Media gets a taste of its own medicine

A reverse sting by industrialist Naveen Jindal on a television channel is probably a blessing for the dying concept of free media. Hopefully, it will raise both news quality and ethical standards in the Indian media.

In the early 1990s, Bruce Springsteen sang a song 57 Channels (And Nothin' On). Back then, I used to wonder how that's possible. Cable TV had just made its entry into India and we had so much to watch.

Over the years, I could relate to the song much more, especially when I would surf the channels for news. With 24 by 7 news channels playing the same footage over and over again, and shrill anchors repeating the same thing a million times, for me, watching news of TV became akin to self-torture.

I would rather get my news from the Internet or the newspapers. But then, that has been my problem with television (which I prefer to use more for entertainment).

The print media was in no enviable spot. It has been under constant cost pressures. It was quite common to hear editors tell their correspondents to go soft on a particular company, lest they withdraw their advertisements from their publication. It seemed only logical for some publications to sell editorial space to celebrities, companies, and other bodies (though I am not sure how it qualifies the definition of news).

On the one hand, most media houses encouraged the sale of news space, on the other hand, journalists started focusing more on "exclusives" and sting operations to get more readership and eyeballs. The availability of spy-cameras helped them conduct stings.

Yesterday, eminent businessman and Congress MP Naveen Jindal released footage of a "reverse sting" conducted by his company on two Zee News and Zee Business journalists. Zee was learnt to have been carrying negative stories on Jindal in the Coalgate (Indian coal allocation scam).

Jindal alleged the Zee journalists demanded INR 1 billion (US$18.7 million) as his company's budget for advertising with their news channels in return for stopping negative coverage on him in the coal allocation scam. Jindal used hidden camera to capture footage of the Zee journalists. He distributed the "sting" video and transcripts to journalists present at the press conference.

"They threatened to continue broadcasting defamatory material if we did not make the payments," Jindal said during a press conference last Thursday.

Meanwhile, Zee has dismissed Jindal's sting. "We condemn and completely reject the CD produced by Jindal. We see this as a deliberate attempt to malign and defame us," Zee News said in a statement.

Jindal has filed an FIR (First Information Report) with the Delhi police as well as a case of extortion. The matter is sub-judice and it would be unfair to take anyone's side in a blog like this.

But, in my view, Jindal has done a service to the Fourth Estate (even if his tapes are doctored, as alleged by Zee). He has put Indian media under the scanner. Revenue generation and news should not be mixed up. One hopes there will be more debate on this subject.

Hopefully, there will be some fear of the "spy-cam" the next time a scribe attempts something like this. And hopefully, there will be more "news" on the 57 channels, even if that means we pay a little more to get that news.