The Untouchables

The Untouchables

When news channels flout the law is it public interest or commercial interest or a race for ratings?

By Arunabh Saikia

Published on :

Strength in numbers is something Indian television news editors take very seriously. In fact it’s the ultimate go-to option when everything else fails. They have done it time and again when taking the leap all by themselves has turned out to be too gargantuan a task. With the Election Commission issuing editorial guidelines and directives by the dozen of late, bonhomie between editors is at an all-time high. The latest heist they’ve pulled off courtesy their comrade-in-arms-when-cornered trick is more hypocritical than anything else.

When the BJP on April 5 announced that it would be releasing its manifesto only on April 7 – the day of polling in a few constituencies in Assam and Tripura – prime time shows across the board went on overdrive.  It was sanctimonious sermons about the institution of democracy, respecting the voter and the constitution, galore. However, when the BJP did release the manifesto on April 7, as six constituencies in two states voted, our broadcast editors abandoned all their respect for the constitution for the more realistic pursuit of TRPs.

Section 126(1)(b) of the Representation of People’s Act prohibits “the display to the public any election matter by means of cinematograph, television or other similar apparatus” within the 48-hour period prior to polling. Legalese, we understand, is often difficult to comprehend.  So, in context of the release of the BJP’s manifesto (which is  “election matter” as it is “intended or calculated to influence or affect the result of an election”), this is what the law means and it’s fairly simple: Any telecast/broadcast by the electronic media publicising its release before 5pm, April 12 is unconstitutional. But this is what our news channels, forever in the pursuit of being the fastest and the most accurate, showed us in the morning and afternoon of April 7 (notice the proud breaking news tickers).

Now this could mean only three things:

  1. Our broadcast editors were not in the know of the law.
  2. They chose to simply ignore it.
  3. The Election Commission exempted them from following it as a special case.

In light of a chain email conversations (which Newslaundry is in possession of) between some of the most well known editors of the country (who also happen to be office bearers of the Broadcast Editors Association), the first does not seem to be the case. In fact, apprehensions about not being able to telecast the manifesto release were expressed on April 6 itself by an editor and it was agreed upon to consult the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC).  The CEC then as mentioned in the email issued a clarification (from what it appears from the chain of emails exchanged between the editors) stating channels could telecast it as long as they restricted their beam from poll-bound regions.  Following that, this is what Shazi Zaman, Group Editor, ABP News and president of the Broadcast Editors Association (BEA) wrote and marked to pretty much everyone who matters in the world of Indian TV news:

After CEC clarification, my view would be to go ahead with showing the manifesto release. As for EC advice on not publicising it in regions going to polls, I think it is beyond our control to limit the signal. Best we can do is to NOT highlight issues specific to the states going to poll, though if it comes in live, we cannot stop it. If we manage to speak to CEC, would send an update.

As far as my understanding of the English language goes, the email clearly suggests that the Election Commission “advised” news channels not to publicise the manifesto in poll-bound regions. So when, Shazi Zaman says “my view would be to go ahead with showing the manifesto release”, he is essentially saying “Let’s not pay heed to their advice, and let’s all do it together”. No, that’s not extrapolating an innocuous proposition to a daredevil defiance of a constitutional body, as by Zaman’s own admission, in the same email, it is beyond newsrooms’ control to limit the signal from poll bound regions. There’s an elephant in the room, Shazi Zaman – and surely you could see it too when you wrote that email.

Rajdeep Sardesai, on the same day, had Election Commissioner HS Brahma (CNN-IBN’s web team seems to think he’s the Chief Election Commissioner) on his channel. The time stamp of the show on CNN-IBN’s website says it was posted at 1:07 pm on April 7. When Brahma says that the electronic media should not have telecast the manifesto’s release live in view of Section 126(1)(b) of the Representation of People’s Act, Rajdeep retorts by saying,

“But I did not get anything in writing from the Election Commission.” That, Rajdeep Sardesai, with all due respect to your seniority, is a ludicrous thing to say. In fact, with all those years of professional journalist to your credit, it’s criminal to claim ignorance because you were not sent a written intimation to follow a law that’s been in place for more than 60 years.

However, it is only fair that everyone is given a chance to respond to allegations. Newslaundry contacted four editors who were part of the leaked email conversation and asked the following questions:

1. Are you/your editorial team aware that Section 126(1)(b) of the Representation of People’s Act prohibits “display to the public any election matter by means of cinematograph, television or other similar apparatus” during a period of 48 hours before polling day?

2. If you were aware, was it a conscious decision to go ahead with telecast of the BJP’s manifesto release on April 7?

3. Was your organisations’s editorial stance – “It was an important story that needed to be told without any delay”?

4. Was there any discussion within the BEA/other editors on the issue?

5. If there was, what was the position taken by the BEA?

 6. Is it standard procedure to act collectively – in short, are editorial decisions   to cover/black-out something often governed by the BEA’s stand?

Rajdeep Sardesai did respond but gave no specific answers. This is what he had to say:

Do contact Shazi Zaman of BEA. Decision to telecast was a collective decision of all broadcasters who are part of BEA.

Sonia Singh, Editorial Director, NDTV, who was marked in the emails but did not participate in the conversation herself, gave almost the same response as her former NDTV colleague. She, however, did concede that news channels “often acted collectively”.

Shazi Zaman, president of the BEA (to whom I was directed by both Sonia and Rajdeep) refused to acknowledge our multiple calls, text messages and emails. His editorial assistant, who promised to get back to us, also hasn’t responded to our email till the publication of this report.

Arnab Goswami, Editor-in-Chief, Times Now, gave his usual reply – “I don’t give interviews.” Seems there are quite a few people in the country who like the mike to be only way.

Also to be very sure that we weren’t seeing something that our editors did when they went ahead broadcasting the manifesto release when they knew they didn’t have the technology to limit the signal from poll-bound regions, we contacted the Election Commission (EC).  When asked if the Election Commission had issued any specific exemption/guidelines to news channels on April 7, Dhirrendra Ojha, Director (Communications) of the commission said, “The question of a specific advisory does not arise.” When we enquired if the EC has taken cognizance of news channels telecasting the release even in poll-bound areas, Ojha said, “ We have called for a report and are currently seeking legal advice.

While interviewing Brahma, Rajdeep had asked Brahma why not pull up the BJP rather than questioning news channels covering their manifesto release. Well, the answer’s very simple though Brahma sounded strangely circumspect in answering. The BJP’s timing of releasing the manifesto maybe morally and ethically questionable but it’s not violative of any constitutional process – the news channels telecasting it, very grossly is. The fact that editors did it “collectively” makes it worse. And that some reporters are claiming on social media that news channels had a go ahead from the election commission demonstrates their ignorance or dishonesty, worrying either way since they are supposed to be bringing us the news.

The next time the Arnabs and Rajdeeps hold someone siegein their newsrooms (read courtrooms) with their relentless grilling for breaking a law, they should not ideally look them in the eye.  Because they did it too. Collectively.