Private Treaties for Public Consumption

The Times of India is the largest selling English broadsheet in the world with a circulation of 2.4 million. This makes the holding company, Bennet Coleman & Co. Ltd. the richest media empire in India. However, this is not just due of the reputation of its media assets.

The Times of India has had the distinction of being considered the newspaper of record in India since it was founded in 1838. Many distinguished journalists in India served in the editorial ranks of ToI. In fact, as the saying goes, ‘if you haven’t done time with the old lady of Boribunder you haven’t done anything’. That was till the 1980’s, the last of the glory days of Indian journalism. Since then ToI has morphed transformer-like from an autobot into the journalistic version of a decepticon.

ToI’s entire approach to journalism started changing from the late 80’s onwards. It is a cardinal principle in journalism that news and advertising should be kept apart. Publications like NYT and WSJ in fact go a step further and separate fact and opinion. It is well known that the WSJ has separate management structures for its edit and city reporting pages, who cannot stand each other. Indian newspapers followed the principle of keeping news and advertising separate till B, C&C ltd changed the media scape in India.

This they did by blurring the distinction between editorial content and advertising, giving short shrift to serious stories, focusing more on celebrities and page 3 and tremendous brand building exercises. Now, the latest step in that direction is through ‘Private Treaties’.

Simply put, Private Treaties are agreements between B,C&C and corporates where the former picks up equity in a company in return for advertising rates at concessional rates to free and positive coverage in B, C&C’s many media outlets. Although Private Treaties has been in existence since 2004 it attracted some media coverage only recently.

Its not as if newspapers and magazines have not carried advertorials before. But these are clearly marked as paid for with a disclaimer that the newspaper does not endorse the views therein. However, that distinction doesn’t exist in private treaties. As the website puts it, “As a treaty partner, your company can also avail of a bouquet of professional expertise within the Private Treaties Department. Our three pronged solution encompasses: Advertising Support, Branding Support, Corporate image development.”

Advertising, branding, corporate image development: the life-blood of any mid-size company dreaming of joining the big league. And what better way of doing it than positive coverage in the world’s largest selling English broadsheet and India’s largest selling economic daily (Economic Times). But what about larger questions of journalistic ethics? Suppose a reporter pursues a negative story about a comapany with is B,C&C’s partner, would s/he feel obliged to go soft, assuming the editor does not kill the story. Or, suppose a reporter goes on a junket paid for by a company, will s/he be obliged to write positively about the company or its products.