Whatever your opinion may be on sting journalism, you cannot ignore Cobrapost’s Operation 136. When the dust settles, it will surely find a place next to sting operations like Operation West End and the Cash for Questions scam.
The sting in some ways, and for all its flaws, shifts the paradigm of journalism. It does not question those in positions of political or administrative power, instead, it points the (hidden) camera on men and women who power the biggest media houses in India.
The reason why men and women (like me) will not speak out in public and take this story forward is because we are all too familiar with the pattern. These shady dealings have powered (and emaciated) media houses for far too long and soon after this storm passes, it will be business (sorry advertorial) as usual.
While some of the media houses are trying to be on the offensive, issuing clarifications and even claiming a reverse sting — many others haven’t even bothered. They are well aware that this story has had limited impact outside the industry and people don’t care as long as their daily fix of WrestleMania is delivered at 9 pm, and that’s where the tragedy of this sting operation lies.
BJP’s Bangaru Laxman accepting one lakh in cash jolted the conscience of the nation and showed just how big the problem of defence kickbacks was. Contrast this with the owner of the biggest media conglomerate in India, coolly sitting and discussing how he would push the Hindutva agenda all-year round for a princely sum of Rs 500 crore (the only haggling was over how much in cash and how much through cheque). The cost of conscience seems to have gone up steeply in India, a bribe of Rs 1 lakh led to Bangaru Laxman’s career being decimated after 2001, while in 2018, even a Rs 500-crore ‘deal’ barely created a ripple.
Despite ‘Acharya Atal’ clearly spelling out his three-phase agenda, which included open polarisation, and media owners understanding the full implications of the ‘deal’, the unholy nexus was not called off.
It’s clear from the tapes that media owners are not exactly ‘comfortable’ doing this deal, yet they tag along because (as any industry insider will tell you) money is becoming increasingly hard to come by for media houses. Digital has changed the rules of the game (and most are struggling to make this shift), content is free, social media is the new prime time, government ads are becoming harder to come by and there is a phenomenal talent attrition leading to a paucity of good content and shows. In such a situation a Rs 500-crore deal (five per cent of the annual revenue for Times of India) or a Rs 270-crore offer (representing an astounding 20 per cent of revenue for the TV Today) is too good to turn away from.
Moral costs be damned.
There is another reason why proprietors and senior management of these media houses thought this content would run without raising any suspicion.
Look at the top news channels in India (English or Hindi) – be it Aaj Tak or Republic or Times Now or Zee, they all indulge in cheerleading for the government, often selling hate and lies on prime time. Not one would stand-up to the scrutiny of the basic tenet of journalism – that a channel or a publication should question the government in power, not cheerlead it. Yet these channels are the ones that lead the ratings by a long shot – clearly, the opium of nationalism is driving their numbers, while those daring to question the government are down the dumps, if not being threatened with death or rape.
The government has conveniently sold the narrative — that to question it, is equal to questioning Bharat Mata. Most news channels will have a difficult time trying to search their archives on stories that really put the government in a spot. Instead, their library would be brimming with footage of how ‘Hindu Khatre Me Hain’ why ‘Mandir Wahi Banega’ and of course some good old Pakistan bashing.
Imagine for a moment that another ‘Acharya’ had come with the same offer of Rs 500 crore – only, in this case, media channels would have to run content on secularism or pseudo-secularism — have your pick – instead of Hindutva. That would have become a huge editorial/TRP problem.
If news organisations have given up their primary responsibility of being watchdogs over the government, the citizens (even the educated ones) have acted nothing less than lapdogs, eagerly accepting anything that’s thrown their way. Earlier it was ‘Vikaas’, now its uncloaked aggression of ‘us versus them’. Issues like growth, price hike, election funds, judicial independence can wait.
When the citizenry is not questioning and demanding answers, media organisations have an easy excuse for their complacency. But then that is too much to ask, the citizen gets his news fix on WhatsApp now – forwarded by a ‘reliable’ friend. Accuracy, reliability, context and truth be damned.
So what’s the future in this gloom and doom scenario?
Depends on where you view the problem from.
I think it’s quite bright actually.
Operation 136 hastens the cutting-down-to-size of media behemoths and democratises the distribution of news to smaller and nimble players. While here too there will be shady players, audiences will have more choice of what to read and who to believe. They will demand transparency from news organisations they choose to trust, or have the option of un-trusting them.
The time for Big Media may finally be running out with the rapid advent of digital platforms and perhaps that is why the government so desperately wants to control the flow of digital information and news, unless the administration pulls off a China on us – this will be difficult to do.
These low-cost, digital-only news hubs will be far nimbler, cost-effective and hyper-local. Of course, this model STILL depends on discerning audiences willing to pay for the news, (however little). This has always been the Achilles heel for Indian News – the viewers’ absolute reluctance to pay for news while splurging on movies, sports and general entertainment channels (GEC) – that is what drives news into the arms of advertisers and peddlers of hate like real-life ‘Acharya Atals’. One hopes that this jinx can be broken by with economical newsrooms, digital transmission, and transparent structures.
The Media is broken – and so are we. If we realise this before the system comes to bury Cobrapost then Operation 136 would have achieved some degree of success – else, there is always your favourite season of Bigg Boss around the corner or the 9 pm slugfest.