I received an angry call early in the morning today. The caller, a housewife from New Delhi, wanted me to do 'something' to stop newspapers from a vicious campaign to discredit Environment & Forest Minister Jairam Ramesh. "Some newspapers are black-mailing the nation, forcing poisonous food down our throat," she blurted.
"Look, without any shame, these newspapers are saying that the scientists were not heard in the national consultations," and then without any pause, she added: "The GEAC had only heard them, and that is why its scandalous verdict was based on the flawed scientific thinking. ... How can they be so dumb?'
Howsoever I tried to calm her, she was not willing. She was livid, and I could sense the reason for her justifiable anger. Finally, when I told her that we are living in an era when 'paid news' is becoming the norm, she asked: "Oh, you mean you can publish news reports by paying money?"
"Yes", I replied.
"How much would it cost me if we were to also buy news space? she asked.
"Well, why don't you call the editor and ask him?" I told her.
"Oh dear ! How can I ever match the MNCs or the private companies when it comes to paying money?" she said quite helplessly, and then hung up.
I picked up my morning newspapers, and it didn't take me much time to realise why the lady felt outraged. It was only after I was through with my morning chores, and sat down in my terrace to soak a little bit in the sun, with a hot cup of tea in hand, I again opened the newspapers for some serious reading. Tucked in the inner pages of The Hindu I read an interesting report on the new and dominating phenomenon of 'paid news.'
The Hyderabad-dated news report Paid news harming democracy itself, says Press Council states: "The sub-committee constituted by the Press Council of India to examine the phenomenon of 'paid news' during the recent Lok Sabha elections has expressed concern that some media organisations which are expected to set standards have themselves taken the lead in accepting money for the publication of news."
"The paid news phenomenon is not only eroding the confidence of the people in the media, but is hurting and harming democracy itself," sub-committee member Pranjoy Guha Thakurta was quoted as saying in the report. Mr Thakurta was also quoted saying the examination of the phenomenon posed a big problem as "there will be no material evidence and whatever is available is circumstantial." There is no cheque payment and the receipts the panel managed to get were not genuine, he added.
Now I am not suggesting that the orchestrated media reports that we see are 'paid' but certainly you can not rule out the possibility. We also know that many media houses have got into collaboration with business houses in the name of marketing and promotion.
Well, this also takes me back to another phenomenon that the world is increasingly witnessing (and not only in India). This is the phenomenon of 'paid science'.
Just think. When a private company invests money in a particular research subject, its interest is obviously to ensure that the final product is commercialised. Under the so-called public-private partnership (PPP) in research, the private company makes an investment only in that kind of research where it expects profits to flow. We have ample examples when the data is manipulated or shrouded under cover by these private companies. We also have numerous examples of how the companies tailor their research to suit a specific objective.
Well, shouldn't that be called 'paid science'?
If 'paid news' is bad for the democracy, I wonder how 'paid science' is acceptable. Or is it that we didn't ever think of private investment in science as 'paid science'.