Hindutva’s messengers

Print edition : April 27, 2018

Mediapersons outside the Raj Bhavan in Chennai, a file picture. Political observers say the sting operation has only confirmed what had been suspected for a long time. Photo: M. Karunakaran

A screenshot of the Cobrapost website. The sting operation was named Operation 136, in reference to India’s 136th ranking on the World Press Freedom index, compiled by the global watchdog Reporters Without Borders last year.

A sting operation conducted by the website Cobrapost pushes a section of the Indian media into a credibility crisis.

THE Indian media’s worst kept secret for the past many years, that some sections of them have been bought over, has been confirmed in a sting operation conducted by Cobrapost, the investigative website founded by Aniruddha Bahal of Tehelka fame. The sting operation, which targeted many mainstream print and electronic media companies, including websites, mainly in northern India, has established how paid news, masquerading as news, is a reality; how media houses have become willing accomplices of right-wing propaganda for money; and how they have no problem in peddling defamatory content on the political rivals of Hindutva forces and even push stories running down the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) alliance partners in order to keep them in their place.

What is astounding is how gullible media honchos are when it comes to striking possible big deals that promise good money. Apparently, senior media house owners and executives agreed, without making any background check, to meet an undercover reporter who masqueraded as a right-wing propagandist. He posed as Acharya Atal representing an organisation called Shrimad Bhagwat Gita Prachar Samiti based in Ujjain. No questions were asked just because he talked of payments ranging from Rs.5 crore to Rs.50 crore. Responsible owners/senior executives of various news organisations are seen in the video drooling at the very idea, even enthusiastically pronouncing their own right-wing affiliations, and agreeing to do whatever he demanded. Interestingly, he told them that his organisation had set aside Rs.750 crore for the Karnataka elections alone and some Rs.7,000 crore for the 2019 general elections.

His proposal, as seen in the video, was threefold: in the first phase run content/print stories on soft Hindutva for the first three months which would be deemed as a trial period; in the second phase, depending on the positive outcome of the trial period, run/print content that would polarise the electorate on communal lines; and in phase three, in the period close to the general election in 2019, run/print content that would paint BJP leaders in a positive light, defame key opposition leaders such as Rahul Gandhi, Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati and run jingles with references to pappu, babua and bua (alluding to these three leaders).

Significantly, the deal was also to run/print negative stories on even BJP leaders such as Arun Jaitley, Maneka Gandhi and Varun Gandhi who are not perceived to be on the right side of Hindutva, and alliance partners like O.P. Rajbhar, Upendra Kushwaha and Anupriya Patel in order to keep them in their place.

The third phase was to include complete media management by these willing partners on behalf of Hindutva forces, that is, to use their influence in other organisations and make them follow suit. The basic idea behind the so-called deal, as explained in the video, was to push the Hindutva ideology and defame political rivals by showing them in a poor light and by printing/running content that would be akin to character assassination. All this, obviously, for a hefty price, most of which was to be given in cash without accounting for it anywhere.

Operation 136

Seventeen media organisations that were caught in the sting operation are the Hindi newspapers Dainik Jagran, Amar Ujala, Aaj, Swatantra Bharat and Punjab Kesri; the English newspaper DNA; the television channels India TV, Sadhana Prime, Samachar Plus, Hindi Khabar and HNN 24x7; the websites ScoopWhoop, and IndiaWatch; the news agency UNI; and the entertainment channels SAB and 9X Tashan. The sting operation was named Operation 136, in reference to India’s 136th ranking on the World Press Freedom index, compiled by the global watchdog Reporters Without Borders last year. It was made clear that this was part one of the operation; the second part would be released sometime in April.

The undercover reporter was Pushp Sharma, who was embroiled in a controversy last year for claiming in a news report that the Ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy) was systematically avoiding employing Muslims. He had based the report on documents reportedly accessed through the Right to Information (RTI) route. However, it turned out that they were forged documents, and he was arrested by the Delhi Police.

Significantly, an expose of this magnitude and of such damning nature was not covered by any electronic media organisation. There was no news of this on news channels; neither did the main newspapers publish it.

That media houses are bending over backwards to please the BJP government is no secret. The sting operation has brought to the fore what was done covertly. It gave a voice and a face to the players.

