Cobrapost is back with the second installment of its ‘Operation 136’ investigation – alleging that Indian media houses agreed to run political campaigns, mock opposition leaders and propagate Hindutva for electoral gains, in exchange for money. Cobrapost’s investigation also includes a sting operation on e-commerce payment giant Paytm.
Nearly two months after Cobrapost first reported how some media houses were prepared to strike business deals to promote the Hindutva agenda and help polarise voters in the run up to the 2019 elections, the website has released a second batch of video recordings shot surreptitiously by an undercover reporter that shows managers and owners of some of the largest newspapers and TV channels succumbing to the same package of Hindutva advertorials.
According to The Wire Cobrapost said on Friday that the recordings it made showed how some two dozen news organisations were willing to “not only cause communal disharmony among the citizens but also tilt the electoral outcome in favour of a particular party” for a price.
Cobrapost’s investigation titled ‘Operation-136 II’ says that a senior vice president at Paytm allegedly claimed that the e-wallet company had received a call from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), at a time when stone-pelting had reached its peak in the Kashmir Valley.
Ajay Shekhar Sharma, senior vice president and brother of Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma, can be seen telling the Cobrapost reporter, on tape, that the PMO had demanded that Paytm share user data with a political party, so as to identify the stone-pelters.
The Times Group owns the Times Now channel, the Times of India and several other media platforms. The ease with which Jain discusses ways in which the undercover reporter could pay the company using black money by routing those payments through other business houses and families is hard to reconcile with Times Now’s campaigns in favour of demonetisation – which Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said was needed in order to deal with black money.
Cobrapost sent an undercover journalist, Pushp Sharma, to pose as “Acharya Atal”, a man who identified himself as a representative of an unnamed “sangathan”, or organisation, but who gave the impression that he was a member of or close to the Nagpur-based Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). In the recordings the website put up on YouTube on Friday afternoon, Acharya Atal can be heard trying to strike deals with media house executives involving the promotion of a Hindutva agenda through advertorials – paid-for content – that would run on their newspapers, radio stations, TV channels and websites.
The biggest name to be stung by Cobrapost was Times Group owner and managing director Vineet Jain. In a number of videotaped conversations, Jain and the group’s executive president, Sanjeev Shah, can be seen and heard discussing the proposed deal in which Acharya Atal said he would pay Rs 500 crore in exchange for advertorials and events that that would be presented as programming on Krishna and the Bhagvad Gita but which would serve as a cover for Hindutva and its political agenda.
In one of the meetings, Jain and Shah offer guidance to the undercover journalist on how to make payments in cash even though they said the Times group itself had no use for cash.
“We found them naming some big corporate houses which could help make black money squeaky clean,” Cobrapost said.
It added that while Vineet Jain said, “Aur bhi businessmen honge jo humein cheque denge aap unhe cash de do” (There are other businessmen who would give us cheque against the cash you may give them), his aide Shah elaborated on this to the undercover journalist saying: “Who will take that from him in Delhi suppose if Goenka says I want it in Ahmedabad so that I Angadiya will have contact in Ahmedabad where they will exchange in number on a note or whatever.”
Incidentally, Rs 500 crore is equal to a little more than 5% of the total revenue of Rs 9,976 crore that the times group earned in 2017.
Kalli Purie of India Today group
In his meeting with Kalli Purie, vice-chairperson of the India Today group, Cobrapost’s undercover journalist spoke about using Krishna and the Bhagvad Gita to promote Hindutva since Ram and Ayodhya had become controversial. He said the ‘sangathan’ would make use of the Krishna messaging the India Today group would put out to promote Hindutva among the wider public as part of its “infield activities”. The reporter also spoke about translating the campaign for his “political gains” and even said that he should not be held accountable later for polarisation.
Purie indicatedshe was agreeable to the idea but added that “if you are doing some infield activities that we don’t agree with editorially, we will be criticising you”. She urged ‘Acharya Atal’ not to resort to polarising activities but when he said the course of the election campaign may not leave him any option, his insistence did not become a deal breaker.
Pushp Sharma had earlier met TV Today’s chief revenue officer, Rahul Kumar Shaw, who had conveyed to him his own support for the sangathan’s agenda. “I must tell you, I am very very pro, very pro to the government”. Soon after the meeting with Kalli Purie, Shaw sent an email proposing a Rs 275 crore advertising campaign – an astonishing amount for what was officially going to be described as promotion of the Bhagvad Gita. The value placed on this one campaign alone was 20% of the total revenues earned by the India Today group in 2017.
Cobrapost stings 25 media houses
The second and final instalment of the exposé – codenamed Operartion 136 – saw a total of 25 media houses “crumble under the weight of a ‘big business opportunity’ that was knocking on their doors without asking,” Cobrapost said.
The sting covered a total of 27 organisations of which “almost all bent themselves backward to grab this opportunity,” barring Bartaman and the Dainik Sambad.
