Thursday, March 17, 2011

The saga of IBN sting operation on cash-for-vote scam

The secret U.S. state department cable obtained by WikiLeaks and published by The Hindu newspaper today has once again confirmed that Congress bought opposition MPs to survive its crucial vote of confidence over the government's nuclear deal with the US.

But our story is not this. Our story is about of how CNN-IBN did not to air the tape of the TV sting operation on cash-for-vote scam on July 22 (the day on which crucial trust voting happened).

The story starts on on 20 July when Amar Singh announced at a press conference in New Delhi that BJP MP, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, would support the Government in the trust vote and also claimed more non-UPA MPs would defect soon. He stated

“We have opened our first card,“When we open our other cards on 22 July, many will be taken aback.”

As expected intermediaries approached BJP MP’s Ashok Argal (Morena, Madhya Pradesh), Shri Mahavir Bhagora (Salumbar, Rajasthan) and Shri Faggan Singh Kulaste (Mandla, Madhya Pradesh). The BJP MPs immediately alerted the party leaders about the same. It was decided to trap the entire episode through sting. Since BJP did not have the necessary wherewithal to carry out the sting by themselves they approached  IBN (there are some reports that NDTV was also approached but we have nothing to substantiate this claim)

This is when CNN-IBN agreed to record and telecast the whistle-blowing operation and deputed their correspondent Siddharth Gautam to record the whistle-blowing operation . Other members of the team were Saif R. Kidwai as the Producer, Karamveer and Sudesh as the Camerapersons and Rohit Khanna as Executive Producer

On July 21, the three BJP MP’s receives a message from Rewati Raman Singh, a senior leader of the Samajwadi Party and its MP, that he would meet the MPs at the residence of Shri Ashok Argal at 4, Ferozeshah Road. The meeting happened after midnight. In the meeting finer details such as amount payable, their meeting next day with Amar Singh were discussed and agreed. The entire meeting and conversation was recorded by the CNN-IBN team, who had bugged the room with hidden cameras. They had even fitted hidden cameras behind the shirts worn by Kulaste and Baghora.

On June 22, BJP MP’s Ashok Argal and Faggan Singh Kulaste were taken for the meeting with Amar Singh at his residence at 27 Lodhi Estate in a white Maruti Zen. The car was followed by CNN-IBN’s car with Siddharth Gautam. The visit to Amar Singh’s house and back was video recorded by the CNN-IBN reporter. During the meeting, payment details were finalised.

As promised by Amar Singh’s his assistant Sanjeev Saxena, arrived at the residence of Ashok argal at 4, Ferozeshah Road. Since the meeting room was already bugged with hidden cameras, this meeting was also recorded. Rs. one crore was paid as initial token amount and the balance of Rs. 8 crore was
promised to be paid later. This entire episode was also recorded by the CNN-IBN team consisting of  Siddharth Gautam, three more persons from the CNN-IBN team. After Sanjeev Saxena’s departure, the CNN-IBN team rearranged the bundles on the table and captured on camera the serial numbers of the first and the last currency notes in each of the ten bundles. Thereafter, Gautam Siddharth conducted an elaborate interview with MPs in the same room, with the amount of Rs. 1 crore placed in front of them on the table. The interview was recorded on a regular camera and included a full narration of the entire sequence of two days.

Siddharth Gautam also recorded an introduction to the investigative report which, among other things, said,

“For the first time in the history of Indian Parliament, the scandal of horse-trading has been captured on camera by the investigative team of CNN-IBN”.

The CNN-IBN team completed their recordings, removed their bugging equipment from the room and left the house at around noon on July 22 after assuring everyone involved that programme, along with the promo, would be telecast within a few minutes of the MPs displaying the currency notes inside Parliament.

However, to the shock of everyone involved IBN did not telecast the tapes as promised. According to Arun Jaitley,

First, CNN-IBN claimed that the tapes were not of ‘telecastable’ quality — a spurious claim in the light of their subsequent showing. Then the channel claimed it didn’t have enough time to complete the investigation.

Interestingly, IBN instead of broadcasting handed it over the tapes to the Speaker’s Office on July 23, 2008. In their letter to speaker, IBN explained the reason them not airing the tapes

Since our investigation was an ongoing one and we were still in the process of investigation and verification, we chose not to air the tapes till we had fully completed the process. As you are aware, as responsible news channel, our first priority is to authenticate every information that we obtain before choosing to air it. We are a fiercely independent channel that prides itself on a sense of journalistic responsibility above all else and our first responsibility will always be to our viewers.

