On Friday afternoon, despite a Delhi High Court restraining order, online media house Cobrapost released the second part of Operation 136 – a documentary exposé of a series of prominent Indian media houses allegedly willing to carry content to promote Hindutva and take on the government’s rivals. The videos have triggered a storm about paid news and the readiness of the media to compromise ethics for money.
The series of videos in Operation 136: Part II feature an undercover Cobrapost reporter conducting “sting operations” on more than 25 Indian media houses, whose senior managers or owners are allegedly seen discussing a multi-crore proposal to feature paid advertorial content favouring Hindutva views on their platforms.
The most prominent media houses featuring in the sting include the Times Group, HT Media, India Today, the Zee Group, TV18 and others. In one video, Times Group managing director and proprietor Vineet Jain is purportedly seen discussing ways to make indirect cash payments of several crores for paid content. In another, an HT Media senior manager is seen describing the ways in which editorial content can be tailored through monetary pressure and strategic public relations. Several other senior employees of various news houses are seen expressing support for the Hindutva cause.
These videos have been released two months after Operation 136: Part I, in which 17 news channels, newspapers and websites were similarly exposed. The Delhi High Court had restrained Cobrapost from releasing the second batch of videos on Thursday, based on a plea from Dainik Bhaskar, a news daily featuring in the videos. However, Cobrapost claimed that the Court had passed the order without hearing them, and went ahead and published Part II. In keeping with the High Court order, the media house claimed, videos in relation to Dainik Bhaskar were not released.
Scroll.in has not been able to verify the authenticity and veracity of these videos, or verify whether they have been used in full or edited.
The videos raise a number of questions about the ethics of advertising in media and the various ways in which such advertising may be allowed to influence editorial content, blurring the lines between advertisements, advertorials and paid news.
In this report Scroll.in looks at the content of several videos released under Operation 136: Part II to understand how some of the most prominent media houses allegedly exposed by Cobrapost may or may not have blurred these lines.
How the stings were conducted
Operation 136 is named after India’s ranking in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index (although this year, India’s rank slipped two places to 138). The videos in the documentary follow a set format: undercover reporter Pushp Sharma first approaches the ad sales and marketing teams of various media houses, posing as a man named “Acharya Atal” from Shrimad Bhagwad Gita Prachar Samiti, and organisation supposedly affiliated to the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
While undercover, Sharma claims he has been tasked with signing deals with media houses to carry out a year-long campaign to promote the Hindutva cause before the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Sharma tells media houses that he has a two-fold agenda: promoting Hindutva and the Sangh’s firebrand leaders (beginning indirectly through the promotion of teachings from the Bhagwad Gita), and “thrashing” the Bharatiya Janata Party’s political rivals, particularly Congress’s Rahul Gandhi, without explicitly naming them.
The videos released on Friday feature such sting operations with 26 media houses as well as Paytm, one of India’s biggest digital wallet and e-commerce payment companies. In several cases, Sharma manages to get access to some of the top-ranking executives of the companies.
The Times Group
Perhaps the most significant and high profile personality that the Cobrapost sting got access to is Vineet Jain, the proprietor and managing director of Times Group, which owns the Times of India, Times Now, Navbharat Times and a host of other print and electronic media outlets across the country. The Bennett, Coleman & Company Ltd, which controls the Times Group, India’s largest media conglomerate, reported total consolidated revenues of Rs 9,976 crore from print, television, radio and other activities during financial year 2015-’16.
Sharma began by meeting lower ranking executives from different Times Group ventures in different parts of the country and eventually meets Jain through Sanjeev Shah, the executive president of mergers and acquisitions at the company. Sharma proposes a Rs 500-crore deal for the year-long campaign across all of the Times Group’s platforms.
In his meeting with Shah, Sharma asks who he can contact at the Times Group’s Noida office. Shah responds that he would have to ask Vineet Jain, since he will have to see “who would be there who we trust completely…see the problem is not, the problem is somebody who will keep his mouth shut”. In another meeting, Shah tells Sharma that Jain wants to be personally involved with this proposal. Shah is seen saying, “he [Jain] doesn’t like to directly engage, but this is a big relationship, so I am assuming it will take off. I am assuming that we are going to do things together.”
