In what’s being called a reverse sting, Jindal Steel and Power Ltd (JSPL) chairman Naveen Jindal has released video recordings which allegedly show Zee editors trying to extort Rs. 100 crore in return for the channel not airing damaging stories on coal block allocations involving his company.
In a counter-offensive, Zee claims that it was JSPL which offered to pay the channel.
At a dramatic press conference on Thursday, Mr. Jindal, who is also a Congress MP, distributed a CD with a 14-minute montage of footage, which he said was culled from hidden camera recordings of a series of meetings in mid-September between JSPL executives and Sudhir Chaudhary and Samir Ahluwalia, editors of Zee News and Zee Business. Claiming that this was the first time an Indian corporate was exposing media malpractice, Mr. Jindal said: “The government gives channels a licence to show news. They are not given a licence for extortion or blackmail.” JSPL has filed a criminal case against Zee, alleging extortion, and says it decided to make the videos public only because the channel was accusing the company of blackmail. JSPL officials indicated they were also likely to file a defamation suit against the media group in the next few days.
The video seems to show the Zee editors bargaining with the JSPL executives at a restaurant or cafe. While the Jindal officials say they were originally asked for only Rs. 20 crore, the Zee editors reply that this was a “communication error.” Mr. Ahluwalia explains that the earlier meeting was held at a noisy coffee bar with loud music, and so there had been a miscommunication; Zee had actually wanted JSPL to commit itself to advertising worth Rs. 25 crore a year for four years, amounting to Rs. 100 crore.
Mr. Chaudhary promises that signing a contract to this effect would end negative coverage. “Look, the biggest protection is that no other thing will come after this,” he says on the video, promising that all Zee channels would be covered under the deal. “The biggest gain is that there is no further damage…It means maybe you will just fall short of that pit.” He charts a “road map” for how the channel will reduce its damaging coverage in a “subtle way” to avoid talk of a deal.
Mr. Chaudhary describes the relationship of an advertiser with a news outlet as that of a client, where the management and the sales team will convince editorial to “go soft” on a company which gives business with them. “But this was not the case with you this time,” he says.
“Anyway, it is not something which I am asking you which is out of the world, out of the blue,” says Mr. Ahluwalia in a conversation near the end of the video. “If you actually look at it, it’s actually a win-win for both of us… Honestly, I am saying when we do a relationship with people, when we do a relationship with an advertiser, it’s a relationship in which I will give you more than even you can ask.”
The Zee editors claim they are not the only media outlet which works like this. “At least we are doing a proper transparent deal with you, at least we are not doing a front page story which is paid for….” Later, he adds, according to the transcript put out by Mr. Jindal: “Everybody is in the same business...If you stop your business with Times of India, they will start [negative coverage]...You try and see.” Displaying copies of Times of India supplements, Mr. Chaudhary alleges that ‘Delhi Times’ and ‘Bombay Times’ are completely paid for, with sponsored interviews and pictures, and Medianet arranging for positive film reviews.
(When contacted about the references the Zee editors made to Times group publications, Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. executives refused to comment. Speaking off-the-record, however, a senior executive told The Hindu that the allegations are a “bunch of lies,” adding that “they [Zee] will be hearing from us”.)
Responding to the Jindal CD on their channel, Zee’s editors said they were the ones conducting a sting operation to show how far Jindal would go to suppress the story, adding that they had taken a “dummy” contract with them. However, they have not yet released any footage of their own alleged sting operation.
In a joint statement released later in the evening, the Zee editors called the Jindal CD a “deliberate attempt to malign and defame” them, to “prejudice” the ongoing investigations, and to “silence the growing demand for an independent probe in the Coalgate scam.”
“To suppress the coverage that Zee News was telecasting on Coalgate, Corporate Communications team from JSPL first tried to bribe Samir Ahluwalia with Rs. 25 crore, which he declined straightway,” said the statement. “This was an offer from JSPL to stop the coverage of Coalgate scam. Undeterred the JSPL team offered Zee News and Zee Business an advertising deal of Rs.100 crore, to somehow stop the coverage on air.”
Zee News also highlighted the attempts of an RTI activist, and his family and supporters, to raise questions during Mr. Jindal’s press conference. Ramesh Aggarwal, an RTI activist from Chhattisgarh, was present at the conference in a wheelchair, alleging that the JSPL officials had physically attacked him.
JSPL has already filed a complaint with the Press Council of India, which forwarded it to the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, an industry self-regulatory body, which is investigating the matter. The Broadcast Editors Association has also expelled Mr. Chaudhary and removed him as its treasurer in the wake of the allegations.
Several senior television journalists have expressed shock at Thursday’s revelations. “Stunned silence in the newsroom as journalists watch the Jindal-Zee sting operation,” tweeted Headlines Today Managing Editor Rahul Kanwal. “Anyone who indulges in extortion should be exposed…Not correct for Editors to be discussing revenue deal with a corporate at a time when channel is running series of exposes on the company.”
“I joined journalism over 20 years ago, fresh from Oxford, idealistic about being part of India's great free press. Sad, shocked today,” tweeted CNN-IBN deputy editor Sagarika Ghose.