New Delhi: The Cobrapost sting on Zee Media, which runs one of the oldest and largest private television networks in the country, as part of its exposé codenamed ‘Operation 136,’ has revealed how the network, owned by BJP MP Subhash Chandra, has been violating almost every norm of ethical journalism.
Both journalist and non-journalist employees of the channel have been caught on camera by the investigative portal revealing how they accept black money for advertisements, run “paid news” campaigns without any disclosures for the likes of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath, run campaigns to run down political opponents of parties – as they did with the Akalis in Punjab – and are prepared to bend over backwards to accommodate the demand of any party, even if it seeks to promote communalism or “attack” opponents, provided the money is good.
In its introduction to the sting on Zee, Cobrapost also recalled how Zee News has often got embroiled in major controversies, be it around its face-off with Jindal Group, which had accused its editor-in-chief, Sudhir Chaudhary, and an executive, Sameer Ahluwalia, of trying to extort Rs 100 crore from it, leading to the arrest of the two by the Delhi Police in 2012, or the channels penchant for peddling “nationalism”.
In this regard, a case is also pending before the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) on a complaint filed by noted scientist and poet Gauhar Raza and other eminent personalities, who had accused the channel of defaming them through its programme ‘Afzal Premi Gang ka Mushaira’, which it had run in the wake of the students’ protest in Jawaharlal Nehru University in early 2016. Raza had recently also accused the channel of ignoring NBSA directives on running an apology in the matter.
It is also ironical that Zee officials were recorded admitting to running “paid news” when the group’s founder in an episode of the ‘Subhash Chandra Show‘ is seen lecturing college and university students on media ethics and moral science.
What stood out in the sting on Zee Media was the openness of the disclosures made by executives and journalists right from the bottom of the ladder to the top.
As Pushp Sharma – an undercover journalist posing as ‘Acharya Atal’, a member of an unnamed ashram made his way up from the lowest rungs of Zee with lucrative offers of giving advertisements running into crores, most of the network employees acquiesced to play ball without raising any questions about his unethical demands.
Sharma first reached the office of Zee Kalinga in Odisha. Here, he met sales and marketing team member Santosh Kumar Mohrana. Sharma tells Mohrana that he wanted to have a business alliance with Zee’s regional channel. He also told him that the reason was that he wanted to promote his party in the state ahead of the next polls. Mohrana, in turn, said that for Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh too the deal could be struck from Bhubaneswar itself.
Offer of “paid news” lapped up by executives
Sharma then met Mohrana’s senior Gouri Mohanty, the assistant vice-president of sales, in a Bhubaneswar coffee shop. Mohrana had conveyed to Mohanty the reason for the meeting – that Sharma wanted to plant a story against a party for political gains in the polls. This was a clear case of “paid news”.
Mohanty responded by saying the criterion was that “it should look like we are with all” – that it was with every party and not partisan. She agreed to the idea and said, “so we can always do that”.
To check if the channel was willing to receive payments in black, Sharma weaved a story that the ashram he represented was “offering some sort of cash”. He asked her to share “some strategy (on) how we can route this cash through with an agency or something”.
On this subject, Mohanty said that “bigger agencies are there and they can always do that”. She then elaborated on how the payment could be done.
Call for ‘Hindutva content’ did not raise eyebrows
The sting also revealed how when Sharma asked Mohanty “how best you can provide me Hindutva content so that we can washout the mind of the masses and create euphoria in favour of…”, she did not sense anything amiss and simply explained that there were days of fixed point chart or FCP when they planned for the whole week.
She added that the agenda of her chairman was to go to the “remote” areas, to “each and every panchayat”, “each and every block” in every “corner of Odisha” – implying that the message of Hindutva would also be spread far and wide.
In this way, she said, the programmes proposed by Sharma could be added on. She added that if all went well and the proposal was okay with the “chairman” or the “business head”, the two sides would begin “working like a partnership programme”.