Sharma then has a meeting with Jain, with Shah present but not visible in the spy camera frame. Jain tells Sharma that “as a corporate we have to look neutral – as neutral as possible. Matlab, dekhne mein toh neutral hona chahiye, poora jitni koshish karke (at least by the looks of it we should try to be neutral)”. Sharma talks about couching the Hindutva message as a spiritual message and tells Jain, “there is nowhere we are going to cross Lakshman Rekha”, and Jain responds by saying, “as long as we maintain that, then it’s fine”.
Later in the conversation, Sharma talks about potentially using an event like the Miss India beauty pageant – hosted by the Times Group’s Femina magazine – to slip in Hindutva ideas through questions asked to the participants. To this, Jain replies, “Wherever we have limitations, there you should accept that we are not comfortable”.
At another point, Shah is heard to say, “Internally we have not told anyone because all they have to be told is we are making a programme on Bhagwad Gita and Lord Krishna. We don’t have to tell them anything more, that would be between you and me.”
The more significant aspect of Sharma’s meetings with Jain and Shah deals with discussions about payments for the promotional campaign not being entirely transparent. Sharma states that a portion of the Rs 500-crore payment would need to be made in cash, which both Shah and Jain initially claim is not something they usually do. Shah is heard leading most of the discussion about payments, while Jain is seen sipping tea. Shah suggests “let us start with full cheque [payment] just now”, and a little later, Shah asks Sharma if the cash can be routed through someone else. Jain suggests, “Aur bhi businessmen hoge jo hamein cheque denge. Aap unhe cash de dein (There must be other businessmen who can give us cheque. You give them cash).”
At this point, Jain steps out of the frame of the spy camera for about half a minute, while Shah carries on the discussion about routing cash payments. Shah is heard lowering his voice and saying, “Problem is, we have no use of cash at all”. Later, when Jain returns, he asks Sharma whether he knows of a Vishnu Hari Dalmiya, and Shah says they [Times Group] too have a couple of relations through which money could be routed. They then discuss managing the routing through angadiyas or middle-men, to which Jain says that he doesn’t know if Gaurav – a relation of Dalmiya – would be willing to participate. Jain also suggests that Sharma could approach “big businessmen” in Gujarat, like Essar and Adani for adjusting the cash payment, since, as Shah puts it, “we have no problems taking from any corporate”.
Cobrapost has not published the Times Group’s response to their detailed questionnaire.
“We sent a detailed questionnaire to the Times Group to which they have replied. We are, however, debarred from publishing their responses, since their mail comes with the following injunction: ‘Confidential. Strictly not for publication, unless approved by us in writing.’”
Scroll.in reached out to Times Group by phone and email but has not yet received a response. This report will be updated once the company responds.
[Updated to add: The Times of India has not responded to our emails but has published a story under the title “Cobrapost’s sting on media groups based on doctored content and falsification” on May 27, which, among other things, states:
A spokesperson of BCCL stated they had sent a detailed communication to Cobrapost in this regard, and Cobrapost has maliciously not put forth the true facts regarding the episode before the public. This has been done to mislead the public and to fabricate a scandal. The fact is that BCCL senior functionaries were aware that the person (Pushp Sharma) claiming to be Acharya Atal was an imposter well before they started discussions with him. They were acting under the advice of the BCCL legal team to trap the fraudster and to discover his true intent and details of the people, political formations or businesses backing him. Essentially, BCCL was in the process of carrying out a reverse sting with a plan to make the so-called Acharya Atal commit a mistake or even sign legal contracts so as to expose the people and organisations behind him.
The spokesperson also confirmed that there are various pieces of evidence in this regard available with BCCL on how it sought to trap the fraudster journalist Pushp Sharma. BCCL is now seeking legal opinion in order to initiate appropriate action against Cobrapost and Pushp Sharma for their illegal activities and for defamation.
