Mangalam TV’s controversial story has invited sharp criticism from all quarters, with the state government initiating a judicial probe into the matter.
Kannur: Days after it broadcast what it called a ‘shocking exposé’ of a Kerala minister’s inappropriate telephonic conversation with a “housewife who approached him for help,” Mangalam TV, a newly-launched Malayalam news channel, on Thursday admitted that it had a role in the controversial conversation.
On Sunday, March 26, Mangalam TV aired an audio clip in which state transport minister A.K. Saseendran was heard engaging in a lewd conversation with a woman whose voice was edited out. The TV channel claimed the minister was exploiting a housewife who had approached him for help. Mangalam CEO Ajith Kumar has now revealed the woman is a journalist with the news channel. Saseendran is a senior leader of the Nationalist Congress Party, which is part of Kerala’s ruling Left Democratic Front.
Saseendran resigned hours after the clip was played on the channel. Although he said he had nothing to do with the clip, he cited ethical reasons while announcing his resignation.
The state government subsequently ordered a judicial probe into the matter.
“We made some mistakes regarding the story. Mangalam TV truly regrets it,” Kumar said in a statement he read on the channel on Thursday. However, the channel maintained that the story was a ‘sting operation’. Kumar also said that the channel did not force anyone to work on the story and that a woman journalist ‘voluntarily’ agreed to chat with the minister. “It was a decision taken collectively by an editorial team consisting of eight senior journalists. A woman journalist who voluntarily took up the charge was assigned to do this,” he said. The channel also said that it would not repeat the mistake and that it would make a “special arrangement” in the editorial wing “not to repeat the mistakes”.
Responding to the development, Saseendran welcomed the channel’s ‘apology’. “Malayali society has a habit of forgiving those who admit their guilt,” the former minister was quoted as saying.
Mangalam’s explanation came in the wake of emerging allegations against the channel. Many, including journalists, have claimed the channel had played a ‘criminal role’ in the recorded telephonic conversation. The channel’s open apology is also believed to have been inspired by the judicial commission constituted by the Pinarayi Vijayan government to probe the issue.
Several journalists across media platforms were quick to question and condemn the story soon after it aired. also raising questions about media ethics.
Even before the apology, Mangalam, which asked viewers to “keep their children away from the television sets” before airing the audio clip during daytime on Sunday, failed to answer some key questions, including what specific wrongdoing Saseendran was being accused of.
The audio tape and the news reader’s comments gave the viewers no ‘evidence’ to prove he had ‘misused his office’ or engaged in any other illegal act.
The lack of the woman’s voice in the aired clip raised doubts of a planned honey trap. The channel said it edited out the woman’s voice to protect her ‘privacy’, a privilege it denied Saseendran.
The channel also did not inform viewers about the help, if any, the woman sought from Saseendran when the conversation allegedly happened.
Criticism from media fraternity
Even before Mangalam apologised for the story, several journalists had begun to suggest that the channel had used its own editorial staff to involve the minister in the conversation.
Manila C. Mohan, a journalist with Mathrubhumi Weekly, declared that the channel became a ‘tragedy’ in itself. “Mangalam Television channel is a tragedy as far as Malayalam journalism is concerned. And March 26 is a tragic day. This divides the Malayalam mainstream journalism into news/ porn news,” Manila wrote on Facebook.
Senior journalist B.R.P. Bhaskar was among those who raised pointed questions over the story. “Was the woman a genuine complainant or [was this] a honey trap? Who recorded the conversation and for what purpose? How did the audio clip reach the channel? Above all, was the entire thing contrived to boost the new channel’s prospects in a crowded marketplace?” he asked.
Media critic and former MP Sebastian Paul warned that stories like this damage the “credibility of the media as a whole”.
The channel has faced some criticism from its own journalists too. Mangalam has already seen some of its staff quit over the story and the subsequent ‘shame’. At least three journalists have made it known that they have resigned from the channel.
Al-Neema Ashraf, who worked with the channel and resigned following the ‘exposé’, later said that she had never expected the channel would do what it did. Ashraf also said she resigned because the situation at the channel became “intolerable” for her “as a journalist and as a woman”. “The first story itself brought shame on those who work there,” she wrote.
Some journalists, especially women, have also raised concerns that the controversy may result in hostility, unfriendliness and skepticism from ‘male sources’.
Suvi Viswanathan, a television journalist covering the upcoming by-election in the Malappuram Lok Sabha constituency revealed that she was denied an interview by a senior politician citing the ‘Saseendran episode’.
In a Facebook post, Viswanathan said the leader responded that he would give an interview if the reporter is a man. “I called a senior leader from the CPM. He [asked] whether I would make a ‘Saseendran’ out of him. He told me a female is not welcome but would give interview to a male reporter…It’s been six-seven years that I am into journalism. I have never reported anything that goes against my conscience. I always maintained my professional ethics. I believe it’s not just me, but a vast majority of the women journalists are like this. I never felt that being a woman is a limit to practise journalism.”
The ‘Network of Women in Media Kerala’ has now written to the chief minister to bring his attention to the issues some women journalists are now facing.
An official investigation into Mangalam’s ‘exposé’ by a one-man judicial commission headed by a former district judge is now underway. The commission has three months to probe, besides other issues, the context of the conversation, whether the recorded conversation was later maliciously edited, who was behind the chat, if there was any legal violation in broadcasting it and if there was any conspiracy involved.
Muhammed Sabith is a journalist and educator.