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Commodification of news, news space and paid news is deep-rooted rot

Jagtar Singh

Chandigarh, February 15: The arrest of on-line editor of Hindi newspaper chain Daily Jagran for publishing exit poll  has  exposed the rot within what is known as the fourth estate and it stinks as much as three other pillars of democracy.  The term freedom of expression and the claim of being sentinels of democracy are just sham. The neo-liberalism has led to the commodification of  media, news and news space and paid news  is part of this degeneration. An editor being multi-millionaire was just unheard of before the value system underwent a drastic change. Now it is common in Delhi. It is a different matter that one would not know the names of even big English newspaper editors  these days as they are just no-bodies. They are commodities and as dispensable as napkins, pawns in the hands of the proprietors.

The concept of neo-liberalism evolved in the  West but interestingly, the media there might be embedded at one level but still profess certain values.

The debate as to what constitutes the media in India is not new. However, the history of media in India is different as compared to other countries. The rise and growth of media in India was closely associated with the freedom movement. The media maintained values for some decades before decadence set in. The only motive now is profit and the editor at best is a glorified salesman who gets diktats from the marketing people.

One thing is certain. The poor reporter is not the media  although it is this section that faces the storm, both within and outside. Reporter is now the most exploited and insecure person in the newspaper chain or TV set up. If editors are treated like napkins, the editors in turn treat reporters as toilet papers. The paid news has to be seen in this context. During elections, it is the reporter who is supposed to strike the bargain with the political party or the candidate on behalf of the paper (proprieter).

It is better to give the examples of newspapers published in Punjab region that includes Chandigarh. Jalandhar boasts of two major newspaper groups. The newspapers from both the groups have high circulation and high revenue but the reporters are either paid poorly or not paid at all. One of these two groups used to take security of Rs 25,000 to issue card to a person to function as reporter. That reporter would either get commission from ads or  using the access in administration. One can’t think of a person leaving a paper after service of about quarter of a century at a salary of a little over Rs 13,000 per month.

One of the two groups dissociated itself from the paid news system beginning 2014 Lok Sabha election. However, ad from a candidate can definitely get a favourable space for news item even now. The other group enters into contract with the candidates at the individual level through the reporter in that constituency. He would face black out otherwise. One can’t make out as to what type of professionalism is this. Ironically, these people continue to preach morality although the conduct is directly opposite.

This is true of some newspapers published from Chandigarh too.

The issue here is not the merit or otherwise of the action taken against the editor of Jagran newspaper but the conduct of the so-called media itself.

Paid news phenomenon is not confined to elections. One of the major newspaper owners had stated in an interview that his group was into the business selling of space rather than providing information to the people through the news columns. Certain pages that look like news and features are advertorials and this is stated clearly.

The treatment to the news staff can be gauged from the latest retrenchment by Hindustan Times and ABP group. The staff is hired on contract. The regular staff was forced to go on contact or thrown out unceremoniously when this system was introduced.

The media houses in India prefer the staff to remain young. However, it is different with organisations like BBC and CNN where every major development is handled by the senior most staff, all with grey hair.

The role of media managements and the editors functioning as pawns without any spine needs to be debated. The arrest of Jagran editor is just one part. The editor can’t dare violate ECI norms at his/her own. It is the proprietors who are responsible for paid news.

About Jagtar Singh

Senior journalist and author Jagtar Singh is rooted in vast professional experience spanning more than 35 years, starting his career with The Indian Express in Chandigarh, the paper he worked with for about quarter of a century beginning 1978 covering religio-political dynamics of Punjab.

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