Why The Agenda-Driven CobraPost Sting On Media Houses Sucks 

Why The Agenda-Driven CobraPost Sting On Media Houses Sucks Cobrapost editor Aniruddha Bahal speaks at a press conference on an undercover operation in New Delhi.  (Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via GettyImages) 
Snapshot
  • That all major stings have mostly embarrassed the BJP and the Sangh could not have been mere coincidence.

    There appears to be a pattern to this which is condemnable.

The CobraPost sting, which reportedly caught on video senior officials and journalists of various media companies who showed some willingness to accept huge payments in order to promote “Hindutva content”, is underwhelming. It does not contain any fresh revelations on the nature of “paid content” in media but appears to be a hit-job with political intent. This is so obvious that it sucks.

The sting, codenamed Operation 136 after India’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index in 2017, includes hours of secretly taped video conversations with media persons who appear to be willing, or more than willing, to create and use tendentious content as proposed by the stinger, Pushp Sharma. Sharma claims to be an “investigative” journalist, who uses subterfuge and false identities to trap his targets into saying things they would be shocked to say if they knew they were on camera. In Operation 136, he posed as Acharya Chhatarpal Atal, and claimed proximity to some “saffron” organisations when getting his victims to say what they would today be embarrassed by. Sharma has, in the past, gone to jail for allegedly fabricating a Right to Information (RTI) reply in 2016 on the Ayush Ministry, and earlier in 2009 for allegedly extorting money from government officials, but let us not judge him by these allegations. Let’s look at it differently.

We can judge stings in three ways: content, intent and legitimacy. Let’s start with the last one first by giving you an example.

Let’s say you are an anti-gay activist and want to discredit gays by proving they “do it” for money. You put a hidden camera on yourself, meet 25 people who you think are gay, and make them a simple proposition: “Look, I’m gay. If you spend the night with me, I will pay you Rs 10,000”. If all refuse the offer, you raise the stakes and offer Rs 1 lakh. At this stage some may agree, arguing with themselves that even though they don’t usually offer gay sex commercially, Rs 1 lakh is not something to sniff at. So, a few people may agree – and you have them all on tape. If you raise the stakes higher and express a willingness to pay Rs 10 lakh per person, even more people will at least consider your proposition.

Now, here are the questions: how ethical is it for you to intrude into a private area, gather evidence on film without the subject’s consent, and then use only that portion that is useful to you? And all of the alleged statements are hypothetical: you have only dangled big money to your targets, not actually gone ahead and paid them the sums to do what you wanted. At the end of the day, you still have hours of illegally-taped conversations, which can be used to blackmail some people, or embarrass them at the very least. Even assuming you are not a blackmailer, what right do you have to embarrass people for acts they seemed to consent to but have not actually gone around doing it?

You may think all is fair in love and war, but if you believe that this is totally unethical, even if several people agreed to be paid for one night of gay sex, you will have some idea about what Pushp Sharma has essentially done. It is unethical and illegal to entrap people, but most people in media do not seem to have an opinion on deliberate entrapment. Only Shekhar Gupta of The Print has clearly come out against the lack of ethics in sting journalism forbids them.

Now let us get to the CobraPost stings. Among the media (and some non-media) targets were senior officials of Zee News, Times of India, India Today, Network18, Hindustan Times, ABP Group, Paytm, Suvarna News, Dainik Jagran, Sun Group, Lokmat, Big FM, and the New Indian Express. (A case study on what happened with one such sting is here).

That so many of them got taken in by Sharma’s false identity shows how eager they were to rake in revenues from any source, real or dubious. A simple Google search, or a phone call to check the antecedents of someone claiming to represent saffron groups – especially someone offering them crores of rupees in advertising and other revenues – would have told the officials that he was an imposter.

The preliminary conclusion is not that media is eager to run Hindutva content, but certainly will not shoo away easy money. If the sting operators had wanted anti-Hindutva content, they would probably have got that too. I have made this point repeatedly, that media operations are costly to run, and advertiser money is shrinking. So, the temptation to grab any form of sponsorship is high. If media wants to be free from the pressures of advertisers and sponsors, it needs to be funded by a trust. Or readers need to pay more for publications. A Times of India newspaper probably costs more than Rs 20 a copy to print, but subscribers pay less than a quarter of that cost. And readers used to “free” content on the web have no inclination to pay for any content. It follows that they don’t care as much for so-called “objective” content either. They don’t raise eyebrows when entire sections of readable content are often the result of sponsorship. The gap between “paid” news and editor-decided news is apparently not as significant for them to protest.

In the CobraPost sting, the chances are high that before the media houses actually did any business with the fake Acharya, they would have done some more due diligence. No one looks a gift-horse in the mouth. Sometimes early conversations do not end up in follow up action. In the Niira Radia leaks, for example, some journalists may have made concurring noises about helping with United Progressive Alliance cabinet slots or given Radia advice on how to use the media, but it does not follow that what they spoke and what they actually did were congruent. The same goes for what the CobraPost sting revealed; what was indicated in the first conversation may well have unraveled in stage two. So, to claim that the early conversations represent a willingness to do dirty work on behalf of the Sangh or saffron groups is premature. All businesses tend to talk positive in first meetings with prospective customers, and this would have been no exception.

