Why stings stink: Jindal vs. Zee

Jindal shows his evidence: Pic: The Hindu

The media is shocked. An industrialist-politician has done a sting operation on them. What is less shocking, but rather amusing, is how some of the media people are getting so self-righteous. As though they do not know what happens in the big cabins in their own offices. In fact, the reportage at different news outlets shows their own agendas quite glaringly. People have short memories or selective memories.

Here’s a report from The Hindu:

In what’s being called a reverse sting, Jindal Steel and Power Ltd (JSPL) chairman Naveen Jindal has released video recordings which allegedly show Zee editors trying to extort Rs. 100 crore in return for the channel not airing damaging stories on coal block allocations involving his company.

At a dramatic press conference on Thursday, Mr. Jindal, who is also a Congress MP, distributed a CD with a 14-minute montage of footage, which he said was culled from hidden camera recordings of a series of meetings in mid-September between JSPL executives and Sudhir Chaudhary and Samir Ahluwalia, editors of Zee News and Zee Business. Claiming that this was the first time an Indian corporate was exposing media malpractice, Mr. Jindal said: “The government gives channels a licence to show news. They are not given a licence for extortion or blackmail.” JSPL has filed a criminal case against Zee, alleging extortion, and says it decided to make the videos public only because the channel was accusing the company of blackmail. JSPL officials indicated they were also likely to file a defamation suit against the media group in the next few days.

While Mr. Jindal is absolutely right, it is arrogant to even mention about the government giving a license as though it is a favour. Besides, would he have had the same opinion if the channel were giving his company favourable coverage? The answer is evident in his statement that he made the videos public only because the channel accused his company of blackmail. This indicates the possibility that the meeting might not have been for extortion but as a transaction.

Anyone in the media who is pretending that such deals do not take place is lying. Individual media persons might be clean or not involved, but a few things are obvious:

  • News depends on advertising; the lines between the two are blurred 
  • Every single media house has its own agenda and political slant, and the staff is expected to follow it. There might be the occasional story to appear ‘balanced’, but that’s about it.

In this sting, there are two aspects. The politician wanting to silence a channel and the channel willing to do so for a price. Which one is worse?

Politicians have always used the media, and the media has deluded itself into believing that it is all-powerful. This is not new. Go back to the days of The Indian Express and Ramnath Goenka ‘making’ Arun Shourie who unmade a government. Without any sting operation as we know it now, the cement scandal was exposed. Arun Shourie did not last in the Express, and A.R.Antulay got discredited for a while. Indira Gandhi, his boss for whom it was alleged the whole scam was, remained untainted.

It becomes almost a quid pro quo that when you are exposing one political party the others can use that news. It is obvious. You watch TV panel discussions. They have someone from the opposing groups, who invariably manage to snigger. And the circle continues. These kangaroo courts try to influence the gullible public, who would anyway not have much immediate stake in, say, Jindal’s business or what Zee TV does, as it did not in the past when other sting operations and CDs became public. 

This rigmarole is essentially political and grist for a channel war.

“Anyway, it is not something which I am asking you which is out of the world, out of the blue,” says Mr. Ahluwalia in a conversation near the end of the video. “If you actually look at it, it’s actually a win-win for both of us… Honestly, I am saying when we do a relationship with people, when we do a relationship with an advertiser, it’s a relationship in which I will give you more than even you can ask.” The Zee editors claim they are not the only media outlet which works like this. “At least we are doing a proper transparent deal with you, at least we are not doing a front page story which is paid for….”

The word “advertiser” was used. An editorial team doing the work of the advertising team may seem unusual, but it is fairly common. In some ways, I am glad this is out, because instead of being sanguine the other media houses should be worried.  Are they? When you read big fat editorials and watch big fat debates, just think about what could be hidden, not what is stated. The louder the indignation, the more reason they have to not be outed themselves.

Headlines Today Managing Editor Rahul Kanwal said:

“Stunned silence in the newsroom as journalists watch the Jindal-Zee sting operation. Anyone who indulges in extortion should be exposed…Not correct for Editors to be discussing revenue deal with a corporate at a time when channel is running series of exposes on the company.”

And what about other times? What about the possibility of other channels being happy because they are already protecting the ones opposing Coalgate?

