The website newslaundry.com, a compelling media-watcher whose tag-line is sab ki dhulai, put up on Thursday a video-interview of Congress MP Naveen Jindal. The interviewer, Madhu Trehan, who started India’s first video news-magazine, remains a canny interviewer, with her mix of charm, authority and, at appropriate moments, acid. Jindal is the promoter of Jindal Steel and Power Ltd (JSPL), which has been cited by India’s Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) as one of the favoured few companies to receive coal mines for a song through an opaque allocation process and made a windfall of thousands of crores of rupees. He has also alleged extortion against the editors of Zee News and Zee Business News, TV channels under the same corporate umbrella as DNA, the Essel Group, whose chairman is Subhash Chandra.
The two editors were sent to police custody and then to jail this weekend, and the questions that they were asked in custody is instructive; but we will come to that shortly. Since the arrest, Jindal has maintained “no comments” in front of TV cameras, yet Madhu managed to draw him out in her 30-minute interview; and the thing that strikes you is that this issue of bribe/extortion is a personal battle between Jindal and the Essel chairman. (See it for yourself.)
Wait a second, you might say. After all, the Zee News editor, Sudhir Chaudhary, was thrown out of the Broadcast Editors’ Association after the BEA office-bearers saw the “sting operation” tape that JSPL prepared in which Chaudhary and the Zee Business News editor, Sameer Ahluwalia, are seen discussing advertising worth Rs100 crore in lieu of ceasing further coverage of JSPL’s role in the coal scam. There are several points here. The BEA office-bearers comprise Chaudhary’s competitors, and to gauge the extent of passions in the TV news industry, all you have to do is pick up the latest issue of the long-form magazine Caravan, whose cover story is India’s most successful TV news anchor, Arnab Goswami. It details how one of the drivers behind Arnab’s success is his bitter resentment of another anchor with whom he spent nine seething years at NDTV, Rajdeep Sardesai. The extent of his deep hatred for Rajdeep is startling. Once you read this, you will wonder why a peer group was allowed to pass judgment on a young, if brash, colleague.
(You may also wonder how the BEA passed judgment when video evidence is inadmissible in Indian courts. And of this talk of the CFSL, let me just say that more than one IPS officer in India refers to it as the Corrupt Forensic Science Laboratory; those of us involved in the July 2005 Mumbai launch of Hindustan Times, particularly in the story of Salman Khan’s taped conversations, accessed by the late J Dey, will attest to that.)
Then there’s the lukewarm (or in some cases, hostile) reaction by the rest of the media to the plight of the Zee editors. Some rationalise it as the media bending over backwards to prove that it can self-regulate, so that the government, itching to teach the media as a whole a lesson, does not find an opportunity to impose curbs on our functioning. This is the noble explanation.
Some rationalise it as the public’s growing distaste for the media’s loudness and cosying up to crony capitalism in these times of growing inflation and slowing economy. There’s also an element of revenge from those media institutions that have been on the receiving end from the government in the past and found no support from the industry. But mostly there is schadenfreude: the thrill that rival news outlets get from a rival’s troubles. This affects even old-time media owners, who are either envious or terrified of Zee TV’s success the past 20 years.
And at the root of it is the war between Jindal and Subhash Chandra. Both are natives of Hissar in Haryana, a part of India characterised by the rough-and-tumble. Jindal himself admits in the interview that Chandra’s brother Jawahar Goel visited his house and met Jindal’s mother and brother to talk of the matter. Jindal addresses Chandra as uncle. And we all know that in the land of the Mahabharata, when family relations turn sour, they become fights to the end. And that seems to be what the Zee-Jindal war is about.
Except that Jindal’s advantage is that he has on his side the machinery of a government that disdains the media. Thus the Zee editors are in jail, on the flimsy claim that they were not cooperating with investigators. Tellingly, those investigators have been pressuring Chaudhary and Ahluwalia to give Subhash Chandra up as the main culprit. And further telling are rumours that the ministry of information and broadcasting is thinking of canceling Zee News’s licence. So the real target is not really the editors, but the news channel itself and its promoter. The real target is an independent media. Thus, Zee’s claim that this is the 1975-77 Emergency revisited has validity.
Some news outlets have scoffed at this comparison. That’s their prerogative. Until, that is, the time that this venal and vindictive government turns its cross-hair on them.
The writer is the Editor-in-Chief, DNA, based in Mumbai