The fact is that no actual business deal was done and no money exchanged in any form whatsoever with BCCL. In fact, it was Sharma who was insisting on payment by cash, while BCCL representatives continued engaging with him on the subject in order to understand his real backers and agenda.
At no point did BCCL countenance any suggestion that would have even remotely compromised the editorial sanctity of its media platforms. The ideas that were discussed by BCCL representatives revolved entirely around the production of web series and ways to market them through the group’s entertainment and outdoor platforms. To suggest otherwise is a misrepresentation of facts.
Read the full Times of India report here.]
The HT Media group owns two of India’s biggest dailies, Hindustan Times in English and Hindustan in Hindi. It reported a total revenue of Rs 3,118 crore for the year 2016-’17. In the Cobrapost video, Sharma is seen meeting with the group’s associate vice president Avneesh Bansal, who suggests two strategies that the Sangh can use to “attack” a media house.
One, Bansal claims in the video, is to offer a “sustained flow of funds” to the media house with money. “If you are giving me a couple of crore rupees to talk positive about you, automatically my editorial is under pressure not to go deep negative,” says Bansal, implying that the editorial section of the media house would then not write deeply negative things about the people offering the funding. “But they cannot ignore the news,” he adds.
The second strategy that Bansal is seen describing is finding “a PR agency of repute which has inroads in the top market, and they can control the reporters, because they are the source of news”. Bansal goes on to differentiate between two types of reporters: “PR agency will try and find out those people who are light minded and who are not working for professional desire, but who are working for monetary desire,” he says. He claims that the PR agency “attacks” those people and provides them with “streamlined input”.
In the video, Sharma also meets HT Media’s deputy manager Saurabh Gupta, and expresses concerns about the Group’s proprietor, Shobhana Bharatiya, being a former Rajya Sabha MP from the Congress. To this, Gupta says, “Sir woh bashak Rajya Sabha se Congress ki MP bani thi lekin woh she is very close to Arun Jaitley (Sir, she was no doubt Congress Rajya Sabha MP, but she is now very close to Arun Jaitley).”
Later, in a meeting with Anil Dua, the chief revenue officer of HT Media Venture Ltd, Sharma asks if he can get a meeting with Bharatiya. Dua turns down this request, saying that he will do that “once we start doing business with each other, so that we know each other better”. Dua promises to make Sharma meet Bhartiya, but “not right away”.
HT Media’s chief executive officer for print, Rajeev Beotra, responded to Scroll.in’s queries with a statement saying, “At HT Media, we practice ethical journalism, follow high editorial standards, and do not EVER let our news coverage be influenced by monetary considerations. We do offer advertisers media marketing initiatives and brand solutions, featuring content created either by our or their marketing teams, like most publications in the world do, but these are always clearly labelled and disclosed AS SUCH MARKETING INITIATIVES. There is also a clear demarcation of church and state at HT Media, and our editors and newsrooms operate independent of any influence from the media marketing teams.”
India Today Group
At the India Today Group, which owns the news channel Aaj Tak, magazine India Today, lifestyle magazine Cosmopolitan and a number of other media organisations, the Cobrapost reporter is seen meeting with lower-ranking executives and eventually with Kalli Purie, the vice chairperson of the India Today Group.
Sharma presents his agenda to her in steps, starting with a campaign to promote the preachings of Lord Krishna and Bhagwad Gita (which he describes in other videos as “soft Hindutva”). Purie agrees she has no problem with that. For most of the conversation, Purie is seen nodding and listening to Sharma’s explanations and proposals.
