Of Cobrapost, its sting & a venomous media

Last week, Cobrapost published an exposé, codenamed Operation 136, which showed several Indian news media companies were willing to push Hindutva agenda through their content in exchange of money, large sums of it.

This big story has been largely ignored by most of Indian media, for obvious reasons. But when even the more saner voices and ostensibly independent individuals in Indian journalism choose to ignore it, you know we are indeed in trouble.

True, paid news is not news anymore. It’s common knowledge now that sections of Indian media accept money, from political parties and business houses, in exchange of favourable coverage. I wrote a research paper on how compromised Indian media is as a journalism fellow at Reuters Institute for the Study in Journalism, University of Oxford, in 2013. Also true is the fact that ethics of sting operation are questionable.

However, in spite of all this, Cobrapost exposé must be taken seriously, even while criticising it for its flaws. Its takeaways are noteworthy, even if we are all for dismissing it; even if we do not consider those stung by the operation guilty.

I put down here some of my random thoughts crossing my mind following the exposé.

  1. A news organisation has two divisions–editorial and business, each separated from the other like church and state. Cobrapost journalist Pushp Sharma approached people on business side. None of them, even for the sake of pretence, said they they don’t have any say in editorial matters. That should have been their first line. Is the merger of church and state so complete?
  2. It is quite possible that the editorial side may have refused to the proposal from the business side. Why then, even after so many days of the exposé, the editors at the respective companies have not clarified their positions (with the exception of Rajdeep Sardesai of India Today of course, but we will talk about him later)? What is stopping them from stating their editorial freedom, irrespective of the sting’s veracity? There’s no harm, or is it? Not the times to be seen as someone unwilling to campaign for Hindutva, eh?
  3. “We are not in the newspaper business, we are in the advertising business,” Vineet Jain, the managing director of the Times Group had famously declared to the New Yorker  in 2012.  He was speaking in defence of the group’s paid news venture, Medianet, that pioneerd this whole paid news business in Indian media. So his falling for Rs 500 crore (FIVE BILLION Indian rupees! The cost of sending Mangalayaan to mars was less than Rs 450 crore, just imagine) is hardly newsworthy. What is news is how he was coolly making this elaborate plan to convert black money (take payment in cash and then someone will issue cheque somewhere.. I frankly didn’t understand). He and his publications were ardent supporters of demonetisation, remember? Hadn’t Prime Minister Narendra Modi foisted demonetisation on us to end corruption? We always knew that the corrupt would go on making black money, and that it was only the honest poor who paid with their lives, to be footnoted in history as collateral damages. Now we can see them in the act.The Times Group has issued a statement saying they were doing a “reverse sting” on Pushp Sharma. Is it even believable?!
  4. A random guy walks into a newspaper office pedding Hindutva agenda and no one’s surprised. We don’t know what would have been their reaction if someone had walked in to push Islamist or Christianist agendas. Cobrapost should have done that for a more holistic sting. But even without that, it’s interesting that pushing Hindutva is so normal that even the perfunctory noises of communal harmony that you expect in a polite company are done away with.
  5. Don’t blame the reader. Soon after the exposé, there was a mad rush of righteous voices to cock a snook at readers, blaming them for not paying enough to fund good journalism; for being the reason why the media houses are having to depend on advertisement revenue. There can be no excuse for depravity. If you big companies cannot support reasonably honest journalism, just pack up your bags and get out. You make big money from other sources anyway.
  6. Two Bengali newspapers, Bartaman and Dainik Sambad, nothing compared in size to the likes of the Times Group or ABP, refused to go anywhere near the money–big, big money –to protect the “soul of the organisation”. They keep hope alive.NB: This is a developing post, expect updates.

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