Conflict of Interest?
Did CNN-IBN manage to strike the balance between fair reportage and being loyal to the powers that be?
Arvind Kejriwal’s press conference began and there were moans of “we already knew that” and “what’s new” by various journalists across publications and news channels. What was interesting to watch was whether the media house which has a large investment from Reliance India Limited – Network 18 – and which owns one of India’s most-watched English news channels (CNN-IBN) and English business news channel (CNBC TV18) and the news website, Firstpost would manage to report and analyse the allegations in a fair manner. Or would they have to troop out their defence through panelists who would denounce Kejriwal and his charges?
CNN-IBN did commendably strive for objectivity while reporting the press conference, with very balanced headlines and tickers. Unlike Times Now who for some reason peppered their tickers with adjectives like “alleged”, “claims” and some such. A courtesy not extended when “allegations” and “claims” are made against the less powerful.
After the press conference though, while the other English news channels were carrying the day’s news bulletins and“exclusive” interviews of Sunanda Tharoor, the reportage on CNN-IBN took a slight turn. They had an hour-long discussion on the Ambani exposé chaired by Bhupendra Chaubey at 5 pm. Shereen Bhan (Executive Editor – CNBC TV18) put up a worthy defence of Ambani and RIL, poking holes in the Kejriwal allegations with a lot of economic jargon. Chaubey tried to position the Ambani exposé as just another tactic by Kejriwal to gain a political foothold. There was a sensible and restrained comment from R Jagannathan (Editor-in-Chief, Firstpost) who stated that the corporate lobby is a stark reality today and something we should start to look at.
But if you thought that was the end of the CNN-IBN defence, think again. On India at 9 with Rajdeep, the balancing act began again. Obviously effected by Diwali, Rajdeep questioned whether the exposé was a bomb or phuljari (fire-cracker). A few minutes into the show, Paranjoy Guhathakurta did burst a little bit of a bomb by mentioning that we should take into account that CNN-IBN is part of Network 18, a company which Mukesh Ambani has invested in. A disclaimer which hadn’t been mentioned in the earlier panel discussion on the channel. Suffice it to say, the look on Rajdeep’s face was priceless. He dished out the age old defence of there being no direct investment by Mukesh Ambani into the network and therefore, no conflict of interest. Okay then.
The Last Word with Karan Thapar which was titled “What does Kejriwal’s Third Exposé Really Amount to?” also used the Diwali allusion. And mentioned the “Is this a bomb or a pataka?” line. A soberly-attired Thapar – this was no time for bow-ties – set the tone for the show right at the beginning by calling the Mukesh Ambani exposé an “old dish”. The panelists included A K Bhattacharya, Prem Shankar Jha, R Jagannathan and S Zarabi (Economic Policy Editor – CNBC).
Thapar began by asking –“Is it a fresh new exciting story, or is it a recycled story?”. Even the ticker said – “Are the Kejriwal allegations new?”. Which seemed to miss the point that Kejriwal isn’t trying to make it as a cub reporter, and therefore the newness of his story is not what needs to be evaluated. What needs to be evaluated is whether the allegations are based on fact or not. Bhattacharya did say that Kejriwal has collated the facts and presented them and the newness of the story did not matter.
The seeming witness to the defence, Zarabi, argued that the government was in fact sitting on RIL’s capital expenditure and development plan approvals and was therefore leading to a loss for the company. Bhattacharya used Thapar’s Diwali metaphor – much to the latter’s visible joy – and said that Kejriwal had indeed lit a phuljhari which would end up lighting a bomb, and the government has brought this situation upon itself by not taking transparent decisions. Things were simply not going as planned for Thapar. Every time a statement was made against the government and thereby by default against RIL, Thapar would bring the discussion back to whether the story was a new one or not. Prem Shankar Jha saved the day for him, by saying that Kejriwal’s allegations were tantamount to “muck-raking” and that he was “delegitimising the political system”. Which was the“sober note” which Thapar ended his show on, and censoriously said he hopes “that Arvind Kejriwal is listening to even if he doesn’t agree with it”.
It’s not an easy task to appear objective in a situation like this. And definitely not an enviable position to be in. CNN-IBN put up a worthy effort, calling out the troops with all the big boys appearing on the panel discussions – from Rajdeep to Bhupendra Chaubey to Zarabi and Shereen Bhan and R Jagannathan. (Sagarika was the only one who was missing, but then she was spending time with Sunanda Tharoor.) Bomb or pataka, where there’s smoke there’s always fire. Diwali is indeed nigh.