As Economic Times Pulls Down Paytm-Cobrapost Sting Story, Questions Over Its Coverage Arise

While it’s unclear why this story has been taken down – or shifted temporarily – this isn’t the first time the Times Group’s news websites have removed content that has been unflattering or inimical to certain parties.

New Delhi: India’s largest financial daily, the Economic Times (ET), published a story on Friday summarising the outcome of a sting operation that investigative website Cobrapost had run on a senior Paytm official.

The ‘sting’ video in question was essentially a recording of a conversation an undercover reporter posing as a Hindutva activist had with Ajay Shekhar Sharma, a senior vice-president at the digital payments company. Sharma claimed that the firm was asked by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to share the personal data of their users in Kashmir.

While factually correct, the crisp, 350-word story ET ran was unusual for three reasons.

First, this was the only news report that any of the major news organisations run by Bennett Coleman and Co Ltd (BCCL) published about the Cobrapost expose. As of Saturday (May 26) evening, none of the group’s TV channels, newspapers or websites have written anything else about what the Cobrapost videos tell us.

This is what makes it harder to ignore the elephant in the room: Why and how did ET feel that the Paytm portion of the Cobrapost investigation involving 27 media houses and one payments company was credible enough to cover but not what was truly the crux of the story – namely, the disturbing questions raised about the ethics of advertising and advertorials in the mainstream media.

The selective nature of ET’s coverage is made worse by the fact that, as The Wire pointed out on Friday, the biggest name to tumble out of Cobrapost’s stings was Times Group owner and managing director Vineet Jain, who can be seen discussing a proposed Rs 500 crore deal for content that would help promote Hindutva and its political agenda. Jain is also heard discussing how a part of the payment could be made in cash. In a statement issued  on May 26, BCCL insists all major company transactions are always done through banking channels.

Story taken down

Secondly, roughly eight hours after the story, which was published on ET Rise – the website’s vertical for coverage on “start-ups and SMEs” – it appears to be have been taken down and removed.

Users who tried to access the story on Saturday evening were greeted with an ‘Error 404 Not Found’ sign. This error code is most commonly displayed when a page’s content has been removed or the URL has changed.

A tweet put out by ET promoting the story. Credit: Twitter

A tweet put out by ET promoting the story. Credit: Twitter

ET’s tweets and Facebook posts promoting the story have also been deleted.

While it is unclear why this story has been taken down – or shifted temporarily – this isn’t the first time that the Times Group’s online news websites have removed content that has been unflattering or inimical to certain parties.

In the last year alone, there have been three major incidents where stories were removed and no explanation given to readers. These include reports on BJP President Amit Shah’s assets, a PIL accusing textiles minister Smriti Irani of fraud and another story that criticsed the Modi government’s crop insurance programme in Rajasthan.

Conflict of interest?

The last odd thing about the ET story on Paytm was the conflict of interest issues that it raised, especially in light of the media group’s selective coverage of the Cobrapost exposé.

Bennet Coleman & Company Ltd has long been criticised for its “ad-for-equity” deals with private firms. In a nutshell, BCCL offers advertising in exchange for equity in the company. This practice has been controversial because these deals could potentially result in favourable or biased coverage.

In April 2017, VCCircle, quoting documents accessed from the Registrar of Companies (RoC), reported that BCCL had invested nearly Rs 2 crore in digital payments company Mobikwik by subscribing to equity shares and warrants.

An April 2018 report from ET noted that BCCL had converted its warrants in Mobikwik to cumulative compulsorily convertible preference shares.

Mobikwik and Paytm are competitors in the mobile payments industry and fight for market share.

Did ET’s story on Cobrapost’s sting of Paytm – which most would argue is unflattering coverage at the very minimum – require a disclaimer and disclosure of conflict of interest? Most would say yes.

The question of what is appropriate disclosure has been long-debated. After capital market regulator SEBI asked media companies to provide better disclosure on such deals, BCCL created a separate website for what was then its ‘private treaties’ business. This has been currently shifted to the group’s Brand Capital arm and the list of investments can be viewed here.

The Times Group, on occasion, does provide disclaimers. For instance, during its critical coverage of Housing.com and its erstwhile CEO Rahul Yadav, ET‘s stories noted that Housing.com competed with Magic Bricks, a firm that was part of the Times Group. In at least one story on Mobikwik raising funding, it has disclosed that BCCL was an investor in the company.

At other times, a lack of disclosure has been troubling. As The Wire has reported, ET’s decision not to print disclaimers has been problematic on a number of instances including its editorials on the Jaypee Group and its (non) coverage of the Gitanjali Gems scam.

In covering Cobrapost’s claim that customer data at Paytm may not be secure, the Times Group was playing a difficult balancing game. The story it ran would have adversely affected Paytm’s reputation and thus benefited Mobikwik.

But at a time when  BCCL itself figures in Cobrapost’s investigaion and has taken the position as a company that Cobrapost has “maliciously presented a one sided view of the events, with intention of creating sensationalism at the expense of our organisation and to adversely affect our reputation, standing and integrity before the public”, ET’s own coverage of the Paytm angle has effectively undercut this attempt to attack Cobrapost’s credibility. Which is presumably why the story ended up getting taken down.