The case of the so-called cash-for-votes sting operation is getting curiouser by the day, and it’s difficult to decide who is right and who is wrong.
To recap, on the day of the trust vote in Parliament, three BJP MPs waved wads of currency in the well of the House, alleging that Amar Singh of the Samajwadi Party and Ahmed Patel of the Congress had tried to bribe them to abstain from the vote. Later BJP leader L K Advani said that the BJP had taken the help of a news channel to conduct this sting and that he would reveal the name soon. CNN-IBN then came out and said it was the channel and that it had handed over the tapes to the Speaker.
With speculation that the channel had been armtwisted into not airing the tapes, CNN-IBN later clarified that it had intended to air the tapes but its investigations were not complete and that the BJP MPs had jumped the gun. Among the rumours was one that Anil Ambani who held some stake in CNN-IBN had pressurised it not to air a tape that incriminated his dear friend Amar Singh. The BJP is now saying that CNN-IBN had promised to air the tapes hours before the trust vote but it had reneged on that commitment. It has now decided to boycott CNN-IBN until it airs the tapes. However, it was not banning CNN-IBN from its press conferences.
The Editors Guild has condemned this as pressure tactics and says it infringes on the freedom of the press. Indian Express in an editorial has said this “also raises ethical questions that hark back to the issue of a political party’s democratic responsibility. The BJP might just end up as a double loser”.
First I am surprised the Editors Guild has been so quick to condemn the BJP for boycotting the channel. Because I didn’t see any Editors Guild statement when commerce and industries minister Kamal Nath banned CNBC-TV18, CNBC-Awaaz and Crisilmarketwire (then part of TV18) from his press conferences. All because one CNBC-TV18 anchor was needlessly aggressive while interviewing Nath during a brouhaha over cement prices. Nath’s aides would selectively go up to journalists from these three organisations and request them to leave. I myself was witness to one incident during a conference on WTO at the Maurya Sheraton. The press information officer was on phone and was saying CNBC is not allowed. The matter was later sorted out (how, I am still wanting to know) but this was a patently undemocratic act by the minister. The anchor was insufferable that day and Nath was right in getting angry. But banning the channel was not the answer. There are other ways of handling this. He could have complained to the editor, gone to the Press Council or simply boycotted the channel the way the BJP has decided to do. But how can he ban a news organisation from his press conferences? Press conferences by ministers are not private parties at their residence where they are free to pick and choose the invitees.
Kamal Nath did what he did. What was the rest of the press community doing? Even as his aides went around tapping CNBC reporters and cameramen on the shoulder and escorting them out, other print and television journalists sat quietly and attended the press conference. One walkout by all of them would have brought Nath to his senses. But to come back to my question – why was the Editors Guild silent then?
Separately, this particular sting – like all other stings – raises several questions which journalists must grapple with. Should journalists doing stings get into deals with their sources about when to publish/air the sting? But it’s all a question of give and take; the source has a reason for helping the journalist so some assurance will have to be given/some deal struck. Without the source’s help, the sting cannot be done. There will be no easy answers to these.
That said, the whole controversy over whether the channel was pressurised into not airing the tapes, whether the tapes had conclusive evidence (as the BJP claims) or not sufficient evidence (as CNN-IBN claims) will get sorted out only if the tapes are aired at the earliest. If they have conclusive evidence, it will become obvious that CNN-IBN was pressurised. The channel will only earn sympathy. If the tapes are inconclusive, then the channel will come out as a strong adherent to journalistic ethics and gain everybody’s respect. The BJP will end up looking silly. So it’ll be a win-win for the channel.
Anyway, here’s a link to an interesting point made by Jaya Jaitly in Indian Express, about the double standards in dealing with the Tehelka tapes on arms deals (where she figured) and the CNN-IBN tapes. http://www.indianexpress.com/story/343534.html