Apart from the Times of India and India Today groups, the undercover investigation covered Hindustan Times, Dainik Bhaskar, Zee News, Star India, ABP, Dainik Jagran, Radio One, Suvarna News, Red FM, Lokmat, ABN, Andhra Jyothy, TV5, Dinamalar, Big FM, Prabhat Khabar, K News, India Voice, the New Indian Express, MVTV and OPEN magazine.
Cobrapost was forced to withhold the recordings and communications it had from its interaction with the Dainik Bhaskar group after the latter managed to obtain an ex-parte injunction from the Dehi high court. The website has said it will challenge the injunction.
Hindustan Times: ‘If you give couple of crores, automatically my editorial is under pressure’
Another big media house, the Hindustan Times, also found the undercover reporter’s proposal attractive with the group’s executives offering “editorial support” to ‘Acharya Atal’ for his activities as part of an advertising package.
In a meeting with Avneesh Bansal, associate vice president of HT Media Ltd, ‘Acharya Atal’ is told that money spent on advertorials will produce editorial dividends too:
Bansal then differentiates between reporters who have a fire inside them and other reporters who are “light minded and who are not working for professional desire but monetary desire” and says the PR company will work through them.
A standard pitch
The pitch made by the reporter in his meetings with management personnel and owners of media houses was similar: he wanted them to run a media campaign on his behalf promoting Hindutva, offering them an ad spend ranging from a few crore rupees to Rs. 500 crore in the case of the Times group.
The reporter’s modus operandi in dealing with large media houses was to dangle his bait before junior executives, who then led him higher and higher up the corporate food chain. In the final stage, Pushp Sharma tried to meet with the owner directly in order to establish what he said was an “emotional connect” that would convince the ‘sangathan’ that the media house genuinely believed in the goals of the Hindutva campaign and was not simply engaging in a transactional relationship.
The “essential ingredients” or the deal were “spread wide before them” at the outset and repeated in each meeting. The agenda included promoting Hindutva in the initial phase of three months through customised religious programmes to create a congenial atmosphere. Then the campaign was to be “geared up to mobilise the electorate on communal lines by promoting speeches of Hindutva hardliners, the likes of Vinay Katiyar, Uma Bharti and Mohan Bhagwat, among others,” said Cobrapost.
Finally, as elections approach, the campaign would move to “target opposition leaders, namely, Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav, caricaturing them using less than dignified language like Pappu, Bua and Babua, respectively, for them, in order to show them in poor light before the electorate.” The arrangement included running the campaign on all platforms – print, electronic, radio or digital including, e-news portals, web sites and social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
In his meeting with Kalli Purie, ‘Acharya Atal’ insisted the campaign also run in Cosmopolitan, the group’s fashion magazine.
Offer to swing Karnataka assembly results
Operation 136, Cobrapost editor Aniruddha Bahal said, also revealed that most of the media houses are either owned by politicians themselves, particularly the regional ones, or patronised by politicians, and therefore it was natural for them to become their masters’ voice. “Crony journalism and the search for revenue made for a lethal cocktail”, he said.
In the case ABN Andhra Jyothy, a prominent Telugu TV news channel patronised by TDP supremo Chandrababu Naidu, Cobrapost said, its chief marketing manager E.V. Seshidhar was candid enough to admit: “We have very good connects with TDP … We have do [sic] lot of what do you call we have main official what do you call for AP government Andhra Pradesh government, we have official event telecaster rights for Andhra Pradesh government.”
Stating that this connect went beyond the TDP, to include the BJP and other outfits, it said Seshidhar even went on to state that their newspaper Andhra Jyothy holds so much sway that they could influence the outcome of the Karnataka elections.
Senior journalists also turned power brokers
Cobrapost said that it not only approached those whose job it was to negotiate deals and bring business to the organisation, but also some some senior journalists who have now become owners or CEOs and found them “genuflecting before their big-ticket client” and “happily agreeing to work for his agenda”.
In this regard, it made mention of Purushottam Vaishnav, who is now CEO regional news channels at Zee Media, saying he agreed to “run down political rivals by unleashing their SIT ([investigative team] on them”.
“Content mein jo aapki taraf se input aayega wo absorb ho jayega … humare taraf se jo content generate hoga investigative journalism hum log karte hain karwa denge jitna hum logon ne kiya hai utna kisi ne nahi kiya hoga wo hum log karenge (Whatever input you will send in the form of content that will be absorbed … the content we will generate … we have been doing investigative journalism, we will do it for you. [Compared to Zee] none of the channels has done so many … we will do that),” it quoted Vaishnav as saying.
RSS inroads into newsrooms
Cobrapost also claimed that its investigation established that the RSS, and as a corollary, its ideology of Hindutva, have made deep inroads into the newsrooms and boardrooms of Indian media houses where even owners either blatantly admit their allegiance to the party in power and its parent organisation or are eager to have an association with them.
“For instance, Big FM senior business partner Amit Choudhary admits to the relationship between the company that owns Big FM and the party in power in no uncertain terms,” it said, as it quoted Choudhary as saying: “Waise bhi Reliance BJP ka supporter hee hai (Anyway, Reliance is always a supporter of the BJP).”
