- NL Sena
The newspaper's official statement is that the published poll was an ad and a mistake. Here's the inside story.
On February 13, 2017, instead of carrying the news, Dainik Jagran, the most read newspaper in India, made news and became the object of unusual public ridicule. With Uttar Pradesh State Assembly elections underway, the newspaper had published an exit poll on its website after the first phase of polling. This happened on February 11, with six more phases of polling to follow. Publishing an exit poll is a clear violation of Election Commission of India (ECI) directives, which state that these may not be published till the last phase of polling is over because they could influence the voter.
The EC ordered District Election Officers of 15 districts to lodge separate criminal cases against the editors of the newspaper on February 13, and in less than 24 hours, late at night, Ghaziabad police arrested Dainik Jagran’s online editor, Shekhar Tripathi. The next day, he was taken to court and granted bail. This was the first case in recent times where the ECI took quick action against a media company for not obeying its diktat and ordered District Election Officers to file criminal complaints under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant). Back in February 2007, during Assembly elections in Punjab, the ECI had asked District Election Officers of 20 districts to file complaints against NDTV Co-Founder Prannoy Roy for broadcasting exit poll-like projections during voting hours.
Dainik Jagran hasn’t received much sympathy from the media fraternity, including other proprietors, social organisations, editors and journalists. The isolation is largely the outcome of the newspaper’s reputation for favouring Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In fact, the exit polls that the newspaper had published had shown a clear edge for BJP after the first round and played down the prospects of Samajwadi Party (SP), which is currently in power, and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
This time, the Assembly elections have been a particularly unpredictable contest. SP has an alliance with its long-time rival Congress. Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to be a big draw, but there are complaints of confusion from on-ground workers. Under the circumstances, Dainik Jagran’s authoritative exit polls projections seem a bit of stretch. If there’s one thing everyone agrees upon, it is that the contest is unpredictable.
In this situation, no one’s missing a trick (as is obvious from some of the statements made by politicians in their speeches). The speculation in UP media is that Dainik Jagran publishing the exit poll was a calculated effort to help BJP’s prospects in the following phases of polling.
Dainik Jagran has officially denounced this claim. It has stated that publishing the exit poll was an unwitting lapse and the outcome of miscommunication between the departments of ad sales and edit. According to Jagran Group Chief Executive Officer and Editor Sanjay Gupta, the exit polls had come in the form of an advertisement. Generally, editorial content functions independent of marketing and sales, whose responsibility it is to secure ads. Even in the age of native advertising, there are usually separate teams to write that content. That said, there are organisations in which advertisements do dictate what will go on a page in terms of editorial, but Dainik Jagran maintains there is a divide between the two in its operating system. It has also said that there are standing instructions to the editorial staff to strictly follow the directives issued by the EC.
Requesting anonymity, sources in Dainik Jagran told this reporter that this was a mistake by the advertisement department, which didn’t realise the seriousness of violating the EC’s guidelines. Also, the exit poll was removed from the site as soon as the mistake was noticed, newspaper management argued. This was almost 48 hours after the poll had gone up at about 7pm on February 11.
Whatever explanation Dainik Jagran may offer, the general perception in local media is that the publication took a calculated risk. The way the model code of conduct is applicable in case of politicians is defied by leaders of almost all political parties regularly. Journalists this reporter spoke to were of the opinion that the newspaper management had the feeling that directives of Election Commission weren’t to be strictly followed. Some say that the Dainik Jagran management had not expected either the EC to notice or the police to act as swiftly as it did.
The speed with which Tripathi was arrested has raised eyebrows. First Information Reports are registered against politicians and their henchmen under various sections of the Indian Penal Code almost on a regular basis while the election process is going on or otherwise. Police officers seldom take action unless they are goaded by political masters to move. Non-bailable warrants have been pending for decades without getting executed against so many known political leaders. Keeping all this in mind, the swiftness with which Tripathi was arrested begs the question of whether one of the factors motivating the police was the exit poll predicting a win for BJP rather than SP. Sources within Jagran suggest that the Additional Director General of Police, Law and Order, personally intervened directing the police officers in Ghaziabad to take the editor in custody.
According to senior journalist based in Lucknow, Mudit Mathur, there was no need for the police to act in such a brazen manner or to detain the editor at the police station during the night. Police could have granted him bail itself, instead of taking him to court, he said. Higher police authorities, however, wanted to give a tough message, if only to prove their loyalty to the Chief Minister.
It’s also worth noting that Indian media has, by and large, isolated Dainik Jagran. “Where is the question of others coming to your aid when you yourself plead that publishing exit polls was a mistake committed inadvertently and involving no action of the editorial department?” said senior journalist, Ram Dutt Tripathi. Some journalists feel that prohibiting publication of exit polls in newspapers itself amounts to curtailment of freedom of expression.
However, this larger question of how much of an impact exit polls have on voters is for the Supreme Court to answer. The Dainik Jagran case highlights some serious issues that Indian media needs to address, from the blurring of lines between editorial and advertising, how access journalism can affect a publication’s credibility, the reach that politics has upon how media functions to the challenges of transitioning from print to web.