Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Newspapers and democracy: On stings, advertorials and ethics

Despite all the good that they bring, in terms of revelations of the dirty underbelly of our society, governmental operation or otherwise, there is always this nagging feeling that all is not quite right with the route of the ‘sting operation’. Our legal system, like most today, is based on the centrality of the conscious subject. Thus for example, one cannot compel an individual to give evidence against oneself. Despite the unpopularity of this idea among various segments of people, to do otherwise would result in fairly authoritarian systems, which would absolutely undermine the freedom and dignity of the individual.

Faithful readers of the Gomantak Times will realize that reference is being made here to the sting operation conducted by the journalist Mayabhushan Nagvekar against the ‘paid news’ services that the O Heraldo seems to offer. The point of this column is not to condemn Nagvekar for his operation, nor to hastily condemn the O Heraldo before the whole episode has been investigated and run its course. The aim of this column is to explore the suggestions made by the editor of the O Heraldo in his response, to Nagvekar’s charge.

The editor's statement to the allegations by Nagvekar, published on the website of MXMIndia,  suggested that ‘Herald is the only newspaper which used the tag “advertorial” on top of their news pages so that the difference between editorial and advertorial is clearly established.’ This suggestion seeks to draw a line between the practices effected by O Heraldo and other newspapers. The editor is suggesting here, that in doing so, O Heraldo, is in fact the more ethical of the pack. If this is true, this is a fair statement to make. However, the question we should be asking is whether it is ethical in the first place to allow “advertorials” in a newspaper, whether indicated as such, or simply placed there for the unsuspecting to swallow, hook, line and sinker.

It appears that we are not surprised today when a newspaper is seen as a commercial institution, geared toward generating a profit for its owners. We must not forget however, that the newspaper has come into this position of being able to generate profit primarily because it served larger ends. This larger end was the creation of the informed public sphere, or civil society, the basis of the modern bourgeois democracy.  The very notion of the public sphere is based on numerous ideas of honour.  The idea that ‘the public’ is of value, is educated, thus worthy of honour demonstrated in the form of presenting one’s idea passionately, without guile or artifice. This presentation of an opinion also relied on the idea of the honour of the writer, the journalist, who staked his honour on this guileless presentation. Finally, is the idea of civil society, where unlike in the ancien regime where decisions were made without reference to the people, reached through private arrangements, governance would be effected through the results of open discussion.

The newspaper served thus as a mouth-piece for ideological groups, each group proclaiming its position, creating through this process of publication, and reading, and subsequent response, the public sphere, a democratic space that could be relied on by the Government to carry on its task of responsible and responsive governance. Profit comes late into this equation, initially as a means to sustain an initiative, and convert a good idea, into an institution. The newspaper sold itself initially on the idea that what was being presented was an idea, unburdened by guile, personal or corporate profit. Indeed, the respect, the almost unparalleled access that the journalist receives is based on this history, this expectation that the journalist is representing one’s honourable opinion, one based on convictions, not on other extraneous circumstances.

One would be hard pressed to suggest that the ‘advertorial’ matches up to this hallowed history. Under the set of circumstances that create the advertorial, the journalist is not someone who presents her impassioned opinion, or a balanced review of a position. On the contrary, the journalist is now a hired hand. You pay money to the journalist, and the journalist is commissioned like some portraiture artist to paint a flattering likeness of the situation or person being presented to the reading public.

There is another possibility however that does not violate the political traditions of the newspaper as an institution. This is when the advertorial is not crafted by a journalist who works at the newspaper, but is merely a public relations agent. The job of this agent is precisely to be this hired hand – though one hopes that such agents also have ethical considerations that animate them. In such a case, the advertorial is just another form of the kinds of advertisements that we encounter on the birthday of a politician, of national events when we are force-fed ‘news’ of the greatness of the politician whose anniversary is being celebrated, or of the government in power. To be fair, this tradition, with the dubious exception where the government places ads to lavish praise on the electoral party in power, is a valid exercise of the public space created through the newspaper. The purpose of the newspaper is to present a point of view, and if the fan-base of a political leader seek to demonstrate why they love him, this is a part of the newspaper’s political tradition. We need to remember however, that where the elected representative is treated as a king, relations between the representative and the electorate are not the ideal relationship one imagines where representative is responsible to the electorate, or to a wider public, but one between subject and King.

Where the advertorial steps outside of the political tradition is when it takes up editorial space proper. When money alone determines what becomes news and what not. In the cynical world of late capitalism this position may not be shocking, but as idealist democrats, we reserve our right to be shocked by this practice. We reserve this right to be shocked because the point of a democracy is that whether rich or poor, everyone has the equal right to speak and to be heard. In a democracy, the poor especially have a right to have access to institutional frameworks that will speak truth to power. When money begins to start determining what makes it to the editorial page and what not, then democracy is in big, big trouble. When money determines whether a citizen is able to prove her point, or not, then democracy is in even deeper trouble.

Given the age of the  O Heraldo, and the rich political history of Goa that it represents, we owe to it the opportunity of believing it when its Editor suggests that they were striving to be honest to the political traditions of the newspaper when they indicate whether an item in the newspaper is ‘advertorial’ or ‘editorial’. However, may we also suggest to the Herald, that perhaps this distinction that they employ is riddled with problems, and it behooves them to move beyond this practice that has so unfortunately taken root in our democracy?

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 2 Nov 2011)

No comments: