AN undercover operation code-named “Operation 136” by Cobrapost, a non-profit news website, has led to shocking revelations captured on video about the prevalence of and susceptibility to “paid news” in the Indian media. Excerpts from an interview with Aniruddha Bahal, the founder of Cobrapost:
What was the objective behind the sting operation?
Working journalists are privy to a lot of anecdotal and source-based information about the goings-on in the media. The fact that just two or three media organisations said “no” to the reporter’s diabolical proposition means that the reporter’s original aim to uncover the inroads of paid news was justified. The number 136 denotes India’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index. Incidentally the ranking has since slipped to 138.
What was the criterion for selecting the media houses?
We selected the media houses—print, television and online—at random. The reporter met several sales/senior management people, and sometimes owners, wherever possible. In most cases, cold calls were made to the reception of the organisation. Of course, it was also on the basis of information available about certain organisations.
Was there a pattern in the responses to the reporter?
There was no shock on the part of the sales side, as if it was natural for clients to have their way. Instead there was an obsequiousness which was comical and sad. Senior employees were touching the feet of the reporter, and so on. The responses only differed in degree. A few Uttar Pradesh-based media platforms even published a lot of rubbish at our behest just to curry favour with the reporter.
A good section of the Indian media has not reported the sting at all.
There are platforms which say they have a problem with undercover journalism but go to town with the Cambridge Analytica sting. I think many are also not publishing, or publishing with a slant, in order to curry favour with the top media houses. They won’t analyse the underbelly that was exposed, but willingly do hit jobs on the reporter and on Cobrapost.
One media group went to court and got a stay order on the public screening. Can courts be approached for a stay on something anticipated as defamatory?
It is rather odd that a media house should have got an ex parte injunction on the basis of a questionnaire sent to it. Media houses will now be hesitant to respond to questionnaires.
There is some disquiet over the ethics of sting or undercover journalism. There is a school of thought that believes that for the product to be credible, the route has to be credible too.
It is disconcerting that this specious argument gets a boost every time an undercover investigation of some significance breaks. Look at the kind of revelations this form of investigation has got you—that MPs took bribes to ask questions in Parliament, that over 28 Indian banks endemically laundered money, that clerics took money to issue absurd fatwas, the confessions of the Ranvir Sena on Dalit massacres, the Babri Masjid accused confessing their roles in the demolition of the mosque….I could go on and on. There is case law that has been established in India and abroad that is supportive of such investigations. Some of the stories we attempt require a high burden of proof and that can only be done by video. We also act upon prior information. Paid news is so endemic that prior information has no statistical or moral relevance. Another fact that I note is that when big media houses do undercover stuff there is no debate on ethics, but it resurfaces when a small non-profit organisation like ours goes out on a limb. We lost our contract with Times of India after the story. We are facing legal and other threats. All I see is mainstream media getting a free pass here. What our investigation reveals goes beyond just paid news. It is criminal when you agree to polarise, defame political opponents, take cash as payment, and so on.
Was the operation by Cobrapost made in the public interest, directed at showing disquieting trends within the media?
It is obviously in the public interest because the platforms that you invest so much faith in are letting you down. If editorial space goes to the biggest moneybags, then we might as well bid adieu to our democracy. The newspapers in India get subsidised newsprint because of the notion that they deliver a public service.
How have the media houses responded so far to the tapes?
The response on social media has been encouraging. In the mainstream media, it has been dismal. But the dilemma is understandable.