Thursday, March 14, 2013

Cobrapost sting reveals less about black money….more about journalistic rot

Last night was going to be a boring night on prime time news TV channels. Politics had nothing interesting (sensational!) to offer. But suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, news of a sting operation broke and the desperate channels heaved a sigh of relief. The website which conducted the sting – – had no doubt timed the release of its report perfectly, saving the day for the channels and generating maximum returns for itself! Unfortunately, the sting revealed more about journalistic rot than about black money itself.

For starters, the sting was a completely one sided affair, and hence unethical. There was no opportunity afforded to the counterparty (the banks) to put out a defence. Newspapers – which are far more mindful of ethics – did get the banks and the Finance Minister and the RBI to respond. The right way to go about the sting would have been to show the recordings to the senior management of the banks, and get them to react. That way, viewers would have been able to judge for themselves exactly what was going on. If that meant waiting for a few days, the journalist should have had the patience. Last night, TV news channels were running scrolls of denials by the banks. But the sting itself did nothing of the sort. Why couldn’t Cobrapost have waited for a few days?

The sting thus lost credibility. It also raised other questions. How do we know that the tapes are authentic? Remember when the Zee-Jindal spat broke out a few months back, the first thing to be questioned was the authenticity of the tapes. Why? Simply because a politician had carried out the sting? Isn’t it possible that Cobrapost also doctored the tapes? Not in the sense that the footage is fake. But in the sense that they could have edited out portions that were unpalatable (like some managers refusing to take the bait?). Journalists think of themselves as being holier than thou. Whatever they do is right….

This sting also suffers from one other major problem. The bank managers only talked of accepting black money. They didn’t actually accept cash. The journalist was impatient. He should have strived harder. He should have gone the whole hog and captured it all on tape. But I guess he figured he had enough for the TV channels to put out. He wasn’t interested in more.

Clearly the objective of Cobrapost was to gain some traction for its own website. The sting was a marketing ploy – the content of the sting was irrelevant to the extent that it could have been anything sensational. The sting could have been about a prostitute claiming many politicians come visiting her or some such thing as well. The sting wouldn’t even have to capture the politician; just the prostitute’s claim would be enough!

All stings are sensational. The first rule of a sting is to show something that looks unbelievable. Peoples’ jaws should drop when they hear or see the shots. That is why the journalist last night kept saying “These were just cold calls”, making viewers feel that the reality was far worse. The second rule is to involve big personalities or institutions. In this case, the top 3 private banks have been put in the dock. The jaw drops a little more. OMG – I bank with these banks, and this is what is going on in my bank??? Mentally insert the Balaji like sound effects and you get the real feel of drama! The third rule is to run the story without adequate commentary from the other side. Because that somehow takes away from the punch. Totally avoidable!

To add spice, make the politician the subject of the sting. Its foolproof. The journalist who did the sting claimed that he had black money from a politician. The fact that the bank managers did not even bat their eyelids is supposed to be evidence that politicians do indeed have black money. That’s what gave the story legs. That’s why the entire prime time was devoted to it. That’s what gave the BJP and the Left the opportunity to say “This government doesn’t want to curb black money”. That’s what allowed the journalist to make the catchy claim “The fact is Switzerlands are here in India”. Wow! But think for a moment. Would the bank manager’s reaction have been any different had the journalist said the money belonged to a builder, or a cricketer or a businessman? Would he for instance have said “Oh even cricketers have black money” indicating cricketers usually don’t have black money??? Clearly, the politician was inserted as part of a good marketing strategy!

Wikipidea says: A typical sting will have a law-enforcement officer or cooperative member of the public play a role as criminal partner or potential victim and go along with a suspect's actions to gather evidence of the suspect's wrongdoing. The catch words are “law-enforcement officer or cooperative member”. Stings are not OK when done by journalists….especially those who have forgotten even the most basic of journalistic ethics. Of course in a country where the TV medium believes that sensationalism sells, such minor issues as ethics are easily forgotten.

I personally am not convinced about the findings of this sting. Offering a locker for stashing black money is not strictly “laundering” since the black money stays black, even though it is illegal. And the thing about insurance premia being paid in black sounds impossible. To the best of my knowledge, insurance premia (especially when the financial returns are large) have to be paid by cheque only. Also, making Demand Drafts (DDs) with cash, and then using those to make “legal” investments is just being naive. The IT department would surely get to know. And splitting cash into small packets so that it goes undetected is oh so common. Did it even require a sting? Yes, there are a few worrisome disclosures – like routing black money through other customers’ bank accounts (how???). Some of this could be just tall claims….

The real truth is that at the very max, this sting shows that front line bank staff is prone to making exaggerated claims. There is no evidence that this actually happens. And for sure, there is no politician’s involvement. That was just mischief on the part of Cobrapost. Net Net, the sting shows more about journalistic rot than anything else….

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