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Over the last few years,the line between what makes news and what’s paid to look like news has been blurring. The Sunday Express looks at the phenomenon called ‘paid content’ in the media

Written by Archna Shukla |
December 6, 2009 12:45:16 am

IN August this year,an industry watchdog publicly rebuked a prominent daily for carrying a favourable article on a product alongside an advertisement of it. The watchdog ruled that placing the article on the same page as the ad amounted to making the “advertisement feature” appear like a genuine news article. The newspaper apologised and the advertiser withdrew the ad constructed in the form of an advertorial.

This happened in the UK,the newspaper in question was the London-based The Daily Express and the watchdog was the Advertising Standards Authority of the UK.

In India,the story plays out differently. Advertorials,or advertisements presented as editorials,have become commonplace among several publications. There have been various reports,complaints and protests,in the past,on the increasing intrusion of advertising into the editorial space but to no avail. Paid political reporting has been part of this growing menace and to this end,there was no surprising element in the recent expose by the English daily,The Hindu,that Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashokrao Chavan may have spent several crores of rupees on planting adulatory stories on himself across newspapers,just before the recently concluded Assembly elections in the state.

the politics of content

“It has,indeed,been happening for long. The only new thing this time was that we managed to name the entities involved in such deals,” says P. Sainath,the veteran journalist whose expose appeared in the Chennai-based newspaper last week. A Magsaysay award winner,Sainath has been writing about “paid content” for sometime now. His latest reports—he got access to the official records of Chavan’s publicity spends during the Assembly elections and compared them with the amount of extensive “favourable” coverage he got across various local publications,including biggies such as Lokmat and the Maharashtra Times—has raised questions about who paid for this “flood of news” and if it was,indeed,paid for,why was it not accounted for both by Chavan and the publications.

Incidentally,Lokmat—the largest read vernacular daily in the country,according to the Indian Readership Survey’s latest figures—is owned by Vijay Darda,a sitting Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha,and his brother Rajendra Darda is a minister in Chavan’s cabinet in Maharashtra. The Maharashtra Times,on the other hand,is owned by the country’s largest media group,Bennett,Coleman and Co Ltd (BCCL).

Journalists from regional markets say political paid content is a malaise that took roots in the past decade. “The practice of political paid content,in fact,started around a decade ago with the local elections in states such as MP,UP,Rajasthan and Punjab. It has now spread all across,” says HBN Singh,chief editor,Prabhat Khabar,a Hindi daily published from Bihar,Jharkhand and West Bengal.

According to Srinivas Reddy,the resident editor of Visal Aandhra,a Telugu newspaper with six editions across Andhra Pradesh,during the 2009 general elections,most Telugu newspapers had fixed prices for the kind of coverage major contenders sought in various papers. “It is estimated that the local newspapers grossed more than Rs 300 crore through such tactics during the 2009 elections,” says Reddy,who is also a member of the Press Council of India,the watchdog of the print industry,and the secretary general of the Indian Journalists’ Union. The union,in fact,lodged a complaint with the chief election officer in this regard,who issued strict warnings to publications.

Prabhat Khabar’s Singh says in a bid to protect its own image and credibility,the paper began publishing an election code of conduct under which it clarified that any reports that had been paid for will be duly marked as such,a practice not observed by most publications when they enter into such deals. In an article explaining the rationale behind its code of conduct,the newspaper said that just before the 2009 general elections,the resident editor of its Jharkhand edition was approached by some people,who apprised him about the “rates” that had been fixed for publishing press releases,statements,interviews and articles and the prices varied from Rs 25,000 to more depending on the amount of coverage. While refusing to name any publications,Singh said: “Koi bacha nahin hai (there is no one left).”

Newspapers owners,predictably,deny such allegations. Deven Darda,the executive director of the Lokmat Group,alleged a “foul” play behind the stories in The Hindu. “The story (in The Hindu) is incorrect,false and baseless. We are a Congress family. We believe in and promote the values that the Congress stands for and there is nothing wrong in this. Every newspaper promotes its own ideology and so do we.”

Asserting that no content in any of his papers is ever paid for,Ravi Dhariwal,the CEO of BCCL,said: “It is utter rubbish…we do not take money for publishing any content in any of our publications.” BCCL publishes leading newspapers such as The Times of India and The Economic Times.

Sanjay Gupta,the editor of the country’s largest read newspaper Dainik Jagran and the CEO of Jagran Prakashan,the company that owns the paper,said: “I have heard about such things but they don’t happen in my paper.”

The denials notwithstanding,the allegations have been flying thick and fast. Late Prabhash Joshi,the former editor of Hindi daily Jansatta,a sister publication of The Indian Express,raised the issue of paid political content several times from various platforms. In a discussion organised in New Delhi a few days before his sudden death last month,he cited the experience of well known Bharatiya Janata Party leader Lalji Tandon,who was asked by a newspaper to pay for the statements he wanted published in response to comments made by some of his rivals.

