We’re passing through tough times. While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is being all statesman-like in Colombo, back home our intelligence agencies have their hands full and faces red as they rush about trying to catch shadowy terrorists who strike at will. Bomb threats are now routine. Inflation is close to 12%. Pilgrims are killed in stampedes. And protests over Amarnath continue to rage in Jammu.
In short, life has moved on since 22 July’s messy trust vote in Parliament. But no matter what, I continue to be troubled by the whole sting-that-wasn’t-aired by CNN-IBN. Quite clearly, so does the channel, which issued a press release last week to set at rest the speculation based on “hearsay, conjecture and mere guesswork”. And quite clearly, so does the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been conducting its own investigations after witnessing what is, in Arun Jaitley’s words, the “subversion of truth”.
CNN-IBN’s press release clarifies that the sting operation into the cash-for-votes scandal was part of its commitment to public interest journalism and that investigations began “at least a week” before the trust vote. The story was not telecast because, says the channel, it was not complete.
Let me state my concerns.
First, if you’re talking about setting rumours to rest, why not come clean? In his column in The Indian Express newspaper on Sunday, 3 August, BJP’s Sudheendra Kulkarni writes that he was “with the CNN-IBN team almost from the beginning to the end of its sting operation and have witnessed the recording of its operation”.
Kulkarni doesn’t specifically say this but it is safe to assume that BJP approached the news channel with a potentially sensational story.
So what, if anything, did the channel promise to give the party in return? Did it, in the words of Kulkarni, make a “solemn assurance” to air the tapes before the trust vote? What were the contours of the “deal”? The press release doesn’t provide answers to these questions.
Second, I believe Rajdeep Sardesai’s channel is committed to public interest. Having said that, there’s a larger question: At what point do you stop being an investigative journalist and start becoming a corroborator to vested political interests?
Of course, the BJP had planned to use the channel to further its own political agenda. Knowing this, how can CNN-IBN now say it was an impartial “fly on the wall”? Maintaining a healthy distance from your sources isn’t always easy and there is a very fine line, but mature journalism is based on exercising judgement and keeping your sources (and their ulterior motives) at arm’s length.
The unedited tapes are now with Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, and a seven-member committee is investigating the cash-for-votes scandal.
This brings me to my third concern: Is it the job of journalists to provide evidence to the Speaker? And here’s question four: If the tapes were not conclusive enough for telecast, what then is their validity as evidence?
If your concern is public interest, why not come clean and telecast the tapes as they were? Admit to your viewers that the story is a developing one and that you will update them as new facts come to light.
The channel didn’t do that but went rushing to the Speaker instead. Moreover, given that BJP members of Parliament, or MPs, were waving bundles of cash in the House, the channel would have been justified in airing the tapes — even if they had been incomplete.
The fifth question is the business of parliamentary “privilege”. In 1998, while hearing a case relating to evidence that 10 MPs from Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh were paid bribes to vote in favour of the Narasimha Rao government in a 1993 confidence vote, the Supreme Court ruled that the bribed MPs were protected by privilege. Those who had bribed them were not.
In the cash-for-vote scam and in any possible future scam involving MPs, there remains a fear that those exposing corruption in Parliament could be guilty of violating privilege, even if they are proved right in the end.
Finally, the whole business of sting journalism is a grey area that requires parameters drawn by television channels themselves. Sting operations have by and large remained in the public interest (Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme, cash-for-queries). Yes, there have been a few bad apples (a fake sting against a government schoolteacher in New Delhi, for instance) and there are ethical concerns about entrapment and outsourcing stings to third parties. I don’t have the answers. I know we need to raise the questions.
A section of the BJP led by L.K. Advani has asked for the CNN-IBN tapes to be made public. Given that the matter is under investigation and that the Speaker has asked for its speedy conclusion, I am prepared to wait for another few days. But the tapes must be aired in the near future, both to set the record straight and in the public interest. Whatever it takes.
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org