in a sublime manner and some do it openly."
So why are we surprised when the voter turnout is so low, despite the much-touted surge of political awareness among the young and post-Mumbai? It's all part and parcel of the public disgust with the political system and the pillars of the Establishment that support that system as well. For every newly-minted reform-minded, politically aware voter, there are probably hundreds of jaded citizens who just decide the heck with it.
How widespread is the practice of pay per say?
The best-known English-language dailies typically don't do it so blatantly, candidates and others involved in the elections say. Rather, those papers are more likely to hue closely to one major party or the other, making it tough for candidates who don't fit the papers' view of the world to be heard. But in the Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati media, to name a few, the practice is widespread, candidates say.
N. Gopalaswami, retired Chief Election Commissioner, says in an interview, "This is not something that can be ignored. It is not just a few apparent cases, it is much more than that."
He has heard of newspapers proferring a rate card - one price for positive coverage, another for not negative coverage. The commission heard complaints in both 2007 and 2008 about candidates being charged for coverage. Among them, the national Communist parties who don't have the deep coffers to spend on campaigns.
In Mumbai, a city appropriately geared to commerce, politicians are faced with multiple payment options. Consider these phrases from newspaper editors and brokers, which I culled from campaigners:
"You want a front page photo for free? This is something people pay for."
"If you want a picture in there or if you want a story, we have to be paid."
"We're going to publish the interview, but you need to buy 5,000 copies of our paper."
"1.2 lakhs ($2,400) for the next two weeks and I will take care of all that coverage."
—Paul Beckett is the WSJ's bureau chief in New Delhi
This appeared in the hallowed , well respected Wall Street Journal.... and made me hang my head in shame! Was I surprised?? Hell, no!! But to see it in cold print had me squirming. Exactly how the Indian press has been 'managed' , bought and thoroughly disgraced makes for hideous reading. Sadly, Paul has only touched the tip of the iceberg. Dig deeper and you will find the ugliest stories of corruption and compromise at the highest levels, from across the board - mighty television kingpins, newspaper barons, maamuli but influential journos ( not just the regional presswallas, but 'respected' names in the biz) everyone from top to bottom is up for sale. People willing to hawk their ethics - and the country - down the tube. One of the most trusted pillars in a democracy has traditionally been a free and incorruptible press. When that goes - what is left? The judiciary? One hears pretty grim stories about that arm as well.
All I can tell you is that yesterday's loopy mood has passed.... and I am feeling low. Not just about this expose ( bad as it makes us look), but about a column of mine that was not carried this morning by one of the prominent dailies I write for. This has never happened to me in over 30 years as a columnist. The weak and pathetic reason put forward by a junior lackey was that the opinion stated was too strong and given the current 'josh' of the Congress Party, the owners were scared of repercussions!! I have written a strong letter to the editor ( who was away when juniors took that amazing decision). Let me see what the person has to say.... but it is a sad indictment about the current state of affairs in India, if this sort of self-censorship kicks in from this point on. What was that line ... " they were asked to bend, but they chose to crawl." Watch this space for a follow up to this sordid saga...