PONDICHERRY, INDIA — A businessman I know was approached by representatives of a leading Indian national newspaper and offered a deal: Give us a stake in your company, and we’ll give you advertising space and favorable editorial coverage.
A publisher told me that she received a similar proposition: Pay us, and we’ll interview your authors and write features about them. Rumors about shady practices — unethical, possibly illegal — in the Indian media have circulated for years. Over the past year or so, and especially since the 2009 parliamentary elections, when the sale of media space was reported to have reached new heights, the issue has drawn more attention.
The commercialization of the Indian media takes many forms. It has been known for some time that a few of India’s leading media conglomerates — including Bennett, Coleman & Co., the publisher of The Times of India and The Economic Times — offer what that company calls “innovative” and “integrated” marketing strategies that blur the traditional line between advertising and article content. Bennett, Coleman’s Medianet division, for example, lets advertisers place articles on certain pages in the paper without clearly marking them as advertising.
One of the company’s more aggressive offerings is a product known as a Private Treaty, which offers companies a certain amount of advertising space in exchange for equity stakes in those companies. According to the Private Treaties Web site, Bennett, Coleman now holds such equity stakes in more than 100 companies. Officially, the companies are only given advertising space. But at least one businessman confirmed to me that it was made clear that he could also expect favorable news coverage.
At the very least, it seems evident that Private Treaties set up a very serious conflict of interest, a point highlighted last year when the Indian stock market regulator, the Securities and Exchange Board of India, wrote a letter to the chairman of the Press Council expressing concern about the business practice.
Private Treaties are an example of the commodification of business news. But much of the recent attention in India has focused on paid political content. Over the past year or so, there have been a growing number of reports of politicians paying media houses for favorable coverage or to skirt restrictions on campaign financing.
P. Sainath, the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, a national newspaper, has been instrumental in drawing attention to such practices. In a series of articles on elections in Maharashtra State last year, Mr. Sainath listed specific prices for different kinds of articles.
From Akash Kapoor's Letter from India in The New York Times
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