Forget the Cobra That Stings, We Need to Worry About the Media That Poisons

Whatever the media owners do or don't do to fix or further damage our newspapers and television channels, Indian journalism will survive and thrive so long as there are a million mutinies every day in every newsroom.

Industry responses to the ‘sting’ recordings Cobrapost made of conversations between an undercover reporter and more than two dozen national and regional media houses have varied from silence, legal threats and denials of wrongdoing, to even a claim – made by the Times group – that its executives who are seen making seemingly incriminating statements on camera were actually play-acting as part of a “counter sting” to “reel in” the reporter.

None of the media organisations whose executives and owners were ‘stung’ are prepared to accept there is anything wrong with the way they are running their businesses. While their reluctance is understandable, the silence of the rest of the Indian media is not.

Some media proprietors have taken refuge behind the questionable ethics of sting operations, noting that in their organisations such methods of reporting are not allowed. As a rule, journalists ought not to misrepresent themselves while pursuing a story. That rule is sometimes bent at the margins but in a sting, misrepresentation is everything, and most media organisations, The Wire included, have a policy of not conducting them. However, editors are not judges presiding over trials who disallow improperly obtained information as evidence. In journalism, there is usually no such thing as the “fruit of the poisoned tree” provided the one binding constraint of good journalism is satisfied – that there be compelling, overriding public interest involved in the responsible use of the information.

Public interest is overriding

WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden broke United States law to place in the public domain thousands of official documents with top secret classification. Yet some of the biggest newspapers and TV channels in that country and around the world did not treat those documents as untouchable. They read them, evaluated them, cross-checked what was possible to verify, and then reported about them. The reason they did this was because the public interest involved over-rode concerns about the fact that the material had emerged unlawfully.

Earlier this year, Channel4, a respected news organisation in Britain, went public with the results of a sting operation it carried out on Cambridge Analytica. As in the Cobrapost story, a reporter posed as a potential client looking to see how he could deploy money to tilt the political scales in an upcoming election in his favour. There is not a single major news organisation in India – including those which have suddenly turned squeamish about the ethics of stings – that did not cover the details of the sting operation and comment on its implications. This is because the possibility of money being used to subvert the political process is an issue of compelling public interest. And that is also what the Cobrapost sting was all about.

A reporter introduced himself to various media organisations as ‘Acharya Atal’ and said he was the representative of a shadowy organisation whose aim was to use the media to promote Hindutva for political purposes so as to help the Bharatiya Janata Party win the upcoming election. These credentials, and the huge amount of money he said he was willing to spend, were enough to get him entry into the highest levels on the corporate side of more than a dozen national and regional media newspapers and TV channels.

In his secretly filmed meetings, the proposal he made was for promoting content in a staggered fashion. First would come what he called ‘soft Hindutva’, consisting of religious programming, to create the “appropriate atmosphere”. Next, he wanted content which would mock the BJP’s rivals, and finally, as the election drew closer, there would be material that would “polarise”.

Three deadly sins

In any media house committed to the normal ethical standards of journalism, ‘Acharya Atal’ would have been shown the door as soon as he unveiled his poisonous agenda.

According to Cobrapost, only two Bengali newspapers, Bartaman and the Dainik Sambad, did the honourable thing and said upfront that they did not want to have anything to do with him. The Times Group says the statements its managing director is seen making should not be taken at face value – that they were on to the reporter, and that they mounted a reverse sting. One presumes they have their own video evidence to back this up. That said, it is clear that everywhere he went, the ‘acharya’ appears to have been welcomed with open arms. This was the first cardinal sin that these media organisations committed.

Such a sin gets committed when the balance between editorial and managerial prerogatives is so completely stacked in favour of the latter that the company forgets its social responsibilities as a news organisation and privileges revenue over every other concern.

What Acharya Atal was proposing was the political equivalent of Marlboro Man telling US media executives in a meeting that his aim is to promote smoking and would they be willing to accept millions of dollars to run surrogate programming to that end. Maybe in the bad old days of Big Tobacco, he might have pulled it off. In 2018, not a chance. Yet in India, a shady character selling the cancer of communalism to the media was able to generate enormous interest.

This first sin – cash is king – leads to the second. For a media organisation, the temptation to offer the paying client something more than plain vanilla advertising becomes overwhelming. Acharya Atal was vague about what exactly he wanted, leaving it to the discretion of the executives he met. Typically, the first-order product he was offered were advertorials, brand promotion features and advertiser paid features, with either scanty or no disclosure to the reader about the paid nature of the content. Some organisations spoke openly about the collateral benefits an advertiser with deep pockets could expect on the editorial side. “[If] you are giving me a couple of crore rupees to talk positive about you, automatically my editorial is under pressure not to go deep negative,” a Hindustan Times executive told the undercover reporter. In a few places, ad sales executives and revenue officers offered him positive news coverage, i.e. paid news.

