Under the scanner

The Cobrapost sting operation, which reveals the nexus between big money and manufactured news, may have come in for criticism on its methods but raises important questions on the role of the media in a democracy.

Published : Jun 06, 2018 12:30 IST

A screenshot of the Cobrapost website.

A screenshot of the Cobrapost website.

ON May 25, Cobrapost, a news website and television production house, was all set to conduct a screening and press conference of the findings of an undercover operation exposing sections of the Indian media, including big names in the industry. However, neither the screening nor the press conference took place, as one of the media organisations had sought an ex parte injunction from the Delhi High Court against the screening by the news website on May 24. No organisation offered its venue for the screening out of fear of running foul of the court’s order.

The undercover operation by Cobrapost had recorded videos of senior management-level executives and some owners of around 25 media organisations—print, online, radio and television—where they agreed to a proposal to propagate Hindutva, promote ideas that would polarise voters, and defame certain political parties and their leaders in the run-up to the State Assembly elections and the general election. The contents of the videos and the portents were indeed a matter to be concerned about as they clearly showed a nexus between big money and manufactured news.

This was not the first time Cobrapost had conducted sting operations. Yet, what was clearly a newsworthy story, meritorious of long-term introspection by the media itself, was blacked out by almost the entire media.

While some of the media organisations featured in the sting operation resorted to legal measures through ex parte injunctions or legal notices or court orders restraining the uploading of the incriminating videos, some others chose not to report at all on the revelations on ethical grounds, questioning the credibility of the route adopted and, in some cases, the credibility of the undercover reporter. The issue that there were larger questions on the susceptibility and amenability of prominent sections of the Indian media to accepting large sums of money in order to propagate certain ideas, influence public opinion and use their media forums to attack selective political opponents, was ignored.

The undercover reporter, who posed as “Acharya Atal” and claimed he was a pracharak or preacher of a fictitious organisation called the Srimad Bhagavad Gita Prachaar Samiti, approached 25 media organisations, including The Times of India , Hindustan Times , Network 18 , India Today , Zee News , ABP News , Bharat Samachar , Suvarna , Dainik Jagran, Bartaman , Dainik Samvad , Star India , Radio One , Red FM , Lokmat , ABN Andhra Jyothy , TV5 , Dinamalar , Big FM , K News , India Voice , The New Indian Express, MVTV and Open magazine, and Paytm. The Dainik Bhaskar was the only media organisation that was granted an ex parte stay by the Delhi High Court that prohibited Cobrapost from holding the press conference on May 25 and releasing the videos pertaining to the organisation at a public screening. Senior executives in two publications, Bartaman Patrika and Dainik Sambad , refused to even entertain the idea of promoting or propagating any one particular religion.

Each one of the recorded videos began with a detailed two-minute long disclaimer seeking indemnity against any charges of hurting any particular religion, beliefs or political interests, or of promoting hate or enmity. The disclaimer also stated that the undercover reporter was not affiliated to any political party or religious organisation and that the operation was purely in the public and social interest.

The basic question posed through the investigation was whether paid news was a reality and whether political propaganda could be easily sold to the media at a cost. In fact, there was no real transaction of payment in any form with any of the organisations investigated by Cobrapost. What was revealed was the clear intent of the majority of organisations to go along with the proposals of the undercover reporter.

The undercover reporter, Pushp Sharma, made it clear in his disguise as “Acharyaji” that his objective was to promote Hindutva through Hindu religious texts and that the media organisations he was offering crores of rupees to should be able to polarise the public and lampoon and ridicule political parties—the Congress and its leadership in particular—other than the Bharatiya Janata Party. Sharma also constantly referred to the “Sangathan”, the fictitious organisation he claimed to represent, and was able to sell the idea of promoting Hindutva in multimedia forms to these organisations. The fact that Sharma was able to access top levels of management and had repeated audiences with some owner-editors indicated a willingness on the part of the media organisations to accept the proposal for a hefty price.

The investigation involved talking to senior executives in marketing and sales, including chief revenue officers, vice presidents and owners of media organisations. What was interesting was that in the majority of cases, the undercover reporter, who was seen “offering” crores of rupees in Hindi and not very fluent English, was given a patient hearing by top-level executives.