CNN-IBN deputy editor Sagarika Ghose said:

“I joined journalism over 20 years ago, fresh from Oxford, idealistic about being part of India's great free press. Sad, shocked today.”

Had she remained in the UK, wonder what she’d have to say about the News of the World leaks and where that Oxford-earned idealism would go.

There is a counter-offensive:

Responding to the Jindal CD on their channel, Zee’s editors said they were the ones conducting a sting operation to show how far Jindal would go to suppress the story, adding that they had taken a “dummy” contract with them…In a joint statement released later in the evening, the Zee editors called the Jindal CD a “deliberate attempt to malign and defame” them, to “prejudice” the ongoing investigations, and to “silence the growing demand for an independent probe in the Coalgate scam.”

Why have they kept quiet? What mahurat were they waiting for?

The politician-journalist nexus always existed, but now it has become worse because they can be ‘friends’ more easily. Paid news is only one aspect. I don’t understand why the media gives awards to politicians. I don’t understand why the government allots land for media persons to get housing. Does anyone check on the credentials on the Press Club members and even office bearers?

And beat me with a feather, but how many people in the media will reject a Rajya Sabha seat or a place in some fancy government panel?

There is much to be silent about because there are strong lobbies working everywhere. That is why even casting the first stone is done as a herd, so that the ripples are diffused. 

(c) Farzana Versey


  1. I am also glad that this has come out. Wonder that is India, never ceases to amaze. Thank you for mentioning News of the World too.

    As an independent blogger and columnist, you must feel vindicated but given that we all have bills to play, do you have any suggestions as to how can media go about doing what it does sans advertising?

    Internet is rapidly transforming news, media, publishing and possibly even education but however it may look like in future; I would hazard a guess that it would involve money and middlemen (hopefully some middlewomen too :).

  2. Hitesh:

    The buck stops at the owners. Often, the reporters don't have to worry because they are relaying the news and not 'morally' responsible for anything beyond that.

    Unless, the journalists dissent bigtime, they are kept in fine fettle. They get their cabins, their cars, their increments. It is really about not messing about.

    It is when it gets into becoming part of the deal that problems can arise - either they win the big ticket or they fall. But in today's times that too is transformed into martyrdom.

    I don't believe it is only about paying bills, which they do manage. It is about how important they want to be.

    PS: Being 'independent' has had its downside, as I have mentioned before.

  3. here is somewhat unrelated but fascinating factoid (while we are on the subject of sting operations):


    Suffering from depression after her eighteen months living disguised as a man, Vincent felt she was a danger to herself.

    since the experiment, she has never been more glad to be female

  4. As regards to Journalism, people were always seductively pulled to the gossip and grapevine; so internet fills this need pretty well (even if it is hard to verify).

    That is why newsrooms in America are thinning (including foreign reporting bureaus) disregarding new arrival on the scene of Al Jazeera (which seems to have been a match made between Petrodollars, BBC refugees, and lack of local coverage).

    As for the TV, even that is on decline here as people turn more to on-demand streaming services like netflix/hulu for entertainment shows and rest they gather on the internet.

    So, being 'independent' may have its downside, but you have been on the 'upside' of an emerging trend except for the monetization part.

    Huffington Post and other blogs are trying to figure out a business model but in the end it is more or less based on advertising.

    It remains to be seen how that pans out but you are right about "wanting to be important".

    Earlier, these journalists as part of fourth estate had direct access to powers-that-be as they were most often used for propaganda (still are but not as effective anymore) so that shine has to suffer.

    That is why there is renewed fervor about social awareness from Aamir Khan to Thomas Friedman.

  5. Hitesh:

    You make some important points.

    Al Jazeera has filled a gap, but items made some regions far too exotic for western news agencies to resist. Witness their coverage of Arab Spring or even Imran Khan's rally.

    The propaganda has in fact increased because those in power have more avenues. Debates effectively end up with them getting space to air their views. Channels thrive on controversies that are often forced.

    My views on Aamir Khan have been discussed here. It is an extension of citizen journalism and should be treated as just that.

    Re. 'independence', I think it is as difficult to sustain in the mainstream www. The agendas and cliques remain.

    PS: Thanks for the link on Norah Vincent. Some of this trading places has been attempted in India too.


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