In March 2003, Bennett Coleman and Company, India’s largest media house launched a controversial business idea called Medianet. Medianet was designed as a service allowing companies to buy editorial space on the pages of its flagship newspaper, The Times of India (TOI). The launch of the product was bashful. The newspaper published a 1000-word article on the benefits of this service which it credited itself with being an innovator of.
“The sluggish fear change. The reactive respond to it. The proactive create it. At the Times group, we pride ourselves upon being at the cutting edge of the third category. The role we envision for Medianet is that of an auditor, regulating the media’s burgeoning interaction with the PR sector,” the article claimed.
It went on to say that Medianet would fit in well with the new trends in media buying. “Advertisers seek to make themselves heard over the cacophony of a million voices, all competing for the consumer’s attention,” the article said. (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/cms.dll/html/uncomp/articleshow?artid=39286961)
In this manner, the premise for Medianet has been that advertisers no longer want to settle for standard advertising measures. A simple ad in the newspaper or even repeating it often is no longer enough to drill the message into the reader’s minds.
So the TOI argues that Medianet is actually the next stage in contemporary news gathering. The group believes that today’s readers don’t just expect news about politics or society or business issues. They also expect an editorial line on contemporary issues like fashion, entertainment, and lifestyle. So instead of sticking to the traditional age-old methods of reporting on these categories, why not get the advertiser to give the news and pay for it as well? Everybody wins. But while the Times Group may have counted on readers and journalists being less aware, the reaction to Medianet indicated the opposite.
Many journalists including Radhika Dhawan of BusinessWorld began questioning whether the news gathering process should have any less integrity because it is a fashion trend being reported on and not a politician’s bank balance. How can a reader see the difference between news and articles that are paid for?
Thus was unleashed a debate on journalism ethics that India’s print media had not seen in the longest time. It began with editorials and articles like Dhawan’s in major newspapers and ended in the blogosphere. What gave rise to such anger was that the TOI had always been associated with truth and news. It was the ultimate betrayal and coming from one of the biggest media houses in the country, this was expected to set a very dangerous trend.
To give perspective of the role of the Indian media and its ethics, it’s important to know that any respectable Indian publication and its journalists strongly abide by the sacrosanct separation of editorial space and advertising. Journalism schools in India teach the same principles as those taught by journalism schools in the United States. To illustrate, ‘Journalism of courage,’ ‘Let truth prevail,’ and ‘Let there be light’ are some of the mottos of Indian newspapers. In this largely illiterate nation, news is put on a pedestal.
To understand the damage done by Medianet it is also crucial to note that India, the world’s largest democracy, like the United States depends on its newspapers to inform people of the rights and wrongs committed by the government. It is considered the fourth estate of Indian democracy. Vibhuti Patel, editor with Newsweek International explained this best in a book called ‘Rape of News’ written by journalist Sunil Poolani: “The press in India has historically wielded much power — toppling governments and holding them accountable.” Examples include its crucial role in the Emergency (the 21-month period, when President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, with advice by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, declared a state of emergency under Article 352 of the Constitution of India, effectively bestowing on her the power to rule by decree, suspending elections and civil liberties. It is one of the most controversial periods in the history if independent India), in the Tehelka cases (the newspaper launched a successful sting operation uncovering corruption in India’s large defence contracts), and in exposing corrupt politicians and several scandals. Hence he says “it is a shame that the TOI is choosing to compromise that power simply for filthy lucre.”
And in this backdrop, Medianet naturally ruffled more than just a few feathers.
In an email interview, Poolani, journalist and author of the book ‘Rape of News’ said, “Medianet’s contribution to Indian journalism is that it has converted it into a product. So the readers do not buy papers for news or views, but for cheap gossip and titillation. You do not read about farmers and laborers, who constitute 80 per cent of India’s population, but about how Angelina Jolie’s panties were stolen and who sniffed them.” Poolani is outraged. “Medianet is unfortunate, it is infuriating, and it is unheard-of. So either you boycott the papers in question or keep quiet and read the sham,” he said.
Patel also asked in the ‘Rape of News’: “How can a news publication report in an objective, unbiased way if it is accepting money from corporations? How is this better than check-book journalism?”
Meanwhile, the blogosphere too was rife with the Medianet story.
When one of the few noted Indian media critics, Pradyuman Maheshwari, criticized the Times of India on his Mediaah Weblog in early 2005, the Times looked to squash him with a seven-page legal threat for libel. The threat worked, and Maheshwari decided to close his site. As the editor of Maharashtra Herald, a daily newspaper based in Pune, India Mahaeshwari didn’t have the resources to fight back.
He started the blog in July 2003, as a critical look at the Indian media business, with commentary and gossip. When Maheshwari posted 19 blog pieces related to the TOI, the company threatened to take legal action. Maheshwari later said that much of what upset the paper was his criticism of its Medianet initiative. Finally Maheswari had to shut down his site because it did not work for him financially.
Despite this, the Indian blogosphere jumped into the media criticism bandwagon. One anonymous blogger quickly set up Mediaha, a blog that contains the 19 blog posts in question, as well as the seven-page legal notice from the TOI. Another blogger, Sruthijith K K, a student who works at a public policy think tank in Delhi, launched a blog to follow the Mediaah/Times battle, while starting an online petition that quickly garnered 200-plus signatures. And another blogger, who goes by the online name Quetzal, ran a protest post on his blog, which is ironically hosted by the TOI itself on its blog-hosting service O3. (http://www.ojr.org/ojr/stories/050315glaser/)
Unfortunately, after the initial uproar, the controversy all seems to be forgotten. Poolani said, “The paper believes this; spread lies, and more lies, and one day it is realized as truth. Sadly this does seem to be happening with the readers of TOI.”
Another journalist Aakar Patel, chief editor of Midday, a Mumbai based daily paper, wondered in ‘Rape of News’: “In the long term, this sale of news space is severely damaging to the credibility of news reporting and its delivery, and I do not think too many papers will wish to follow suit.”
But Poolani raises an important point. This trend is likely to push competitors to follow suit. In this day and age, journalism has become all about supply and demand. So as long as the readers don’t boycott TOI, and their revenues keep rising, other publications have no reason not to follow the model. “At least two major business magazines in English are selling, including their cover stories, almost every issue if the get paid,” says Poolani.
“If Indian journalism has embraced crass commercialization, the American media is obsessed with Bush’s antics or the intimate details of Clinton’s personal life. Both are ideologically corrupt.” he adds.
Whether or not more newspapers and TV channels will follow suit, is still unknown. But if PBS media critic, Mark Glaser is right in assuming that “Medianet actually gave rise to media criticism,” maybe it may actually do some good for the Indian media in the long run. (http://www.ojr.org/ojr/stories/050315glaser/)
Sources: Rape of News by Sunil Poolani