Some such as Richa Mahajan, manager, sales, of the radio channel 104 FM, a subsidiary of the Hindustan Times Media Limited group, admitted to being a “hardcore RSS supporter”, while enthusiastic chief revenue officers of two organisations confidently assured the undercover reporter of taking the proposal forward.

Frontline wrote to the owner-editors and senior executives of seven leading media organisations, seeking comments on the Cobrapost videos relating to them. The email response from Rajeev Beotra, CEO-Print, Hindustan Times Media Limited, was as follows:

“At HT Media, we practice ethical journalism, follow high editorial standards, and do not EVER let our news coverage be influenced by monetary considerations. We do offer advertisers media marketing initiatives and brand solutions, featuring content created either by our or their marketing teams, like most publications in the world do, but these are always clearly labelled and disclosed AS SUCH MARKETING INITIATIVES. There is also a clear demarcation of church and state at HT Media, and our editors and newsrooms operate independent of any influence from the media marketing teams.”

Frontline wrote to at least six other organisations, including The Times of India, The New Indian Express, Dinamalar, Network 18 and India Today, but got no response.

Responding to Cobrapost, the India Today Group wrote that it stood for the highest standards of journalism. It said:

“The editorial has always worked independent of commercial transactions. The business side of the organisation, irrespective of their seniority or personal political and religious leanings, do not influence our editorial coverage in any way, nor is any sales representative of ours authorised to offer editorial coverage.

During the sting operation carried out by your undercover reporter, he had conversations with various sales employees of our Group for an advertising campaign. He did not meet anyone from our editorial team. In fact, in the meeting with our senior management, as well as in the advertising proposal sent to the undercover reporter on 16th February 2018, it is clearly mentioned that all the creatives would have to be approved by The India Today Group. Senior management also told your reporter that the Group will not do anything unethical, and that any advertising creative that divides the country on religious or caste lines will not be acceptable, and will not be aired on our channels.

“The India Today Group has always condemned paid news, and in its 43 years of existence, never indulged in any such practice. Any suggestion to the contrary would be malicious.”

Interestingly, in the video, the chief revenue officer, Rahul Shaw, whom the undercover reporter had spoken to earlier as well, clearly said that he was “very pro pro to the government”, wondered whether the reporter would like to sponsor the India Today Conclave, and added that “personally he would like to do it.” He also displayed a great degree of familiarity with the owner-editors of the group, referring to them in acronyms.

When the undercover reporter explained the three-phase campaign—comprising soft Hindutva through teachings from the BhagavadGita , semi-political attacks through satirical jingles using terms like Pappu (Rahul Gandhi), Bua (for Mayawati) and Babua (for Akhilesh), and polarisation through what he termed “infield activities” —the vice president of the India Today group, Kalli Purie, expressed discomfiture at the suggested “infield activities” and “aggressive polarisation” but did not once refuse the proposal with a blanket and emphatic “no”.

Kalli Purie also cautioned that “if there were any infield activities that we don’t agree with editorially, we will be criticising you.” When the undercover reporter suggested that all publications, including Cosmopolitan would be used for such propaganda, Kalli Puri expressed genuine surprise but also appeared to go along with her enthusiastic chief revenue officer, saying that “anyway any kind of advertising, the content is not decided by us.”

What is apparent in all the videos is that the content—editorial and advertorial—was discussed and described in clear and candid terms. The undercover reporter did not make any bones at any point about his intent to promote Hindutva and to target and trash political opponents through creative and editorial content, and none of the organisations approached, barring two, rejected his offer in unequivocal terms.

Similarly, senior executives of the The Times of India group, which owns radio stations as well, including the popular Radio Mirchi, were found to be receptive to the idea. The group sales head of Radio Mirchi, Bengaluru, told the undercover reporter in the video that they had done it earlier for the BJP through a “committee”.