At one point, when Sharma talks about “phase two” of the promotional campaign being slightly “dirty”, involving campaigns against the BJP’s political rivals, he asks if their contract can include a clause saying that India Today Group will handle any legal challenges that may arise. Purie then turns to her colleague and says, “Anyway, for any kind of advertising, the content is not decided by us anyway. Anyone is allowed to put whatever content they want on the platform as long as it’s within the guidelines of what [unclear audio]….you can’t have any surrogate advertising, you can’t have any…”
She also interrupts Sharma to clarify, “Just to be absolutely clear, you are not saying that there is any interference in editorial. Editorial is whatever we are doing.” When her colleague assures her that editorial interference is not what Sharma is seeking, Purie says, “that is fine by us”.
Sharma then says that when the elections are declared and the “scenario is galvanised”, then at that point of time, “if my rivals are using certain cards then we can polarise or do some nasty kind of things. But these are our infield activities, not related with India Today. So those are going to be very aggressive at that point of time – there are no rules, nobody is going to follow.” To this, Purie responds, “Don’t do it”. Sharma then insists on the necessity of such activities by likening it to a brother not being able to stay silent if an “incident” occurs when he is out with his sister late at night. At this, Purie says, “agreed, but if you are doing some infield activities that we don’t agree with editorially, we will be criticising you.” Later, Purie once again says that “This ‘infield activities’ is very worrying for me.”
During the conversation, Sharma asks Purie if it would be possible to invite any of the Sangh’s leaders for the Group’s “programme” (a reference to the annual India Today Conclave), and mentions RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat as an option. To this, Purie says that she has personally sent an invitation to Mohan Bhagwat for the conclave every year “for the past ten years”. She also adds that the Group’s publisher, Aroon Purie, has met Bhagwat himself.
The India Today group is reported to have earned a net revenue of Rs 1,472 crore during 2016-’17. In its video, Cobrapost claims that at the end, India Today sent Sharma (aka Acharya Atal) a proposal for the campaign for Rs 275 crore.
India Today Group has responded to Cobrapost with this public statement:
“It has come to our knowledge that your organization has posted online a story titled “OPERATION 136-Part-II”, which has certain references and claims to India Today Group.
At the outset, we vehemently deny the portrayal of India Today Group as a media house that will compromise its editorial integrity. It has never happened in the past and there is no question of it ever happening. In fact, in the meeting with our senior management, your reporter was told in no uncertain terms that the Group will not do anything unethical, and that any advertising creative that divides the country on religious or caste lines will not be acceptable, and will not be aired on our channels. However, in your video posted online, this has not been adequately reflected and has distorted the truth.
We have sufficient checks and balances to ensure no inappropriate content would be broadcast or published. India Today Group has always stood for the highest standard of journalism.
It is clear that the said broadcast is out of context and has been manipulated with clear intention to sully, tarnish, disparage, discredit and to running down an otherwise impeccable standing and reputation of the India Today Group.
You are hereby called upon to immediately stop and suspend the broadcast regarding the India Today Group otherwise we will be left with no option to pursue strict civil and criminal remedies against you.”
Other media houses
The Cobrapost videos feature a number of lower-ranking ad sales and marketing executives telling Sharma that they support the BJP or the Sangh, though in many cases, the higher-ranking managers don’t necessarily appear to be committed to the proposed Hindutva promotion campaign.
At Marathi news house Lokmat, advertising manager Nilesh Panhalkar tells Sharma that he is a supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and “hates” Congress. Sharma makes a Rs 3-crore proposal to buy ad space on the newspaper’s jackets for all the days leading up to the 2019 election, so that the BJP’s rivals don’t have any opportunity to place counter-ads. Sharma says “We have to kill with our deep pockets”, to which Panhalkar replies, “Yes, now it’s high time”. Panhalkar goes on to suggest ideas for ads during Ganpati and Navratri seasons.
Scroll.in has reached out to Lokmat but has not yet received a response. However, in a response to The Wire, Lokmat claimed that the views expressed in the Cobrapost video are “personal” and are not supported by the publication. It also added that the person in the video (Panhalkar) is no longer an employee of the company.
