'The media is sold out!' – a phrase journalists often hear while doing their job. While covering the on-going famers' protests on Delhi's borders, several journalists experienced a strong push back as protesters felt that a lot of media reports about the protests were biased in favour of the central government. When sections of the media labelled them as 'Khalistani terrorists', protestors alleged it was at the behest of the government.
So, is there any truth to the assertion that the government does try to 'control' the media? And are press advertisements a popular financial 'lever' used by governments to influence media?
The simple answer, is yes. And it has a lot to do with the vast amount of money that Governments, both Central and State, spend on advertising across all forms of media, particularly print and electronic.
While answering to a written question by a Member of Parliament in the Lok Sabha, the Bureau of Communication (BOC) informed about the expenditure incurred by Central Ministries on the newspaper advertisements in three Financial Years (FY) are:
In FY 2017-18 - Rs 462.22 crore
In FY 2018-19 - Rs 301.03 crore
In FY 2019-20 - Rs 128.96 crore
But, whose money is this, being used to promote government schemes and policies? It is your money, the taxpayers' money. There is no such thing as 'government funded', it is only 'taxpayers money funded'.
Like all government spending, it is understandable that taxpayers have no role in deciding how money should be spent on advertising, but what about transparency? At present, while there are guidelines, it seems there is little or no actual transparency from the government on how it allocates advertisements to print and electronic media.
People have every right to know how their money is utilised by the government. And to do so, government should maintain transparency by putting out advertisement details on their website.Jawhar Sircar, former CEO Prasar Bharati
The Union Ministry for Information & Broadcasting laid down new rules in 2020 for sanctioning advertisements to media houses. The Print Media Advertisement Policy (2020) has clear procedures for empanelment of newspapers, advertising rates, payment of bills and penalties. Government ads are now routed through the Bureau of Communication.
So, does this new policy cover the loopholes which existed in the previous policy?
"There is enough vagueness in the new policy. In India there is one more difficulty - how to determine the reach of newspapers or channels. We know about the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) scandal. There are questions on the credibility of newspapers circulations too. So, how to decide what the rate of a particular ad to a particular media organisation, should be?"Abhinandan Sekhri, Co-founder and CEO Newslaundry
'Delay In Payment': A Power Exercised by Govt
If one takes a close look at the 'payment and bills' section of The Print Media Advertisement Policy (2020), one can see just how the new rules are still vague.
This section clearly states that 'every publication has to submit bills with supportive documents within 30 days of the publication of the advertisement and 'BOC may levy a fine for late submission of bills'.
But are there equally clear rules about making payments to publications?
The new rule merely says, "BOC will endeavour to make payment against the bill within 30 days of its receipt". The word 'endeavour' makes the whole process of payment release, conveniently vague.
Delay in release of payment is also a means to control media, says Sircar.
An RTI response received by law student Aniket Gaurav on 28 June 2021 from the I&B Ministry, reveals that the Centre owes over Rs 147 crore to various print media outlets as payments for government ads. The oldest bill is dated 2004.
With regard to electronic media, the Ministry said a full list of the number of outstanding bills is not readily available.
Delay in releasing payments to media houses has become a source of power for the government. Bureaucrats can approach media houses to stop them from reporting anti-government articles hinting at further delays in long due payments. They can try to manipulate things saying abhi publish mat karo, sarkar ko abhi release karna hai aapka payment. (Don't publish this story, government has to release your payment).Jawhar Sircar, former CEO Prasar Bharati
Media House are Equally Complicit
It's also time for the media to evolve its revenue generation models and reduce dependency on government ads, so that they can continue with fair journalism, Sekhri told The Quint.
In June 2018, the Congress' leader in the Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, in a debate in Parliament, accused the Narendra Modi government of stopping government ads to reputed newspapers such as The Hindu, The Times of India and The Telegraph for being critical of the government in their reportage.
In April 2020, the Chairperson of the Congress Parliamentary Party, Sonia Gandhi, in a letter to PM Narendra Modi, proposed complete ban of media advertising by the government for two years to generate financial resources to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in the country.
Sonia Gandhi's proposal was criticised by some big newspapers.
I have seen this for years and decades - every government that comes to power, uses advertisements to control media. I feel media houses, regardless how big they are, are equally complicit in setting up this dependency.Seema Mustafa, President, Editors Guild of India
Mustafa also told The Quint that the bigger the media house, the greater is their expectation of ads from the government. She says there is a need to formulate a stringent guideline on allocation of government ads, so that those in power cannot freely favour those who 'toe the government line', and taking away revenue from who don't.
"Recently, the Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath's interviews have gone up on media platforms. One can easily figure out that these are not journalistic interviews, but rather PR interviews. Earlier such PR exercises were limited but now it has gone up. In the last two years the private sector has seen a huge economic slowdown, so in April-May 2020, some national newspapers did not have a single advertisement from private sector. There were only government ads."Abhinandan Sekhri, Co-founder and CEO Newslaundry
Sekhri also points out how selective media organisations that toe the government's line are getting huge chunks of advertisements.
"OpIndia digital news platform has no credibility as their news is busted as fake every second or third day. Yet OpIndia has had a Yogi Adityanath advertisement banner for the last 3-4 months. So you can see that taxpayers' money is funding such a media platform, which would be unacceptable in any transparent civil society."Abhinandan Sekhri, Co-founder and CEO Newslaundry
Transparency is the only solution to this persisting issue, said Sircar. "A little transparency will make those who manipulate run to the toilet", he added.