Why Editors' Guild statement on Cobrapost sting-op is a major let down
Over a week has elapsed since the airing of the Cobrapost sting operation videos and any kind of logical follow-up from any authority whatsoever is still missing.
Since journalists largely abhor intervention by governments, there were expectations that bodies tasked with self-regulation will respond and tackle the issue with the seriousness it deserves.
The Editors' Guild of India is one such body and its much-delayed response came on 3 June, a full eight days after the expose. The statement left much to be desired.
Expressing 'concern' over the claims made by Cobrapost through the sting operation, the Guild merely urged media organisations to explain their position. The statement quite clearly showed the Guild's lack of confidence in the sting and the issues it raised, by adding a disclaimer at the outset that “the Guild cannot ascertain the veracity of these tapes”.
Significantly, the statement carries a strong note of disapproval of sting operations, per se, terming them as “misrepresentation or subterfuge”.
It is not clear whether the act is deliberate or unintentional, but the statement has played down a small but significant rider that is mentioned towards the end. Sting operations are justified when they are conducted in public interest, says the proviso.
Is it anybody's case that the issue highlighted by the sting is not in public interest? The operation has caught the top honcho of the world's largest selling English-language daily, among others, admit on video that he is ready to accept crores in cash for publishing communal content that will benefit a particular political party.
This is media corruption of the highest order and the public interest in it is undeniable. It is probably a measure of the complete erosion of public faith in the media that that there is hardly any outrage over this in the country right now. In any responsible democracy, such revelations would have invited a probe by investigative agencies right away.
The Guild has possibly tried to take advantage of this absence of outrage by going soft on those caught red-handed and instead reprimanding Cobrapost for conducting the sting. The statement is a dishonest attempt at addressing the issue.
Cobrapost Editor Aniruddha Behal told Catch he found the statement shallow and in bad taste. Talking about questions on the ethics of sting operations, he said “this was neither the time nor the occasion to take potshots at hidden camera investigation”.
A veteran journalist Catch spoke to also pointed out a series of flaws with the Guild's statement. It is a case of too little, too late, admitting that it was disappointing that the statement was focused on the ethics of hidden camera investigation and almost entirely silent on what it revealed.
Siddharth Varadarajan, Editor of The Wire, has already pointed out that “editors are not judges presiding over trials who disallow improperly obtained information as evidence” Varadarajan has rightly recalled that when Channel 4 aired the results of the Cambridge Analytica sting operation, all major news organisation in India covered the operation in detail without any qualms.
The veteran journalist also noted that he didn't find the Guild's statement very surprising because “editors at the top of the pecking order come to share the same perspective as the owners and their marketing managers”.
Another journalist who has seen the Guild function for years said this kind of approach was the result of the organisation not being truly representative of journalists at large. She said there was no proper election or membership to the organisation and that in the past, not even 10-12 retired editors used to turn up for the Guild's meetings.
As the statutory body that governs the conduct of print media in India, the Press Council of India could have taken note of the videos. An FIR could have been lodged and a police probe could have been launched.
As the controlling ministry of the nation's premier investigative agency, the Home Ministry could have directed a probe. The courts could have also taken suo moto cognisance and directed a probe. However, in the absence of any action on these fronts, media could have risen to the occasion and called for a probe.
The Editors Guild's soft statement is failure of the Indian media's self-regulation mechanisms. The issues raised by the Cobrapost sting operation are of paramount significance to the neutrality of Indian media and public faith in it. They must not be allowed to die without due investigation.