Tandon,when contacted by The Indian Express said: “They (the newspaper in question) had been carrying reports based on what some of our rivals said,without giving us the opportunity to clarify our position. When we sought to clear our position,they asked us to pay for it.” He refused to identify the newspaper saying: “They later came and apologised,so let’s not rake up the issue again.”

brands in disguise

Politics,however,is just one part of the growing “paid content” menace. The practice is more rampant among advertisers,who are ever anxious to catch consumers off guard. “And what better way of breaking into their mind space than disguising their brand messages as news,which is more credible and convincing than raw advertising,” says Santosh Desai,managing director and CEO,Future Brands,the custodian of various brands owned by the country’s largest retailer Future Group.

No points for guessing that such content is priced at a premium,ranging from 10 per cent to 100 per cent,vis-à-vis regular ad rates and media owners,some driven by their ambition to grow bigger and others by the fear of extinction,have taken the route with no qualms. The result has been the emergence of practices such as private treaties. Launched by BCCL in 2002,the practice—which involved deals with potential advertisers,who couldn’t afford expensive mainstream advertising,in return for equity stakes in their companies—was initially disparaged by rivals but in the past two years,several of them have joined the bandwagon. Shiv Kumar,CEO,Times Private Treaties,says his clients get no undue editorial coverage in any of the BCCL publications,but there have been reports in the past with some evidence to prove that such clients wield influence outside the advertising space as well.

Desai,whose company is a private treaty client of BCCL,says the bigger issue is not whether private treaty clients manage to trespass into the editorial space. “The operative factor for me is that when news space is up for sale—and we all know that it is,through private treaties or other arrangements—there will be buyers for it,especially when it serves their needs.”

Meanwhile,according to Shiv Kumar,who heads BCCL’s private treaties division,“the business is going strong” and in the past eight to 10 months,when the global economic downturn was at its peak and advertising spends had been drastically cut by most companies,he managed to sign 30 to 40 new clients.

“The other arrangements” that Desai refers to,include businesses such as Optimal Media Solutions (OMS),again floated by BCCL. OMS,as evident by the name,provides media solutions other than regular advertising to companies and also runs a public relations division,Medianet. Some of the solutions provided by OMS include displaying promotional content as part of editorial content. At least two Mumbai-based leading companies admitted that they have been using the service. When asked if a more than a year-long series of articles on its premium skincare brand Olay in Delhi Times,the city supplement of The Times of India,was part of its paid marketing campaign,a spokesperson for Procter & Gamble,India said: “It is well known…It is paid for…It is a marketing initiative…”

A senior executive of one of P&G’s arch rivals,a Mumbai-based top manufacturer of consumer products,also admitted to such initiatives from his company. “They (the supplement) recently ran news stories on a new initiative for one of our brands,” he said.

Several efforts to reach Anshul Chaturvedi,the editor of Delhi Times,yielded a naught. Another executive,Sidhant Khosla,who supervises OMS,refused to participate in the story.

Meanwhile,on its web site timesmedianet.com,Medianet has declared to its prospective clients,who include PR agencies and advertising and marketing professionals,that “our web-based services will get complete support from our print publications like The Times of India and The Economic Times,our TV news channel (Times Now) and the advertising and event management divisions of The Times of India group. Our editors would always be looking at Timesmedianet.com to see what’s newsworthy. Great news made here finds its way from the web to TV screens and print broadsheets.”

“BCCL is not the only media company doing this,” says a senior executive of a top media buying agency,based out of Mumbai. “Its rivals are in the same boat with it. Just that BCCL has been quite upfront about it,” he says,requesting anonymity.

watchdog’s role

While ASA of the UK has warned publications against the use of advertorials,its Indian counterpart,the Advertising Standards Council of India,or ASCI,says “paid content” doesn’t fall under its jurisdiction. “We only look into the instances of misleading advertisements. Paid content is not our area of concern,” said Allan COllaco,secretary general,ASCI.

He,however,said that the industry body recently took action against an advertiser,Dr Batra’s Clinic,a Delhi-based homeopathic healthcare services provider,who in a news story in The Hindustan Times made open and incorrect claims about their products. “But again in this case,we only rapped the advertiser. Newspapers are beyond our jurisdiction.”

Benoy Roychowdhury,executive director,HT Media,which publishes newspapers such as Hindustan Times,however,denied any knowledge of the incident. “We do intrusive advertising,which means,we allow placement of ads inside stories but we do not take money for publishing any material in any of our papers,” he said.

A positive outcome of the Maharashtra polls controversy has been that the Press Council of India (PCI),the watchdog of the print industry,has initiated an inquiry into the entire issue of “paid content”. A quasi judicial body with statutory powers,PCI,however,is considered a paper tiger by most in the industry and while agreeing that the results of inquiry may not have any far-reaching implications,Paranjoy Guha Thakurta,a member of the two-member enquiry committee set up PCI,says: “It will at least generate greater awareness on this pernicious activity.”

Meanwhile,Sainath says a greater awareness and debate on the issue are critical. “We have all known about the advertising corruption in publications but the political nexus is more alarming because it undermines the basic principle of democracy and it violates the basic right to information of citizens of the country.”

Next week: Paid content and the TV boom

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