Commentary

Cobrapost: a potent but not quite deadly sting

By Sukumar Muralidharan

19 June 2018

Crisis of credibility for mainstream Indian media.
Illustration: Paul Aitchison

Illustration: Paul Aitchison

It took the Indian media industry about two weeks to emerge from the deep embarrassment of its many skeletons tumbling out of its dark and deep closets. As before, the industry’s response to damaging revelations was, for the most part, to pretend that they did not exist. Damage control may seem to have worked for the time being and the awkward questions suppressed, but that all too vital attribute of trust has taken another blow. Recovery does not seem even a remote possibility, as the industry has yet to take the first step towards recognising that a problem exists.

It took a “sting operation”, an ethically questionable procedure, to bring this particular lot of the industry’s shady secrets to light. Cobrapost, a native of the digital media universe, promoted by an individual long invested in sting journalism, has always pushed the envelope and, with dogged persistence, ventured into contested ethical territory. Its ultimate reward, perhaps, comes from the growing recognition that its transgressions, though troubling, are orders of magnitude less than the dodgy practices they lay bare.

The May 2018 revelations from Cobrapost portrayed, in vivid and disturbing detail, how some of India’s biggest media corporations were eager to take up the advocacy of a political agenda for assured financial rewards. Launched in 2017, Cobrapost’s Operation 136 took its title from the global rank India was awarded that year on the press freedom index compiled by the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF).

If that was a deeply mortifying moment, more bad news followed as Cobrapost went about its operation. The reasons given by RSF for downgrading India another two places in April 2018 merit some attention. The hyper-nationalistic cohorts gathered in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s orbit, RSF suggested, had been assuming the authority to shape the contours of the national dialogue and determine who deserved the credentials to participate in it. Unquestioning faith in the political leadership was often the touchstone used to distinguish the true nationalist from the “anti-national”.

“Hindu nationalists”, RSF said, had been “trying to purge all manifestations of ‘anti-national’ thought from the national debate.” These exercises in thought control by the prime minister’s army of trolls ensured that “self-censorship [was] growing in the mainstream media and journalists [were] increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals.”

Legitimate questions could be raised about RSF’s perceptions-based index of press freedom, as well as its beauty-pageant style of awarding ranks. And, in entirely rejecting the RSF findings, the Press Council of India (PCI), the country’s official guardian of press freedom and ethics, chose to gloss over the substantive points raised. In what seemed a hasty verdict, PCI Chairman C K Prasad, a retired judge of India’s Supreme Court, said that “undue importance” was given to the rankings since there was “no clarity on the inputs that weighed in the ranking of a country”.

Operation 136 laid bare how the media was an eager participant in its own enslavement, merely because the new hyper-nationalism agenda could pay its way and bring the industry assured commercial advantages. It did not matter that the agenda was deeply destructive of basic civility and, indeed, a threat to the security and basic constitutional rights of minorities and other vulnerable social groups. All that mattered was the commercial imperative. Freedom comes with the unstated obligation to abide by the basic codes of civility. The message that emerged from the Cobrapost sting is that commerce often trumps that value.

The extent of the rot

Media executives who engaged the Cobrapost provocateur, rather than showing him the door, ended up revealing the most inglorious tricks of their trade. Most of them found nothing amiss in the proposal to begin an advertising campaign that would, in its first stage, exploit mass sentiments of piety by deploying words and images from the legends of Krishna, a figure from the Hindu pantheon who, unlike Ram or Ganapati, has been sparingly used in political mobilisation. From these first invocations of Krishna and the Bhagavat Gita, his battlefield sermon of duty and commitment, the campaign would escalate to a second stage, where its tools would be the abuse and mockery of Prime Minister Modi’s political rivals. The third stage would seek active polarisation to excite a sense of animus towards the “anti-national” social groups and promote Prime Minister Modi’s sole claims to lead India on the pathway to fulfilling its burgeoning ambitions.

Some among the media houses that engaged with the Cobrapost operative seemed to realise their folly as the announced date for the release of the videos approached. On the eve of the scheduled date, leading Hindi media group Dainik Bhaskar secured an ex parte injunction from the Delhi High Court. Like most such rulings rendered ex parte, this seemed curiously unmindful of fair procedure. Subsequent efforts by Cobrapost to vacate the injunction had not made much progress at the time of writing.

Dainik Bhaskar earned a reprieve from embarrassing disclosures, but not the other media houses that had laid out a welcome mat for the undercover journalist.  For reasons connected to media dynamics in the internet age, the platforms that picked up the story and ran it prominently were natives of the digital domain. The prelude to the Cobrapost revelations and its aftermath illustrate how the media industry has stood for transparency only as a virtue enjoined on others, and how it shapes a public discourse that spares it the burden of accountability.