The sting, however, bares what is “normal” in media business these days. We are in an age where dwindling commercial advertising is being replaced with a lot of sponsored and native content, where the advertiser pays media groups to create his content and later mix it up with the regular content to make it look like the latter, with only some minor disclaimers thrown in to make it all kosher. It is not unusual for advertisers and managers to talk about the content needed. The decisive conversation with editorial heads comes only later, in case any part of the content has to be slipped into regular news discussions. It is at this stage that nonsensical content agreed to by the commercial team goes out of the window. That, in this case, the content was supposed to be Hindutva-oriented is not relevant, since no editors were presumably involved in approving the scripts as yet.

As an aside, one can also mention that even the CobraPost website accepts sponsored content. So does Swarajya. We accept sponsored advertising where the content is tailored to meet advertiser needs.

The fake Acharya Atal apparently wanted to do the deal in three stages – in stage one, the media was supposed to use extensive quotes from the Bhagawad Gita in newspapers and TV programmes; in stage two, derogatory terms were to be used for opposition politicians, including Pappu, Bua, Babua, etc, and firebrand Hindu leaders were to be promoted; and in the final stage, presumably before the 2019 elections, aggressive campaigns were to be launched to polarise and communalise voters. One wonders if these elements are not already present in large parts of TV discussions today, with assorted maulanas, Hindutva representatives, Maoist sympathisers and rabid casteist elements already stirring the pot of polarisation.

The reality is that all forms of derogatory and polarising content are already in use in social media fora, and these are gradually creeping into mainstream media as by-the-way mentions. And the media are sharply divided in terms of ideologies, with some seemingly aligned to the party in power, and others to the Congress-Left ecosystem of the pre-2014 period. Which way a TV debate is framed often tells you where loyalties lie for each media house. That 2019 could well see a polarisation is a clear possibility, given that all opposition parties are ganging up against Narendra Modi.

It didn’t need an Acharya Atal to get these things into the media’s political lexicon. It is already there and will get more prominence without anyone being paid cash by this imposter.

The really dubious part of the CobraPost sting is not what it wants to stoke, but its one-sidedness. If the attempt was the prove that media will do anything to obtain revenue, there could have been proposals to do the same with newspapers and channels seen to be on the Congress-Left side, where similar offers could have been made to quote the Quran or Bible, and use derogatory references to Sangh and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, and ensure minority polarisation. But that does not seem to be the case, unless these channels declined the offers of the CobraPost imposter. So, from what has already been published, it seems that the whole effort was to entrap the media into becoming a player on the saffron side – with obvious political overtones.

CobraPost is not known to be a BJP sympathiser and its current promoter was part of the Tehelka sting in NDA-1, which embarrassed the Atal Behari Vajpayee government and former Defence Minister George Fernandes. The BJP’s first Dalit president, Bangaru Laxman, was entrapped in the sting for a measly Rs 1 lakh, and he died a beaten man when the party sidelined him after that. An unethical sting damaged a Dalit’s political career.

After the United Progressing Alliance (UPA) came to power in 2004, a year after CobraPost itself was created by Aniruddha Bahal, it stung 11 MPs, most from the BJP, in what came to be known as the cash-for-questions scam of 2005. In this sting, the MPs were seen to be asking for money from those who wanted questions posed on their behalf in Parliament. For their indiscretions, they were expelled, thus helping the UPA cut the BJP and opposition numbers down to size at a time when their own numbers were shaky.

In the 2008 cash-for-votes sting, the only sting that would have helped the BJP if it had been aired at the right time (the Manmohan Singh government was facing a no-trust vote after the CPM withdrew support over the India-US nuclear deal)., the channel involved mysteriously declined to do so. UPA was spared the blushes. A Tehelka editor called this a BJP “trap”, as if most stings are not forms of entrapment.

That all major stings have mostly embarrassed the BJP and the Sangh could not have been mere coincidence. There appears to be a pattern to this. Operation 136, which introduced a Hindutva element to stings in the media, falls neatly into this pattern.

It is difficult to lend it credibility.

It is fair to say that commercial unviability, or even greed for money, taints journalism since it depends on advertisers and dubious sources for survival, but the reality is more nuanced. Even if journalism were to be fully funded by a trust, with no commercial considerations influencing editorial decisions, one cannot eliminate biases and agendas from creeping in. For example, there are portals comparing the Indian Army Chief to Gen Reginald Dyer (of Jallianwala Bagh infamy) and others extolling the virtues of religious bigots such as Aurangzeb, Alauddin Khilji and Tipu Sultan; today’s politicians are calling the PM Hitler, and references to Italian influences are prominent in the BJP’s discourse. So, what part of the Acharya Atal’s polarising agenda needed illegal cash to juice it up? It is part of the TRP and click-bait game.

The simple takeout is this: there is no such thing as absolutely fair and objective journalism. If you want balance and fairness, you should read publications with different views. Fairness exists in diversity, not in one institution or one journalist.

And no – stinging the unwary is not fair at all. It is an intrusion into private spaces, and entirely condemnable.

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