Zee officials also disclosed they had a man to turn black money into white
As the deal for Odisha appeared done, Sharma asked Mohanty to introduce him to someone for Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh. He was then introduced to Sanjoy Chatterjee, executive vice president and cluster head sales of Zee Unimedia Limited.
Sharma told him that he wanted Zee to run stories in these states to create a mood in favour of his party. By now, Cobrapost said, Chatterjee had spoken to the editorial team, who were willing to support them.
Cobrapost said Chatterjee also apparently disclosed that one Mukesh Jindal from the company’s Noida office could turn the black money into white. Throwing bigger bait, Sharma said the organisation would increase the election limit if Rajasthan would get involved. When he asked what help his organisation would get while working in the “election mode” from the network, Chatterjee assured him that for this programme “we will do anything and everything that is required to make your plan successful, that’s our commitment”.
Chatterjee soon became more than helpful and began offering free advice as well. He advised Sharma that when it came to the audiences, “you will have to instill in them the confidence about the Hindutva thing. Some speak out like you do, some don’t like I do.” He then added: “I am a corporate, yes. I am also Brahmin. I am Chatterjee.”
Stating that he knew “whatever our country is going through”, he said he was not giving a “sales talk” as the sale was already done.
Chatterjee also referred to how it was a “good thing” that before meeting Sharma he had “sat down with Purushottam ji”, who “assured” him that “there will be every single help from the channel to make your plan successful”.
‘Jindal a regular go-to guy for dealing in black money’
When Sharma said he won’t be using his Australian account “to divert money” to the channel account and that the “deal would be purely in cash”, Chatterjee expressed surprise saying “everything in cash?” However, he later said as far as finances go, the company would involve the person from Noida who handles such issues. He also acknowledged the price agreed upon was Rs 10 crore but added that the nuances of that would be handled by Jindal.
Regarding Jindal, he was seen saying, “he handles the finances for any such thing that we do. He knows how we can manage this keeping your objective in mind, keeping our objective in mind”.
After the marketing team, Sharma wanted to meet the editorial team. Here he was introduced to Purushottam Vaishnav – who was earlier referred to as Purushottam ji by Chatterjee – at a five-star hotel in Bhubaneswar. Sharma was told by Chatterjee that Vaishnav was the CEO of some regional news channels.
Deal size fixed at Rs 25 crore, 50% in black
When Sharma raised the issue of “cash adjustment”, Vaishnav said there was a team which would do it. During this discussion, Chatterjee said the deal amount would be Rs 25 crore for the four states of which “50% of the money will be in cash and 50% will be in cheque”. He also said that the cheque part would have “come in totality” and that the modalities of the contract would be decided by “Purushottam ji”.
But when asked by Sharma to intervene, Vaishnav declared that he was a “journalist” and that the money part was best decided by the sales team. He, however, assured Sharma that the cash-cheque payment ratio would be finalised as per his “convenience”.
Chatterjee then said that the cheque portion will have to come as “full advance” and that GST would also be payable on it. At this, Sharma offered to pay into a Zee account in Australia or Europe, if there was one, from his own Australian account but refused to transfer that money into India. He also cooked up a story that his family was settled in Australia and as such he had an account there. When the two Zee officials were discussing whether the cheque should be drawn in favour of Zee Unimedia or Zee International, Sharma said he should not be made to pay into these as he would become taxable then.
Coverage promised was for two hours each day in all states
For Rs 25 crore, the Zee officials said they would give him coverage in the four states that are headed for assembly elections, namely Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. They said he would get two hours coverage “across the day” in each and would cover “all the bulletins, the discussions and everything”.
Saying there can be no bigger example of “paid news”, Cobrapost said these conversations showed how the Press Council of India (PCI) guidelines are being blatantly flouted and the media – which is supposed to be unbiased – is selling its integrity for money.
The PCI does not legally have a mandate over television channels but its guidelines are seen as providing a normative standard for all media platforms.