Cobrapost unfolds a fascinating story in several parts. Among the highlights is Vineet Jain, part of the proprietary family of India’s largest media group, Bennett Coleman and Co Ltd (BCCL), which publishes, among other titles, the Times of India. Jain, who is the company’s Managing Director, nonchalantly discusses a variety of routes by which the sum of INR5 billion (USD 74.25 million) promised by Cobrapost’s undercover reporter could be transferred to its coffers without inviting the suspicion of the tax authorities. Kallie Purie, the vice-chairperson of the India Today media group, is eager to accept the offer of a lavish advertising campaign focused around Krishna and the Bhagavad Gita, but is careful to add a caveat that all possible political ramifications of the campaign would be liable to editorial critique in her media outlets. Separately, a senior executive from her organisation is depicted in wholehearted endorsement of the political themes of the campaign and, in a seeming excess of enthusiasm, tying up a INR2.75 billion (USD 40.82 million) advertisement commitment from the Cobrapost provocateur.

Avneesh Bansal, associate vice president of HT Media, which owns the second largest newspaper brand in English and one of the top five in Hindi, responds to the Cobrapost proposals with impeccable reason while attaching a distinctly more modest price tag to his services. “If you are giving me a couple of crore rupees to talk positive about you”, he explains, “automatically my editorial is under pressure not to go deep negative.” He is careful, however, to add an escape clause: editorial departments cannot ignore the news. This was perhaps a coded reference to the compulsions of competitive news coverage. Any news outlet could suppress particular news items in return for a monetary reward but would be at risk of exposure if the competition were to delve deep into that area.

The large and highly diversified conglomerate Zee Media, with interests in television news, entertainment, print and satellite broadcasting, makes an inevitable appearance as part of the new nationalist media cohort. Zee brings much baggage into the fray, including the 2012 arrest of two news executives on charges of extortion. That was a case of extracting cash for ensuring an absence of coverage and, after their quality time spent in prison, one among the duo has risen higher in the Zee hierarchy while the other has left the organisation. However that panned out, the executives from Zee who appear on Cobrapost provide ample evidence that the culture of cash for coverage – and lack thereof – still flourishes. They are candid in their offers to the Cobrapost operative and seem to finally agree on a deal worth INR250 million (USD 3.71 million) of which half would be received in unaccounted cash. Along the way, the Zee executives also explain that they have a template ready to accommodate similar demands: the so-called “advertiser-funded programme”. Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of India’s largest state Uttar Pradesh, they reveal, has been a regular user of this facility, often getting his advertisements pushed as news.

Only two among the media houses the Cobrapost operative approached, the Bengali-language dailies Bartaman Patrika and Dainik Sambad, are shown firmly rebuffing his overtures. Others may have been fortunate in not inviting Cobrapost’s attention while its operative wandered through the back offices of India’s media houses. But just as eloquent as the words spoken by senior media executives to the undercover reporter was the rhetoric that came from the mainstream media afterwards.

Shooting the messenger and charming the snake

One among the major English language dailies, the Indian Express, chose to do a factual story which appeared in its major editions a day after the revelations. Carefully written with ample opportunity afforded to the victims of the sting to place their responses on record, this report followed all the expected norms and stopped short of pronouncing an opinion.

As a columnist for the newspaper who presumably enjoys a degree of  autonomy, Pratap Bhanu Mehta found no reason for such restraint. Cobrapost, he raged, had laid bare “the thorough contempt Indian media has for the Indian citizen.” Citizens were treated as “infantilised fools” willing to suspend disbelief given the “thinnest veneer, the smallest gesture” or pretence of covering the news. Readers did not pay for the news, he continued, and were of little consequence to media owners, who acknowledged a measure of accountability only to “those who allocate capital or use political power”.

The Times of India ran a story rich in invective, denouncing the Cobrapost recordings as doctored and falsified content, since “no media organisation named in it agreed to any illegal or immoral activity and no contracts were signed”. There were caustic references to the unorthodox methods of the sting and its author’s previous encounters with the law, which had left him with a few bruises. Finally, there was the rather implausible claim that, in meeting with the Cobrapost operative, the BCCL executives were “carrying out a reverse sting with a plan to make (him) commit a mistake or even sign legal contracts so as to expose the people and organisations behind him”.

The Hindu took the trouble to explain, through its readers’ editor, that its decision to ignore the Cobrapost revelations was consistent with all applicable editorial norms. Unethical practices were no way to improve ethical standards, and a large measure of scepticism, it said, was warranted about the authenticity of the information uncovered by sting journalism. The Hindu was not a part of the Cobrapost revelations and it had never at any point, been accused of accepting cash for coverage. It did not authorise any concealed means gathering news, and all its staff were expected to state their identities when on assignment.

There was little in all this that seemed convincing to the editor of The Wire, a newly launched news portal that was among the few that gave Cobrapost a high degree of prominence. As The Wire’s editor Siddharth Varadarajan commented, the excessive scruples shown in avoiding the outcome of sting journalism did not square with the eagerness with which certain Indian media platforms had embraced the results of the Wikileaks and Edward Snowden revelations. Indeed, in their evasion of the issues raised in the exposé, the mainstream media may have been guilty of overlooking the single ground rule of responsible journalism: that of prioritising “compelling, overriding public interest”.

