P Sainath delivering The Inaugural Maharaj Kaul Memorial Lecture at UC Berkeley

P Sainath delivers The Inaugural Maharaj Kaul Memorial Lecture at UC Berkeley

Pay-to-print”: How Media Corruption Undermines Indian Democracy


Was the title of P Sainath’s illuminating speech about the dangerous undermining of the 4th estate of india by corrupt practices.

Maharaj Kaul (1940 – 2009), a UC Berkeley alum, was a tireless campaigner against injustice and for peace, founder of groups such as India Relief and Education Fund, and Coalition Against Communalism, and long-time supporter of Center for South Asia Studies (CSAS) at the University of California, Berkeley, mission and activities. CSAS, together with the family of Maharaj Kaul, has established the annual Maharaj Kaul Lecture series at UC, Berkeley.


The popular take on the issue of “paid news” in India is that politicians manipulate the media by buying them out, and therefore politicians are the primary villains. Sainath traces the origins and circumstances of this phenomenon, and comes to a different conclusion, one that i am convinced is the more informed view.

He opened and closed the lecture with

Indian media is politically free but is imprisoned by profit

According to Sainath, the “beginning” was when media companies started being acquired by or being funded by big corporates. Some of the top news agencies in India, and in Maharashtra in particular, where the paid news phenomenon first came to light, are owned by business houses or have significant investments in various markets.

Outfits like the Times of India have “private treaties” with dozens of companies. These are agreements that they will promote the company for a fees, and often in exchage of shares in the company. TOI returns the favor by increasing “news coverage” and passing off puff pieces as news. Not only is this done in public, it is done in the face of several laws and regulations passed by the SEBI that make such treaties illegal.

Media houses in india not only have such agreements, but are also invested deeply in many industries, from sugar to real estate. In fact there is so much marketization, it is “it is difficult to differentiate between the fourth estate and real estate”

This infiltration of media houses in the Indian market was doing well, but, “its always the wall street that buggers everything”.the wall street crashed and media houses were facing severe financial strains. At this juncture, they did two things, one fell into their lap and the other was contrived. Media agencies across India instructed its reporters that the world “recession” was not to be used with respect to the indian market. “Recession happens in the US, we have a slowdown”. This deceptive tactic allowed them to boost the confidence of the readers in the market, without which, they would be on the streets.

As luck would have it, the elections in Maharashtra came upon at this time. For the media this was an excellent way of making unaccounted for money that could be used to buffer the market losses.

The gory details of how much money was made is easily available in Sainath’s stories that ran in The Hindu, however it is interesting to note one incident in which some students of his who were helping him go through hundreds of news papers, pointed out that on one occasion, a news item about Mr. Ashok chavan was published as an “exclusive” in 6 different papers, simultaneously, and under the by lines of the heavy weights of that paper. 3 of them were the same word to word.

In summary, the media in india is heavily invested in all sorts of markets, and this has led to their dependence on the markets at the cost of perverting the truth to ensure that their investments stay viable. In many cases the media can be considered to be nothing more than the PR wing of the multi billion dollar corporates that own them. It is now the ideological arm of the corporate establishment.

Sainath did not offer any prescriptions on how this malaise, which continues, can be cured.

The full video of the lecture can be found at Sarajahan.org

Here are some quotes from the lecture.

On why there were so many commissions on the same issue

The GOI can put up as many as 12 commissions and enquiries on the same issue till someone comes up with a report that they want.

On the sate of journalism in the US

the only thing that has not reduced about american journalism is its arrogance, otherwise, they are shrinking rapidly.

The company that times of India is owed by is Bennet Coleman and Co.

“Bandits conmen and co- as some of old journalists call them”

“The media is too heavily invested in the market to tell us the truth about it”

“There is a structural compulsion to lie”

On rural reporting- In spite of the fact that the majority of india is still rural, and poverty in India is a serious issue, there is not a single news agency in india that has a full time reporter on poverty or agriculture.

“gross and growing disconnect between mass media and mass reality

a structural shut out of the poor

the media in india today is the most exclusionary institution of the indian democracy – regarding caste/gender etc

On how he came across all the facts and figures

one of the most wonderful things about the indian governmental establishment is its anarchy
what is labeled as top-secret as one department will be published by the neighbouring department in its annual report, so sooner or later, everything comes out, we leak like a factory of sieves

On the Lokpal bill

Lokpal – don’t set yourself up for a fall
is it a good idea? yes,
do we need a jan lokpal, yes
should the bill be passed in its present shape? forget about it.

The sheer arrogance of the bill is amazing.

The bill is saying you are not smart because you got bad people elected, now let us do the right thing.

It is good to note that Sainath is a magasasay award winner and would qualify for being on the lokpal comittee.

According to Sainath the three main reasons for corruption in india

1. structured inequality of the society, demonstrated by the caste system, gender violence etc
2. economic policies that generate and sustain this inequality
3. culture of arbitrariness

The bill is basically a manifestation of this arbitrariness

Msl. Comments

Russia sends its billionaire’s to prison, we send ours to the parliament.

TOI is the first newspaper i read every morning, it makes my day everyday

One thought on “P Sainath delivers The Inaugural Maharaj Kaul Memorial Lecture at UC Berkeley”

  1. P. Sainath is a one man Army for rural India. Seriously, we owe much to this man and his astute insights into the dynamics of power in the country – be it as agriculture or media. Big fan.

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