Similarly, it quoted Basab Ghosh, regional sales head of OPEN magazine, which is owned by the RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group, confessing his organisation’s allegiance to the RSS: “Acharyaji shayad aap bhi busy rehte hain aap shayad Open dekhte nahi hain regular. Main aapko ek baat bataata hoon. Open jitna support karte hain sangathan ka shayad hee koi karta hoga. (Acharyaji, perhaps you are a busy man and maybe you don’t read OPEN regularly. Let me tell you one thing. Nobody supports the Sangathan [RSS] as much as does OPEN).”
`BJP MLA claimed she was told by Sangh people to demolish mosques’
Cobrapost said of all the interviews that the journalist had with the owners and personnel of various media houses in the course of its investigation, the one with BJP legislator from Belapur, Pune, Manda Tai, who is also the owner of a local channel of Pune, MVTV, stood out.
Cobrapost said while such open confessions could be brushed aside as “personal opinions”, given the position Tai held in the organisation, they “cannot be taken lightly”.
It said “all these on-camera confessions make it clear that the malaise of paid news has set in deep as it is no longer confined to a few individuals who would show no scruples while publishing paid content, camouflaging it as news stories or reports. Over the years, paid news has become institutionalized.”
17 media organisations were exposed in first tranche
At the time of its first ‘cash for coverage’ expose in March, Cobrapost had revealed how it had surreptitiously filmed the interaction its reporter had over several months with top executives at dozens of leading newspapers and television channels across north India.
Part I of ‘Operation 136’ – which derived its name from the rank India got in the World Press Freedom Index of 2017 – had reproduced excerpts of interactions Cobrapost’s undercover journalist had with 17 organisations including with India Tv, which belongs to Rajat Sharma, an editor known to be close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s largest Hindi newspaper Dainik Jagran, local Uttar Pradesh channel Hindi Khabar, the entertainment and news television company SAB Group, the English newsaper DNA (Daily News and Analysis) which is owned by Zee and Dainik Bhaskar, Amar Ujala, the news agency UNI, the entertainment channel 9X Tashan, the UP news channel Samachar Plus, the Uttarakhand channel HNN 24/7, the Hindi newspapers Punjab Kesari and Swatantra Bharat, web portals Schoop Whoop and Rediff.com, IndiaWatch, Hindi newspaper Aaj and the influential Lucknow-based news channel, Sadhna Prime news.
Among those shown in the interactions were several big names in the media industry, including Pradeep Guha , a former top executive at the Times of India group and now at 9X Tashan. Cobrapost had also uploaded excerpts from the video recordings.
Sting team left shocked
Incidentally, following the first release of tapes, Cobrapost editor Aniruddha Bahal had said that even his undercover journalists were left surprised by what they discovered. “To our utter shock most of them not only agreed to do what he asked for but also suggested myriad ways for undertaking a well-orchestrated, overtly communal media campaign on behalf of their prospective big-ticket client.”
Cobrapost had earlier stated that its investigation had revealed yet another example of the Indian media’s penchant for twisting facts or serving pure rumours as news, as was recently witnessed during the Kasganj communal riot in Uttar Pradesh earlier this year. “What our investigation shows is symptomatic of the malaise that has set deep in the labyrinths of the citadel called Fourth Estate. It also shows that Indian media is on sale, lock, stock and barrel,”
The release of the latest tranche of tapes only confirms this ugly truth.
The Wire has written to the media houses featured in Cobrapost’s Operation 136 and will update this story with their responses as and when they are received.
Response received from Lokmat spokeswoman (May 25, 2017, 11:27 pm):
“Ethics and integrity have been the hallmark of Lokmat’s 100 year long history. The views expressed in the video are personal and the publication neither support or subscribe to it. We have robust editorial policy with multi level checks and balances to ensure unbiased reporting for our readers. The person in question is no more a Lokmat employee and is not associated with the publication in any capacity now.”
*Response of India Today group to Cobrapost:
The India Today Group stands for the highest standards of journalism. The editorial has always worked independent of commercial transactions. The business side of the organization, irrespective of their seniority or personal political and religious leanings, do not influence our editorial coverage in any way, nor is any sales representative of ours authorized to offer editorial coverage.
During the sting operation carried out by your undercover reporter, he had conversations with various sales employees of our Group for an advertising campaign. He did not meet anyone from our editorial team.
In fact, in the meeting with our senior management, as well as in the advertising proposal sent to the undercover reporter on 16th February 2018, it is clearly mentioned that all the creatives would have to be approved by The India Today Group. Senior management also told your reporter that the Group will not do anything unethical, and that any advertising creative that divides the country on religious or caste lines will not be acceptable, and will not be aired on our channels.
The India Today Group has always condemned paid news, and in its 43 years of existence, never indulged in any such practice. Any suggestion to the contrary would be malicious.