Kiska Jhooth, Kiska Sach?
Is Naveen Jindal India’s answer to Hugh Grant? The foppish Hugh Grant had carried out a sting operation where in a Kent pub he secretly taped Paul McMullan – the former deputy features editor of The News of the World - admitting to the illegal phone-hacking indulged in by NOTW. A sting op which resulted in a domino effect from arrests to police cover-ups, a national inquest, Murdoch’s wife displaying a mean left hook, and the ultimate closure of the newspaper.
Naveen Jindal might not have Grant’s caddish charm, but he does seem to have followed in his footsteps. Conducting his own sting op to show the alleged media malpractice of Zee News and Zee Business and promising to bring them to their knees. For the last month, murmurs have been heard about Zee trying to extort money from Naveen Jindal in return for hushing up a negative story about his company.
In August 2012, Zee – much like other media houses – had carried news reports on the coal block allocations and named Jindal Steel and Power Limited as one of the companies which had benefited from the government’s largesse. It was also reported that on September 10, 2012 Naveen Jindal had roughed up a Zee News journalist who had asked him for a comment on the coal allocation scam, outside a Delhi hotel. An Indian Express news report stated that, “The HR head of Jindal Steel and Power Ltd has filed a complaint of extortion against Zee News and Zee Business… sources said it alleges that executives of the two news channels had demanded Rs 100 crore as an advertising commitment from the Jindal group in return for dropping an exposé linking it to the alleged coal scam. According to police sources, the complaint says that Zee executives held several meetings with Jindal officials to negotiate the deal. The last such meeting, according to them, was held in a five star hotel in Delhi three weeks ago”. This news report was followed by silence other than for some sporadic news reports in the next few weeks.
But yesterday at 3pm, Naveen Jindal held a press conference to reveal the sting op he had conducted on Zee. The press conference had been allegedly organised by Jindal Steel’s PR agency, Image Inc which is owned by Dilip Cherian. At the press conference, Naveen Jindal stated that his corporate communication team had tried to contact Zee News and Zee Business after they had carried a news report which didn’t show his company in a very favourable manner. Jindal also said that in a meeting held in September, Zee’s representatives met his corporate communications team and demanded Rs 20 crore. “There were more meetings and the Zee News officials demanded Rs 100 crore at a meeting in a coffee bar in New Delhi and said that we must have heard the original demand wrong…they threatened to continue broadcasting defamatory material if we did not make the payments”.
Jindal then aired a 14-minute video which showed Sudhir Chaudhary and Sameer Ahluwalia of Zee News and Zee Business in a coffee shop in conversation with two people we couldn’t see. There was a prolonged discussion in which you could hear Jindal’s representative keep asking why the demand for Rs 20 crore had gone up to Rs 100 crore, and stating that it’s a high figure. The Jindal representatives also bashed out details such as the offensive news report should be dropped as soon as possible, and specified that they expected that at this price none of Zee’s channels or publications will carry the story and also asked Zee to show an interview which they had taken of Naveen Jindal. Sudhir Chaudhary and Sameer Ahluwahlia seem quite nonchalant through it all, and at one point while brandishing a copy of Economic Times to the Jindal team – and camera – say that at least they are doing a straight out ad revenue deal and not selling their front page like ET does. The conversation then meanders on.
The press conference was interrupted by a wheelchair-bound man who started shouting slogans against Jindal. Through it all, Jindal did not answer any questions from the media.
Following the press conference, Zee responded with a clarification by both editors on a programme called Jindal ka jhooth, Koyle ka sach. The channel’s editors – who were shown in the sting op – claimed that they were meeting the JSPL team to prove that Naveen Jindal was willing to bribe them to suppress the truth. And that they were repeatedly called by the company to strike a deal with them.
They had created a dummy contract stating that JSPL would pay Rs 100 crore as ad revenue over 5 years, on which they wanted to get Naveen Jindal’s signature. They also claimed that the entire deal was the JSPL team’s idea. “In my first meeting with the corporate communications team he promised me Rs 25 crore, he then promised me an advertisement deal with the channel”, Sameer Ahluwalia said on air.