The undercover reporter recorded interactions with senior executives of various subsidiaries of the Times Group. He met with owner and managing director of the Times Group, Vineet Jain, and Executive President (mergers and acquisitions corporate) Sanjeev Shah. Shah impressed upon the reporter that the circulation of the newspaper was larger than the population of the United Kingdom and claimed that the owner had suggested a sum of Rs.500 crore for the proposal.

Frontline has access to the correspondence between Shah and the Srimad Bhagavad Gita Prachar Samiti, the fictitious organisation created by the undercover reporter and Cobrapost for the operation. The letter is from Shah of Bennett Coleman and Company Limited (BCCL) to Sandeep Loya with the subject: “Comprehensive offer for marketing and advertising across the Times of India Group”.

The letter dated February 2, 2018, refers to “meetings we had in connection with the above” where Shah writes that “we are keen to work with you in popularising & communicating the message of the Bhagavad Gita and Lord Krishna. We feel that the various media platforms available across BCCL would be very useful to you in creating more awareness around these two subjects. We feel that an outlay of Rs.500 crore should be committed by you to be spent across our group’s media platforms. This amount can be the total budget for the next 12 months. The individual components ad spends will be decided for each quarter based on the individual media and content plans as agreed and approved by you.”

The letter then gives a four-page annexure with “a detailed break-up of the various group properties and how we can use them”.

Shah also wrote that it was an initial list of potential ideas and needed to be detailed with specific inputs from the Prachar Samiti on its priorities. He adds that they (the TOI Group) “have tried to outline a few potential ideas for each media platform.”

At the meeting with the undercover reporter, Jain appeared to be going along with the proposal and at one point, even suggested that as a corporate, they should appear neutral. The clip revealed both Jain and Shah suggesting alternative routes of payment that Cobrapost describes as the “havala route”. Cobrapost said that it sent a detailed questionnaire to TOI, which the organisation responded to but debarred Cobrapost from publishing it with the injunction: “Strictly not for publication, unless approved by us in writing.” Interestingly, in response to a questionnaire sent by TheWire , the TOI claimed that it had conducted a “counter-sting” on the undercover reporter. The contents of the “counter-sting”, like the injunction on the response it sent to the Cobrapost, appear to be confidential.

It may be argued that as no real cash transactions were made, there was no real criminality or inappropriateness on part of the media organisations involved in the sting operation. Yet, there is little doubt about the overwhelming amenability to the idea proposed by the undercover reporter, and the proposal itself appeared to be par for the course. That the offer of a large sum of money as inducement to carry out the dubious yet fictitious agenda by the undercover reporter seemed lucrative to the organisations was worrying enough. The other worrying aspect has been the reluctance of much of the media to report on the findings, apart from the fact that Cobrapost was not at liberty to screen its findings.

Dainik Bhaskar and Suvarna, obtained court orders restraining the uploading of the recorded videos; a third organisation threatened to sue Cobrapost, while a fourth claimed it knew that the operation was a sting and had, in turn, conducted a “counter-sting”. Of the two dozen organisations featured in the sting only a few responded to the questionnaire sent by Cobrapost.

In its 2010 report, the Press Council of India defined paid news as “any news or analysis appearing in any media (print or electronic) for a price in cash or kind as consideration”. The Election Commission concurred with this definition, adding that paid news played a vitiating role in free and fair elections. But there was no follow-up on its own report. The subcommittee’s report on paid news that was submitted to the PCI was downsized by a drafting committee that prepared a shorter report. It was after some delay that the report, running to over 3,000 pages, was posted on the PCI website following an RTI application. Some of the media organisations featured in the sting also featured in the report on paid news by the PCI.

The Cobrapost sting has come in for criticism on the grounds that the methods lacked transparency and that the means are equally important as the end. While many media organisations do not use the undercover approach to get information, the question is if the undercover operation has been done in genuine public interest, to uncover a malaise that has the potential to skew the nature of democracy itself by a malleable media, then perhaps such operations are justified. The inter-media solidarity on issues that could potentially threaten the comfort zones of each media house is perhaps unique to India. The documents that were published by WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden were used by a section of the international press, even though the founder of Wikileaks and Snowden were hounded.

Indian television channels, which normally jump at anything remotely sensational, have been as silent on the Cobrapost sting as major national newspapers.

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