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Commentary: Zee vs Jindal: The jury is still out

Arguably, this is the most serious crisis that the Indian media has ever faced. But it is sad that already sides are being taken even before investigations are complete. Is it an expose, a case of extortion, an attempt to muzzle the media, an attempt to divert attention from a major scam or just a corporate war?  

Kalyan Kar

October 26, 2012

It was open war right through the day yesterday starting mid-afternoon when news TV channels began airing Congress MP and steel baron Navin Jindal’s press conference where he played out a video allegedly exposing two senior editors of the Zee Group. The thrust of his allegation: that Editor and Business Head of Zee News, Sudhir Chaudhry, and the channel head of Zee Business, Samir Ahluwalia, tried to clinch a Rs 100-crore advertising deal with Jindal in return for which the two channels would stop airing Coalgate reports of Jindal’s involvement in the coal allocation scam.

The two Zee channels hit back simultaneously by blacking out the press conference and continuously running exposes on Jindal’s involvement in Coalgate and many other alleged misdeeds of the steel baron.

The fact of the matter is that Navin Jindal has filed an FIR with the Delhi Police and also gone to court claiming to be a victim of extortion.

All very fine so far. Two sides with their own points of view and their own axes to grind. The Crime Branch has to carry out its investigations and the court has to hold hearings. In short, the jury is still out.

What is sad and bizarre is the manner in which many have already decided to jump to conclusions in this sensitive issue. Why hang either Jindal or for that matter, Sudhir and Samir, even before the investigation and court hearings are over? Jindal claims, on the strength of the reverse sting video, that it was an attempt to extort money from him for not airing investigative Coalgate stories against him. If that turns out to be true at the end of the investigations, it is bad news for the media and its stakeholders.

On the other hand, Zee claims it was a case of bribery – an attempt to buy two of its seniormost editors with the lure of big money.

So who is right? We don’t know – and won’t till the court has finished its proceedings and the Crime Branch has delved deep into the matter. Sure, one party is guilty of serious impropriety – but the jury is still out. Why? Because there is a fine dividing line between extortion and bribery! As of now, it is a case of one man’s word against the other.

Just yesterday, I read a write-up on the blog of a senior Radio station CEO, belonging to the country’s largest media house, where he has called for the blood of the two journalists! Jesus Christ, is this CEO ignorant of the simple principle of the justice system which says innocent until proven guilty? So, on what basis is he calling for the sacking of the two journos in this case? Does he have proof that it is Jindal who is right? Even more importantly, doesn’t this FM CEO know it is his group that started the entire mess of institutionalising the insidious practice of paid news? So, should all the editors and senior journos in his group be sacked by his logic?

Let’s not jump the gun and take stands at this early stage on the basis of posturing. Reputations are at stake – either way. The guilty never admit to their wrong-doing at the beginning. That is for the investigative/legal structure to unravel. Even Suresh Kalmadi, in September 2010, declared openly on Times Now and other news TV channels that he was squeaky clean, and that he would take Times Now to court on defamation charges. So, who went to jail? Mr Kalmadi, of course!

Mr Jindal claims that the two editors, on behalf of Zee, tried to clinch a advertising deal of Rs 100 crore and the quid pro quo was that his name would not be dragged on to the two channels. But the two Zee editors have claimed that they were the ones who were victims of an attempt to bribe them in order to stop anti-Jindal Coalgate related stories.

Later in the evening, even the Zee Group came out with a statement that it was a case of Jindal trying to bribe their two editors. That raises a question: Is this shaping up as a corporate war – Zee vs Jindal?

Back to square one: who is telling the truth? Did you say the video is tell-all? Haven’t the Zee editors and the Zee management already gone public saying that the ad deal of Rs 100-crore was a “dummy contract”? If so, it opens up a host of possibilities, which only the investigations and the court hearings can throw light on.

But what is baffling in this entire episode is why did the Sudhir and Samir even decide to go for such a meeting with the Jindal camp? Perhaps that is where the two made a cardinal mistake which could cost them dear. It is ridiculous that two editors should land up for an ostensibly commercial deal! What are the Sales team executives for? Why were they sent? Who sent them? These are questions that beg for an answer.

What about the role of a media house in these situations? Aren’t they culpable in eroding the authority and principles of journalism? For instance, Sudhir Chaudhry may argue that not only is he Editor of Zee News but also its Business Head. That itself is an unacceptable functional responsibility thrust upon by any management of a media house. The reason is simple: Journalism is about independence, about a sanctimonious social contract with readers/viewers to bring out the truth, not suppress the truth. How can any individual do justice to both roles? It is a clear case of conflict of interest.

The sad thing in this sordid chapter is that it is the media that stands to lose more than ever before. The media is not a holy cow any more. That is a thing of the past. The media today is about bottom lines and revenue maximization. Therefore, it is time to have a strong, constitutionally mandated regulatory body for the media with adequate powers for punitive action, including withdrawal of licences. Only then can we go back to a situation where the media will function as it should.

Something obviously went wrong somewhere, we don’t yet know where. A coin always has two sides. Till then, it makes sense to keep judgmental assertions aside.


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