The Election Commission (EC) decision to disqualify Madhya Pradesh minister Narottam Mishra for three years on grounds of electoral misconduct, though nine years after the event, is momentous to the extent this is probably the first instance of a serious crackdown on the menace of ‘paid news’. In return for money, often specified in a ‘rate card’, newspapers publish advertisements that are thinly disguised as ‘news’—readers, who still have faith in newspapers, view these as the gospel truth and, to that extent, they are more impactful than any advertisement.
Though the original complaint against Mishra was of not declaring his election expenses correctly, it later morphed into the more serious charge of ‘paid news’; a total of 42 such items were produced and, in some cases, both the headline and the story were similar across different newspapers. Not surprisingly, the newspapers concerned all denied that they indulged in ‘paid news’ and even gave this in writing. An unusually pro-active EC then constituted a committee which also had journalists and representatives of the Press Council of India to examine the matter, and concluded this was definitely a case of ‘paid news’.
Such was the deceit, to explain the same headline/story in one case, the argument was made that the story was put out by a wire agency and picked up by various newspapers—except, as the committee pointed out, there was no attribution to the agency. Having concluded it was a case of ‘paid news’, the EC came down hard and said, “The public, in general, lends more credence to news in the newspapers than to the advertisement of political parties and candidates, and the publication of such advertisements in the garb of news by way of paid news amounts to deceiving the electorate”.
Which is why it did not restrict itself to seeing whether, if the amount paid to the newspapers was added to Mishra’s expenses, this went above the statutory limit. Despite the EC issuing warnings from time to time, according to a Hindustan Times report, in 2013, there were 42 such cases in Karnataka, 80 in Tamil Nadu, 276 in Gujarat, 104 in Himachal Pradesh and 250 in Bihar. With even the high-profile Ashok Chavan ‘paid news’ case being dismissed by the high court on a technicality in 2014, the ball is back in the EC’s court.
What is worrying, however, is that with the political class doing nothing to make ‘paid news’ an electoral offence, chances are it will continue to multiply—the EC was very pro-active in Mishra’s case, but it cannot be assumed that future ECs will all act in the same manner. If the political class is unwilling to make ‘paid news’ an electoral offence leading to disqualification, the only reason for this is that it would like to leave a window open so that, if need be, it can continue to use this.