DOES media coverage — frequent and favourable — make a critical difference to winning an election? Is money the pivotal factor to secure victory at the polls? Though it is tempting to answer ‘yes’ to both these questions, it is almost equally tempting to say ‘no’. And to add: ‘not by these factors alone’.
Factors that influence balloting success need not be directly shaped by mass media and big money. Such factors are specific to each candidate and constituency, the quality of campaigns and competition, local as well as national issues, party alignments, party leaders’ appeal to voters, et al.
Yet mainstream media does contribute to framing issues and creating an information environment that determines priorities, moulds perceptions and sets the tone, particularly about parties. Despite the enormous proliferation of FM radio stations and TV news channels since 2002, mass media does not adequately promote individual candidates.
Independent candidates, without the benefit of coverage given to parties, are among the more obviously disadvantaged. But, in several instances, independents continue to defeat candidates of major parties and thereby prove the comparative irrelevance of coverage by mass media. And even when coverage is unfavourable for a candidate or a party, for loyal voters, this is like water off a duck’s back — it makes no difference.
To what extent does coverage determine who wins an election?
In 2018, a candidate for a provincial assembly seat is permitted to spend up to two million rupees, and up to four million rupees for a National Assembly seat. Correct calculations are elusive. Expenses are often borne by supporters through undocumented means, or support is given in kind — through use of vehicles, supply of publicity material, manual efforts, food supplies, operating offices, possibly also contributing to illicit cash-for-votes deals (which are far fewer than generally believed), and miscellaneous needs. None of these can be effectively monitored by the ECP with hundreds of constituencies, thousands of candidates and multiple ways of evasion.
A similar lack of transparency applies to expenses on advertising by political parties in mass media. While the ECP does require parties to report expenditures, including election-related expenditure, newspapers, radio and TV channels do not disclose rates actually charged; whether the same rates are charged to all parties; or if special discounts are given. Such unknowns suggest that the playing field is not level for all.
It was precisely to clear up the darkness of such mysteries that one of several recommendations made by the Media Commission, appointed by the Supreme Court in 2013, was that all placements of advertising by political parties in mass media and payments to such media be made mandatory only through a political advertising cell in the ECP.
The proposed cell could use the existing facilities of press information departments operating under the federal and provincial (caretaker) governments. While ECP did ask parties and media to practise codes of conduct, for unexplained reasons, it did not enforce the proposal to create a political advertising cell or other suggested measures.
Nor has the Supreme Court dealt conclusively with the overall report of the Media Commission, despite the passage of five years since the report’s submission. Over 30 recommendations were made in response to nine terms of reference. Only one, ie TOR (F), dealt with the role of media in elections.
The other eight TORs led to the formulation of over 20 recommendations after extensive consultation with all stakeholders that, if implemented, would shape structural and purposeful improvements in regulatory and operational dimensions of electronic media. Actions are required by the judiciary, parliament, media, advertisers, regulatory bodies and citizens.
In notable contrast to the hyper-activism of the Supreme Court in other public interest issues, the apex court has not rendered a summative opinion on the Media Commission’s findings. Fortunately, on the court’s directive, the federal caretaker government has implemented one of the commission’s recommendations — to revert to the original composition of Pemra members, by which the majority are non-governmental individuals. A recommended forensic audit to unearth placement of government advertising in bogus print media or at bloated rates was also undertaken earlier.
Given the abundant proliferation of parties and candidates, mainstream media and social media, the ECP cannot accurately monitor campaign and media-related expenses without innovative new monitoring approaches. Thus, unequivocal responses to the two questions posed at the start of this comment remain tantalisingly unanswerable.
Media and money do matter. But, fortunately, several other factors will also probably make the winning difference on July 25, 2018.
The writer was a member of the Media Commission, and a former federal minister and senator.
Published in Dawn, June 21st, 2018