In Zee’s defence, an email from JSPL stating that they were ready to sign the agreement was displayed. And it was stated that if they were extorting money from the company they would hardly use a written contract to do so. The plan was to have a “stringing operation” where by managing to get a signature on the dummy contract, they would done an exposé on what JSPL would try and do to suppress negative information on itself. Also, they claimed that the CD of 14 minutes which was aired has been edited from meetings for over 5 hours, which leaves out relevant conversations in which the JSPL team is offering a bribe as well as pressurising Zee to suppress stories. The editors also said that the press conference was held once Naveen Jindal realised that all efforts had gone to waste and that Zee would not stop their reportage of Coalgate. “The bigger issue is the CAG report and Coalgate…why has the government suddenly stopped talking about the issue”, Chaudhary asked.
The programme also showed the timeline of how Zee had reported on Jindal Steel’s involvement as one of the main beneficiaries of coal block allocation, as far back as December 7, 2011. On December 8, 2011 Zee News had got their hands on an internal government letter recommending that JSPL should get coal blocks in Orissa. And how, like in the case of the much-pilloried Gadkari, it was discovered that 4 Jindal firms had given fake addresses. Zee was also kind enough to follow this up with a clip of Naveen Jindal channeling a grumpy Hugh Grant while roughing up a Zee cameraman.
The channel’s defence also included the fact that slapping an extortion charge on anyone who shows Jindal’s companies in an unpleasant manner is par for the course for the company. And made an example of how wheelchair-bound Chattisgarh RTI activist, Ramesh Agarwal who was present at the press conference had been accused of extortion and then imprisoned when he had stated that JSPL was displacing villagers in Raigarh. “Yeh jan tantra hai. Unhi ki sarkar RTI leke ayi thi.” Ramesh Agarwal did appear on the channel to reinforce Zee’s statements.
Accusations, counter-accusations. All of which raise multiple questions. Why did Jindal attack a Zee journalist in September? Why did he not go to the media immediately after the Rs 20 crore demand in September? Why did he wait for the stake to be upped to Rs 100 crore? Naveen Jindal speaking to Vishnu Som on NDTV said that his team kept meeting the Zee officials because they wanted to see how far their demands would go.
There is also the question of why Zee was discussing ad revenue deals with a company they were carrying negative reports on? Why is Subhash Chandra strangely silent on the matter, and making his editors present their own defence? When News of the World came under fire, Murdoch had had to step out and face the music.
Of course it is common knowledge that the murky world of paid news exists out there. But two wrongs don’t make a right. On October 18 2012, it was reported that the Broadcast Editor’s Association has removed Sudhir Chaudhary from its membership following the allegations made by Naveen Jindal. And according to an Outlook report, the BEA had discussed the report of a “three-member Fact Finding Committee, comprising N K Singh, Dibang and Rahul Kanwal, in the matter which unanimously concluded ‘that Mr. Sudhir Chaudhary is found to have acted in a manner that is unbecoming of an editor and in a fashion that is prejudicial to the interest and objects of the BEA’”.
You can’t help but wonder at the objectivity displayed by a fact-finding committee comprising journalists from Zee’s competitor news channels. Should a fact-finding committee on a media house not comprise of people who do not have conflicting interests to the media house being investigated?
Will the law take its course and will we find out whether Zee was actually trying to extort money from Jindal or whether Jindal is pulling wool over our eyes? Neither Zee nor Jindal is blemish-free. And Zee has come out with quite a bit of egg on its face. Whether Jindal like Hugh Grant will manage to bring a media behemoth to its knees is highly doubtful. But while on the one hand, this counter-sting by Jindal has put the alleged malpractices of our media houses under the spotlight, on the other, it has pulled off a PR coup. It has managed to deviate attention from the CAG report on coal block allocation and JSPL’s involvement.
What’s worse is through it all we know that tomorrow there will be a fresh scam and a fresh sting to draw attention away from this one, which is more the sorrow. This is indeed the worst of times on all fronts.
Image by – Sachin Kumar