Arun Jaitley, also Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting, said on Monday that excessive publicity had become a tool of “political bribery” and underscored the need for tackling the “big mece” of paid news. He suggested that there was a link between excessive advertisements and paid news and expressed the view that paid news could not get the protection meant for the free press. “Therefore we need to find out a way to check it... We are now reaching a phase when excessive advertisement is acquiring the proportion of political bribery,” he said, and wondered whether large-scale advertisements with the intention of affecting the quality of reportage should be allowed. He went on to say that this was the first time the country was confronted with this issue. “We need to see whether excessive advertisements become political bribery,” he added.
It is surprising that the Information and Broadcasting Minister should have taken so long to see the connection between excessive advertisements put out by a government to tom-tom its performance and actual paid news. What is quite evident even to the casual observer is that a government needs to spend astronomical sums on advertisements highlighting its performance only when there is really very little to show by way of actual performance. People in Assam have been witness to the huge amounts spent on full-page colour advertisements of the government especially during the last five years. Assam has a larger number of daily newspapers than many other States of the Union. People have noticed that many of the Assamese dailies of the State do not get any commercial advertisements but survive solely on large colour advertisements issued by the State government. This is the kind of total dependence on the government that takes away the freedom of the press almost completely. In fact, none of the newspapers that are obliged to depend entirely on government advertisements for their survival can claim to be independent. And the passage from total dependence on government advertisements to the murky world of paid news is but a short one. Excessive advertisements tom-tomming the non-existent performance of the government constitute a form of political bribery in both directions. There is political bribery by the ruling party in providing advertisements that eble small newspapers to survive somehow without the need to have a circulation that entitles them to receive commercial advertisements. And it is in return for this form of political bribery that some newspapers have to accept even paid news. The most sinister aspect of paid news is that people have no way of distinguishing between advertisements and news. This is the worst form of deception being practised on citizens who have no reason to distrust newspapers completely. By Arun Jaitley’s own admission the media is now “too large” for any kind of remedial measures. There are people who regard censorship on the media as a means of controlling the mece of paid news. The Information and Broadcasting Minister realizes that the size of the media makes censorship an impracticable solution to the problem. However, in a democracy where the rights of the Fourth Estate are fairly well defined, it would be unfortute even to contemplate censorship as a means of controlling the mece of paid news. The government would be much better off staying away from large advertisements extolling the government’s performance (sometimes even with incorrect data). A far better solution would be for all State governments to have a self-imposed ceiling on the quantum of advertisements relating to their performances. This would have the wholesome effect of ruling political parties having to perform better and the weeding out of totally dependent newspapers that make a mockery of what we call freedom of the press.