What is it that gives business executives the confidence to make commitments about editorial coverage? Some of this may have been bravado – to “reel in” an advertiser – but in most newspapers and TV channels these promises accurately reflect the DNA of the organisation. The fact is that for years now, proprietors have empowered their advertising and marketing departments to maximise revenue at any cost, even if this means compromising the integrity of editorial.  Large advertisers expect and receive favourable coverage. The latest and most toxic form this process takes is when media organisations create marketing events where top politicians and corporate houses are roped in as speakers and sponsors respectively. For months before and after such events, there is pressure on editorial not to go “deep negative”.

The third sin that the Cobrapost sting discloses about the media is their willingness to accept commercial payments in cash. Executives in media houses that strongly backed Narendra Modi’s ill-advised demonetisation decision in November 2016 on the grounds that this would eliminate black money appear to have no problem accepting Acharya Atal’s request that he use cash as part payment. In one of the videos, the Times group’s  managing director is seen discussing how cash could be routed to facilitate the transaction. The group’s legal department insists the tapes Cobrapost released have been doctored and misrepresented, and that Vineet Jain was playing along in order to trap the undercover reporter. Be that as it may,  the income tax department should look into the circuits of cash circulation mentioned in all the recordings with different media houses and establish whether they actually exist in some form. In any case, we know from the dearth of  complaints of paid news received by the Election Commission that politicians use cash – undocumented and untraceable – for these transactions.

What is to be done?

Instead of retreating into a shell of denial, the Indian media needs to use this occasion to stem and reverse the rot which lies exposed. There are three levels at which the cleansing has to take place.

First, unethical commercial practices – especially those which have erased the boundary lines between advertising and news – must be abandoned. A clearly defined red line needs to be drawn and ad sales executives at every level counselled about the importance of adhering to it. The line is very simple to understand: Never mislead the reader or viewer by making paid-for content appear as news or analysis or commentary or features. Readers and viewers are the most important stakeholders for news organisations and any business model which relies on cheating them will not be sustainable in the long run.

Second, media owners must restore a proper balance between the editorial and commercial sides of their newspapers and news TV channels. This too is not rocket science and there are still media organisations where the editor’s independence is respected. I was fortunate enough to be the editor of such a newspaper, The Hindu, for two years from 2012 to 2013. Nobody from the management side – not the CEO and not even the owners – had the right to veto, undercut or override an editorial decision on what to print. And the boundary was respected.

But the editor’s freedom raises a third issue – freedom only counts if one is prepared to exercise it. So it will not be enough for a proprietor to proclaim, “But my editor decides everything”, when that editor is constantly looking over her or his shoulder at what the owner wants. When Harish Khare was appointed editor of The Tribune, he told me, using the popular Urdu phrase, that he was going in with a shroud tied around his head – with no expectation of longevity and every expectation of sudden death. He ran a feisty ship but when he sensed a tide of unreasonableness from the newspaper’s trustees building up,  he decided ‘not on my watch’ and bowed out gracefully.

Let each stand in her place

‘Not on my watch’ – these are the four words that should guide editors and journalists alike, regardless of the position they occupy in the editorial hierarchy.

I had my baptism by fire in August 1998 when, as a young assistant editor on the editorial page of the Times of India, I was called in to a meeting on the “fourth floor”, where management used to sit. My boss at the time, Jug Suraiya was present, as were some folks from senior management, and there was another top manager on the hotline from Bombay. The Srikrishna Commission report on the Bombay riots of 1992-1993 had just been released and had indicted the Shiv Sena for its role in the violence in which hundreds of Muslims had been killed. The purpose of the meeting was to lay down the line – which we were told had come straight from Ashok Jain, chairman of Bennet Coleman and Company Ltd – for next morning’s editorial: We were asked to write  that Srikrishna was wrong and that “both sides” were to blame for the violence. The reason for this, I surmised later, was that the Shiv Sena was now in power in Maharashtra and there was some issue with the 100-year lease of Times House in downtown Bombay not being renewed.

‘But which was the other side?”, I asked, somewhat confused. “The Muslim side”, came the reply. I began to say this was not the truth when Jug Suraiya cut me off. “Please tell Mr Jain that Mr Varadarajan is not willing to write such an editorial. And since I also do not agree with this line and will not write such an editorial, I can hardly force him to do so.” The meeting ended abruptly and we went down.

Our bravado couldn’t stop the dodgy editorial from eventually being written by someone else from outside our department. It was published the next day and wasn’t the Times of India‘s finest moment. But at least we had the satisfaction of knowing we had put our foot down.

So my advice to journalists wherever they are, whatever they do, is this: You may not be able to resist a direct order that you know runs counter to the ethics of the profession. But you do owe it to yourself, your colleagues and the organisation you work for not to give in without a fight. And the best part is that fighting means nothing more than sticking to the principles of one’s craft. Don’t file a story that is wrong. Don’t ignore news that is important. Speak up in every meeting. Don’t make it easier for the poison to spread.

Whatever the media owners do or don’t do to fix or further damage our newspapers and television channels, Indian journalism will survive and thrive so long as there are a million mutinies every day in every newsroom.