On Sunday, Mangalam Television made a sensational entry into a highly competitive market. In its launch bulletin, it aired a recording of an alleged lewd conversation that allegedly transpired between a state minister and a woman. The channel claimed the voice belonged to Kerala Transport Minister AK Saseendran and alleged that he was asking the woman for sexual favours. The fallout of the purported leak was quick – Saseendran resigned from his post within hours on moral grounds, even as he denied the allegations.
Mangalam proclaimed the minister’s decision was a victory for its brand of aggressive journalism. However, within days of its launch, the channel finds its credibility in doubt, with many media persons and political commentators in the state criticising it for seemingly sensationalising and misrepresenting the story.
Questions have been raised about the authenticity of the clip and the channel’s decision to air only the parts where a man is talking, without giving a reason why the woman’s voice has been edited out. The channel also did not specify if the conversation seemed consensual or if there was any coercion involved. The fact that no one has come forth to file a police complaint against Saseendran has added to the doubts.
The purported expose was criticised by many journalists.
“The channel has insulted the people of Kerala with its insensitivity in handling the issue,” wrote journalist Manila C Mohan in a Facebook post.
TV journalist Saneesh also panned the report in a Facebook post. “When a minister involves in sexual act he is just a common man,” he said. “The news should be presented differently if the minister misused his official position.”
Veteran journalist and media analyst BRP Bhaskar said that he suspected the Mangalam expose could be a honey trap. “The television channel didn’t reveal much information to the viewers about the expose,” he said. “It didn’t air the voice of the person whom Saseendran was talking to. That is why I suspect it was a honey trap.”
Veteran journalist, columnist and TV personality Bhasurendra Babu said that report lost credibility because of the channel’s decision not to air what the woman had said during the conversation.
In an editorial in the Times of India, media critic and former Independent MP Sebastian Paul from Ernakulum said that this incident was indicative a voyeuristic media space in which no distinction is made between public and private interest. “This is done to serve only prurient interests,” he wrote.
However, Mangalam Television Editor R Ajith Kumar assured Scroll.in that tape was authentic. “We got the audio tape from the woman and we verified the voice of the minister before deciding to air it,” Kumar said.
When asked about the allegations that this could be a honey trap, Kumar said. “I don’t think it is wrong to use honey trap to catch big fishes,” he said. “A minister is a public property.”
He added, “He spoke to a woman improperly. It is a big issue. So we decided to bring it to the notice of the public.”
Kumar said the minister’s resignation vindicated the report, and reiterated that Mangalam TV had brought minister’s wrongdoing to the public sphere. “If it was a consensual conversation, let Saseendran confirm it.”
The media obsession with alleged sex scandals is not new. More than two decades ago, Kerala’s newspapers in 1994 adorned their front pages with unsubstantiated explicit stories about what was painted as a sex scandal and espionage case concerning ISRO scientists. The story was then picked up by the national media. However, the CBI and later, the Supreme Court, in 1998, held that the case was fabricated and vindicated the accused.
But even as recently as 2013, the Malayalam media found itself facing criticism for its coverage of a scam involving a company that allegedly cheated people off millions in deals to install solar power for them. The clients of the company, Team Solar, included influential people. However, the focus of the coverage quickly shifted to Saritha Nair, who had founded the company with her partner, Biju Radhakrishnan and was arrested in the case. Then Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and other Congress leaders were accused of taking money and sexual favours as part of the scam. This aspect of the case got much more coverage than the scam itself.
The exit of Saseendran, the lone Nationalist Congress Party minister in the Kerala government, comes at a time when the the Left Democratic Front was recovering from senior Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader EP Jayarajan’s ouster from the cabinet on charges of nepotism in October. Jayarajan, the minister of industries, commerce and sports, was Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s right-hand man in the government and the row had embarassed the alliance that had won the elections last May on an anti-corruption plank.
Soon after the audio clip was aired on Sunday, Saseendran is said to have contacted Vijayan. The chief minister did not try to hold back his resignation or ask him to for an inquiry before stepping down, possibly because he did not want another controversy to hurt his government’s credibility.
“The resignation should not be seen as an acceptance of guilt,” Saseendran said on Sunday. “I have tendered my resignation to uphold political morality.”
On Monday, while announcing a judicial inquiry into the allegations against Saseendran, Vijayan praised the NCP leader. “When the allegation came up, Saseendran wanted an enquiry into it and took a stand that it was not ethical to continue as minister when the probe is on,” Vijayan said. “He could have waited until the completion of the preliminary probe. But he stood firm on his decision on moral grounds. We did not intervene and try to dissuade him.”
Saseendran is a member of the NCP’s National Council and an MLA from the Elathur Assembly constituency in Kozhikode district. On Tuesday, it was announced that Thomas Chandy, the NCP MLA from Kuttanad, would replace Saseendran as transport minister in the state cabinet.