What was most striking in the Zee recordings was the offer Vaishnav made of using the channel’s special investigation team to do Sharma’s bidding. He told Sharma that the content being provided by him would be absorbed while some content would also be generated by the Zee team. He added to good measure that the company does “investigative journalism” – and that the amount done by Zee had not been done by anyone else – which it would continue to do.
UP CM ads being pushed as news by Zee
Cobrapost said Vaishnav also referred to the advertiser-funded programme (AFP) being run by the company. He said, “AFP mechanism is there so that we provide the advertiser with the content he desires.” He also disclosed that the company was at present running “honourable Yogiji’s” (apparently a reference to Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath) programmes in the form of AFP.
When Sharma wondered if only “pravachan” or discourses would form part of AFP, and what would happen to “content providing” or “investigative stories”, Vaishnav clarified that all these would be part of AFP and how they would be brought on “screen” would become known in the “script”.
At this, when Sharma said “AFP” should not be written on top of the screening, Vaishnav assured him saying “you leave that to us” while Chatterjee clarified that it was not like newspapers where “advertorial” is written. “On TV,” he said, “no such thing appears.”
Zee officials felt agenda to “communalise”, carry out “attacks” would sail through in the ‘heat of elections’
Cobrapost said when Sharma told the channel executives that two-three months before the polls he would need more aggressive coverage for his party, Vaishnav declared that whatever he wanted would be done. “Whatever plan you will say, at the time of elections there is so much fire all around that the energy is different.”
Even when Sharma said that he wants issues to get “communalised” and declared that “attacks” shall take place, saying that he should benefit and that “the actions of these people are such that they need to be attacked”, Vaishnav played ball with a philosophical reply: “The truth can never be hidden, it always comes before us and Zee Media is an organisation which places the truth before people with all sincerity. Then, be they be the incidents of Bengal or elsewhere.”
When Sharma said he did not want to be told the “rules” of “journalism” on election day by the channel, as that would spoil everything for him, Purushottam initially said that the channel could not ignore the issues concerning “journalism”. But when Sharma asked why he come to Zee because he could do such “journalism” with anyone else, and that he was not asking for stories to be planted but only demanding “heavy play” of the “investigative” stories that the channel would be bringing against his rivals, Purushottam gave a vague positive reply while agreeing to play ball, saying “it was all a part of perception” and that he did not feel it essential to put everything in “black or white”.
Cobrapost said that from the follow-up messages received by Sharma from Zee, it appeared that the organisation wanted to do agenda journalism while keeping its image squeaky clean.
Chandigarh executive admitted channel worked against Akalis in last polls
In the case of a regional channel of Zee which deals with Haryana, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, Sharma approached the senior manager of its sales department in Chandigarh, Sagar Arora, and told him that he wants stories against a particular party not to appear on the channel, to which Arora said that for this he would have to meet his regional head.
Sharma then said that “can we get that kind of understanding that whenever there is a very fierce attack” which, he said, would happen very rarely, or once every 2-3 years, then in such a situation the channel would resort to “diversion tactics” and resort to “diluting” such “main story” that would be running “across the spectrum”. For this too, Arora said he would get a meeting arranged with the “regional head” and noted that then “we will take a call mutually”.
Arora also bragged about or made a sensational disclosure about his channel’s equation with the Akalis. In response to Sharma’s proposition and reference that “regional leaders were very big and the father-son duo, and the son’s wife” were “ruling this territory” and his asking how to bring an end to this, Arora said for that a major prerequisite is that his party should be able to bring up 4-5 big leaders on its own.
When coaxed by Sharma on whether his channel would do some investigative work to probe the money-making by the big state leaders, Arora said that if Sharma would have “closely watched” his channel, he would have known better. “Hamare channel nay Akaliyon ki jo band bajayee hai, aap soch bhi nahin saktay” (You cannot even imagine the way our channel had taken the Akalis to task). They did not spare the Akalis at all. In 5-6 days of their programming, everything changed and some vote also got converted.”