The digital dilemma

Evidently, when weighed against their own commercial well-being, the mainstream media tends to lose the public-interest focus. Yet, the energy shown by the online news portals may suggest the possibility of a growing divergence with legacy media outlets in the years ahead. There is a promise of alternative news sources emerging to overturn the stifling monopoly of older media. But there is equal likelihood of the opposite: that online portals could become a disinformation source even more menacing than anything known so far.

For every emerging news portal that shows a certain commitment to the public interest and follows every rule about fair coverage and fact-checking, there are many more that have emerged with the explicit mandate of propagating a shrill, partisan voice. Prime Minister Modi’s arrival in the highest political office in India has seen the growth of a flourishing ecosystem of propaganda websites that work with determined ferocity to drown out and delegitimise all dissent. In association with WhatsApp, the fully encrypted platform that has shown its potential as a disinformation source that could trigger mob violence and get people killed, these websites make up an alternative universe of facts that people commit themselves to, simply because they want to.

The problem is a real one, but the regulatory response has shown a pronounced inclination to pick on the wrong targets. In April this year, the Press Information Bureau of the Indian Government announced fresh guidelines on the accreditation of journalists, ostensibly to check the menace of “fake news”. Media accreditation is granted to journalists after a specified number of years in the profession. If anything, this waiting period is sufficient assurance that professionals granted accreditation to access the official corridors in the national capital will be immune to the temptations of fake news. The April notification put journalists on notice of a “three strikes and out” policy. An accredited media person found to have propagated false news would be on notice after a first offence and issued a formal warning after a second. A third transgression would trigger the termination of his privileges.

The notice was withdrawn following strong protests from the media community. Yet, a day had not passed before the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) announced the formation of a committee to frame regulatory rules for news portals and media websites. Five among the ten members of the committee were to be senior bureaucrats; others were to be the representatives of the PCI and various associations of the news broadcast and entertainment industries. The only digital media native nominated to the committee was an executive officer of the government’s information portal MyGov.in, highlighting how the absence of independent voices from the online news space was perhaps part of the intent.

In December 2015, the MIB, working through a fully controlled corporate body, invited technical and financial bids from qualified vendors to set up and maintain a “social media communications hub”, ostensibly to ensure that citizens were able to access a regular and reliable flow of information about the government’s most important programmes. That was the stated purpose, though there was a plainly stated propagandist intent in the brief given to prospective vendors, to enhance the “reach of content on internet and social media sites” and find ways of “making the uploaded content viral”. There was also a surveillance intent, though relatively understated: to monitor “individual social media users and accounts”, “social media sentiments”, and “overall trends on various social media platforms”.

Little more came to light about that particular venture into the brave new world by the MIB, till similar plans were reaffirmed in January 2018. A renewed intent was signalled in April 2018, with the MIB inviting a fresh round of applications for creating the social media communications hub. The “scope of work” specified here involves harvesting all relevant information posted both on news portals and social media platforms, and to assess the overall drift of public opinion, as well as its more granular features. The hub, as the tender specifies, “should also support easy management of conversational logs with each individual with capabilities to merge it across channels to … facilitate … a 360-degree view of the people who are creating buzz across various topics”. The proposal would allow room for “influencers” of opinion who could initiate these conversations in all the country’s districts. The purposes could be many, and among those specifically mentioned is the cultivation of “nationalistic” feelings.

Prime Minister Modi’s impact on the social and communal fabric of India over his four years in power cannot be understood without reference to the tactical use his ardent flock has made of the internet and new media. The 2014 electoral contest made history with its use of technology in projecting Modi’s claim to the top political job. And Modi’s enthusiasm for new media was evident in a meeting early in his tenure with Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg. According to an entry in Modi’s personal website, Sandberg congratulated him at this meeting on his “exceptional use of Facebook to connect with voters”. Soon afterwards, Modi reportedly instructed colleagues in the party and the government to use social media to get the word out, but to stay clear of direct interactions with traditional news media.

The internet is being cast here not as a domain of vast possibilities with the potential to deepen democracy through the richness of user-generated content, but as a new mode of propaganda: not pluralistic and interactive but relentlessly one-way and single-themed. This explains a great part of the strategy the prime minister has adopted of disdaining direct interaction with the media, and leaving it to chosen functionaries who could set a suitable tone of truculence on the airwaves and otherwise fielding a vast army of internet operatives to colonise the online space. It also explains why larger sections of the mainstream media see no way out of their crisis of profitability without mimicking the loud, obstreperous and intolerant tone the regime seeks to foster through social media. There are undoubtedly great potentialities inherent in new media for enriching the flow of information. But these are rapidly being undermined by a determined political operation, which is, in fact, utilising it for quite the opposite purpose.

~Sukumar Muralidharan teaches at the Jindal School of Journalism and Communication, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India.

 

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