According to observers in the media world, it has all along been known that news reports are no longer sacrosanct. Facts are twisted, manipulated and given a spin to suit someone’s interests. Newspapers are selling even their mastheads: remember The Times of India and The Economic Times inserting features/characters in their mastheads for advertisers, all this in the name of innovative/creative advertising. The revelations should come as no surprise when at least one media house had made it clear that newspapers are commodities, like soap, to be sold in the market and that for selling anything, attractive packaging was of importance. So how you package the product, and in this case, a news report, an entire newspaper, is more important than the content itself.

Interestingly, the official caught on camera in the sting operation for 9X Tashan is Pradeep Guha, who had worked as the chief executive officer of The Times of India Group during much of the period when that newspaper was innovating in advertising methods. Guha is the man behind the concept of “infotainment”, meaning merging information with entertainment. To be fair, Guha is heard saying in the video that he has no political agenda but has no problem doing whatever makes the channel popular among youths.

Surprisingly, despite the sting operation showing Sangh ideology brokers in such a poor light (the undercover reporter boasts about his Sangh affiliation, and so do others), there has been no comment by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) so far. When contacted, Manmohan Vaidya, the former propaganda chief of the RSS who is currently looking after bigger organisational responsibilities, said anyone could go around bragging about their Sangh affiliation, but the RSS had never stooped to such low levels for popularising its ideology. “We will see if there is any objectionable content and take necessary action,” Vaidya said.

Political observers, however, said the sting operation had only confirmed what was had been suspected for a long time. “Everyone knew the media were being used by the Hindutva forces. Now we have seen how and why,” said Yogendra Yadav, the leader of the political party Swaraj Abhiyan. According to him, the Indian media are facing a credibility crisis and it is to be seen how they will come out of this. “Somebody, somewhere has to stand up and take note, otherwise the media will lose whatever respect they are left with,” he said. Now that media organisations were functioning as business entities, he said, the time had come to think of some regulatory mechanisms that could take action against wayward organisations which were duping people.

‘Dangerous tactics’

According to Yogendra Yadav, the tactics used to manipulate the media by power brokers were more dangerous than the censorship during the Emergency. “Then at least you knew what you were reading was censored news. Now you don’t even know, and unconsciously your thought process is being manipulated,” he said.

But media manipulation, say observers, has found other methods too under the National Democratic Alliance dispensation, besides the direct payment mode.

For instance, getting a friendly business entity to buy out the entire organisation so that it does your bidding, getting an apparently unfriendly journalist fired, and unleashing agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate, the Central Bureau of Investigation or the Income Tax Department on unfriendly media groups are methods employed to buy silence. Examples of these abound in recent times: the way NDTV was being hounded by the IT Department is a case in point. The government ordered NDTV India to suspend telecast for one day for leaking sensitive information during the terrorist attack at Pathankot airbase last year when every other news channel peddled exactly similar information.

Yet another example of the BJP government arm-twisting the so-called neutral media houses is the way The Tribune editor Harish Khare was made to resign recently much before his term came to an end in May this year. He had allowed the publication of news stories that made the government uncomfortable: Punjab Minister Bikram Singh Majithia’s alleged drug racket links, and security breach of data from the Unique Identification Authority of India’s (UIDAI) database. While in Majithia’s case the paper was forced to publish a front-page apology, in the Aadhaar data breach story, a first information report has been filed against the paper and the reporter concerned.

What is of importance here is the fact that the media themselves have to take the steps needed to regain credibility. So far, watchdog organisations, the Press Council of India and the News Broadcasters Standards Authority, have not commented on the sting operation. Neither has any media organisation caught in the sting operation reacted to it. Frontline tried contacting some of them, but the standard reply was “no comment”. Some of them argued that nothing of what was discussed during the sting operation had either been printed or aired, and no money had changed hands.

A senior editorial staff in one of the newspapers mentioned in the sting operation said it was common for people to brag about their influence in their organisation while in reality the people caught by the operation are not actually those who would decide what went on air or what got printed. In that sense it was a futile exercise, he argued. “Besides, most of those shown are marketing or salespeople, while editorial decisions are taken by the editorial staff, so what has been shown should be taken with a huge pinch of salt,” said a senior person in DNA. This person added that advertisements carried on a particular channel or printed in a newspaper should not be linked with editorial credibility.

All this may be true, but the fact remains that the media have been shown in a poor light, and the onus is now on the entire media to redeem themselves.

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