The Cobrapost video featuring Open Magazine shows marketing head Karl Mistry suggesting ideas for surrogate advertising of Hindutva through things like awards for students, and at one point Mistry assures Sharma that they would be able to put up any kind of content. However, Open Magazine’s publisher Pankaj Jayaswal is more non-committal to Sharma’s Rs 3-crore proposal. He is seen asking Sharma to give him three-four days of time so that he can think about how to take the proposal forward. While discussing possible ideas for the campaign, Jayaswal also says, “somethings can be done, somethings cannot”.
Open Magazine is yet to respond to Scroll.in’s questions, about the Cobrapost sting. However, Manu Joseph, a former editor of the magazine, responded to the sting operation with this tweet:
Advertising versus editorial
But some journalists defended the media houses they work for and criticised Cobrapost for sensationalism and not distinguishing between media houses that sell out for money versus those that do not let advertising influence editorial.
Others pointed out how the advertising and marketing departments were lower down in the foodchain and brought in the role of owners of the media houses.
The reference to Radia tapes was perhaps inevitable at this stage, but brought forth a comparison in the response to the two sets of revelations.
Other journalists asked for the editors guild to take a position on the matter and pointed to a deeper malaise in the media.
Others too questioned the silence of the editors guild and some of the prominent editors.
In response, Shekhar Gupta, the founder of the Print.in and president of the editors guild, spelt out his position in a series of tweets:
Of the 26 news organisations featured in the Cobrapost stings, two Bengali newspapers categorically rejected the proposals offered by the undercover reporter. At Dainik Sambad, an official can be seen clearly telling Sharma that they do not publish any advertisements that are related to religion. At Bartaman, the senior general manager of sales tells Sharma that any advertisements involving “thrashing” of political rivals would be “not permissible”.
Part II of Cobrapost’s Operation 136 stands out from the first part, released in March, in one significant way. While the second batch of videos only show the undercover reporter trying to peddle a pro-Hindutva campaign for money, in the first part, Cobrapost had also tried to test media houses on their willingness to run anti-BJP campaigns.
In a statement released at the time of releasing the first part of the series, Cobrapost had said, “It is interesting to note here that a few days before this story was released Pushp Sharma called up some of the media houses to ask them some more favours which were as whacky as they were outrageous. Of course, as part of his media campaign, he asked them to publish or air stories not only against Union ministers Arun Jaitly, Manoj Sinha, Jayant Sinha, Maneka Gandhi and her son Varun Gandhi but also against BJP alliance partners, in order to run them down.”
So far, the second part of the series has not indicated that any similar attempts were taken to test the political leanings of media houses.
PayTM user data compromised
While most of Cobrapost’s sting operations were on media houses, Sharma (as Acharya Atal) also took a proposal for promoting Hindutva to digital wallet company PayTM. The video shows PayTM’s senior vice president Ajay Shekhar making a controversial declaration. Shekhar first claims he is affiliated to the Sangh and drops several names of people he is close to from the RSS.
He then claims that after the incidents of heavy stone-pelting in Jammu and Kashmir last year, he got a direct call from the Prime Minister’s Office, asking him to share PayTM data since the company’s users might be involved with the stone-pelting. “Jab JK mein band huye the na pathar … toh humari personally PMO se phone aya tha kaha gaya tha ki data de do ho sakta hai ki Paytm user hon,” Shekhar is seen telling Sharma. (When stone-pelting stopped in J&K, I personally got a call from the PMO saying give the data, it’s possible they [stone-pelters] might be PayTM users).
While the Cobrapost narrator in the video claims that this is proof of how PayTM user data was compromised, the video does not show any footage of Shekar specifying whether PayTM actually shared the data or not.
PayTM has publicly responded to the video with an official statement denying the Cobrapost claims. “We never share your data with anyone: any company/ any government or any country. At Paytm, your data is yours,” the statement said. “Our policy allows ONLY legally compliant data requests through a thorough process from law of the land to get access to data for necessary investigations. To further clarify, in the past, we have neither received requests nor shared any data without a legally compliant request from a bonafide agency and through proper process and channels.”
But questions remained.
This story was updated to add tweets from Shekhar Gupta and Raju Narisetti.