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Sold Out

The Cobrapost sting only confirms what was already known about the Indian media.

India’s mainstream media is in crisis. Only it refuses to accept it. Instead of using the opportunity of exposés, like the recent one by Cobrapost, to introspect, major media houses prefer the view provided by digging their heads deeper in the sand.

On 25 May, Cobrapost, an investigative web portal, released into the public domain the second part of what it called Operation 136, the number denoting the Indian media’s world ranking on a press freedom index (it has since fallen to 138 out of 200). In the first part, Cobrapost conducted a sting operation on 17 media houses using a hidden camera. A reporter pretending to be “Acharya Atal” from a fake organisation called Shrimad Bhagwad Gita Prachar Samiti met marketing and advertising personnel of these media houses. He offered them large sums of money in return for space to first spread soft Hindutva by way of religious messages, then critical and sarcastic messages about opposition leaders, and then strong pro-Hindutva messages by polarising figures in the Sangh Parivar. No deals were actually signed, but the very fact that someone from a media house was willing to engage in such a discussion was damning enough.

Part 1 of Operation 136 went almost unnoticed by the media or the public. It was only when Cobrapost announced that it would release the second tranche of tapes on 25 May in Delhi, that there was a stirring. Dainik Jagran, one of the largest circulating Hindi dailies, went to court and procured an injunction preventing the public release of the tapes. While the episode featuring this paper has not been aired, Cobrapost released all the other tapes on the internet. Part 2 featured conservations with representatives of some of the largest media companies, including the owner and managing director of one. The conversations ranged from how the plan could be implemented to details about payment, including by cash.

This time too, barring a couple of newspapers, mainstream media largely ignored the exposé. A handful of the media houses have since gone to court, got injunctions preventing further dissemination of the tapes, and sent legal notices to Cobrapost. Some also carried reports about the scurrilous past of the reporter involved, and questions were raised about the authenticity of the tapes. Whether it is ethical to conduct stings, whether the Cobrapost tapes are genuine, and whether they have been doctored while editing are issues that can certainly be debated. But, the main purpose of the sting was to expose the ease with which marketing representatives of media companies, and even those higher up, can engage in a conversation that amounts to accepting money to propagate a political agenda. Perhaps, the strongest indictment is the absence of outrage that reinforces the view that the media, barring exceptions, sells out to the highest bidder: a corporate, a political party, or a political front funded by a corporate.

The downward slide of Indian media’s credibility has been a work in progress for at least two decades. Leaving aside the compromises the majority of media houses made in the 1970s during the Emergency, the real story of the buying and selling of the media began with the advent of liberalisation, when the wall dividing the business from the editorial side of media organisations began to be chipped away at until it disappeared. News was redefined as anything that sells the product. A natural corollary to this was the formalisation of the arrangement of selling news space for a fixed price. Then followed the concept of private treaties with business houses that paid for the advertising space and coverage by giving equity to the media house. Both profited from this arrangement, but the media’s credibility took a nosedive.

Not just private businesses, but political parties too have benefited from the willingness of the media to mould the news for a price. The first to expose “paid news” by political parties was the Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists when it complained to the Press Council of India (PCI) about media houses taking money from politicians for favourable coverage during the 2004 general elections. In this case, media houses would approach political parties, promising positive coverage for a price. A similar trend was noticed in the 2009 general elections in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Haryana, and other states. Although the evidence was circumstantial, as the giving and taking of money was clandestine, it was clear that this tactic was being used to avoid exceeding the limit placed on election expenditure with “paid news” masquerading as real news. These exposés led to the Election Commission of India asking the PCI to conduct an inquiry into paid news. Unfortunately, the 71-page report, titled “Paid News: How Corruption in Indian Media Undermines Democracy,” was not accepted by all the members of the PCI and was eventually buried.

Given this history of the private arrangements of media houses with the corporate sector, as well as their willingness to accept money from political parties for doctored coverage, the Cobrapost exposé provides nothing that is not already known. It only confirms what ails the media, which, in the words of Cobrapost, has been sold “lock, stock and barrel.” The media’s unwillingness to recognise this negates any possibility of it playing a relevant role in a democracy as an independent watchdog irrespective of who is in power, rather than a lap dog.

Updated On : 6th Jun, 2018

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