Faced with immense public criticism, IBN decided to telecast the tapes on July 26. But Shortly before the proposed telecast, CNN-IBN backtracked again as according to them  the ‘Speaker’s office’ had requested the channel not to telecast the tapes. The Speaker later asserted that it was for the channel to decide whether to telecast or not. The tapes were telecasted only on 11th Aug 2008 almost 20 days after the sting operations. And the reason given by IBN for same was

Telecasting the tapes 'prematurely" may have impaired the investigation being conducted by the Parliament panel.

On July 31, Sajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief of CNN-IBN, issued a statement Why CNN-IBN did not telecast trust vote sting on the channel’s position in this entire issue. The statement among other things also states

Moreover, the 'sting' operation we conducted was unique in that neither were we participants, nor were we engaging in 'entrapment' by offering cash, nor were we under a false identity.

We were, as is accepted in practices in the international press, 'flies on the wall', simply recording an alleged bribery operation, without interfering in it at any stage.

Why have we not telecast the story so far? Quite simply, we have chosen not to telecast the story yet because we did not feel that the story was complete.

Credible journalism is based on accuracy not speed, facts not sensationalism, reportage not allegations and assumptions. Our rigorous editorial protocol demands that even a hidden camera shoot is absolutely water-tight.

Shockingly, IBN reported UPA win of July 22 trust as SINGH IS KING: UPA WINS TRUST VOTE without  a single word of the sting which they were supposed to telecast during this time. 

Media website Hoot in their article To sting or not to sting? raises important questions?

  1. Is it the job of a TV channel to provide proof to any Constitutional authority, in this case the Speaker, before it could telecast the news to its viewers?
  2. Does this not give handle to critics to allege that the channel was silenced? In fact, in a panel discussion in another channel, this was hinted.
  3. It is possible that the channel might have felt that it was taken for a ride by unscrupulous politicians and thus the whole episode was quite fishy. So, it was not fair to telecast the tape since the channel itself was not convinced about the authenticity of the whole operation. In such a case there was no need for the channel to hand over the tape to the Speaker.
  4. The editor-in-chief of the channel gave quite a righteous bite that the channel did not want to be part of the bitter political battle. For the last one week, politicians and the media have been making allegations that lot of money is changing hands. Politicians especially from the UPA, named parties from where there will be abstentions or cross voting to bail out the UPA. In many discussion forums on the channels, the media was taunted for not doing anything to investigate these charges and the anchors were only asking "Where are such huge amounts coming from?" When CNN-IBN did a sting to expose such dirty operations, why did they feel shy of telecasting the news, especially in the context of the channels outsourcing such sting operations in the past for an astronomical fee?
  5. A statement from the channel says "While trying to investigate deeper into this trail, we realized that the issue needed further probing and we could not at this stage telecast it without further verification". If the job was only half done, why did the channel decide to hand over the incomplete tape to the Speaker? What purpose does it serve?
  6. The statement further says: "We are also aware that as the matter involves honourable members of Parliament and involves a question of parliamentary privileges, the media needs to be extra cautious before airing or telecasting any such news". This is quite funny. The "cash for query" sting and scam involving MPs Constituency Development Fund, related to "honorable members of Parliament" and the channels that telecast these sting operations received applause from all quarters. No channel was punished for breach of privilege. Why did CNN IBN develop cold feet on this sting, especially when it claims "Whatever it takes"?
  7. Is the reluctance to telecast due to the fact that the concerned MPs preempted the channel by disclosing the "Cash for Votes" operation on the floor of the House violating an understanding? Telecast of the tape, after the operation was exposed on the floor of the house, would give the impression that the channel was in cahoots with the BJP and was trying to support the BJP in the murky political scenario. If the bribe episode allegedly by the SP was true, the channel should not have bothered about the after-effects of telecast and should have stood by the truth. Only then, their tagline "Whatever it takes" would be credible. Otherwise, it is only a verbal jugglery.
  8. "Publish and be damned" is the idiom mediamen are taught right from the journalism schools. How far is this relevant today? That is the crucial question.

Media Watch would like to understand following from CNN IBN

  1. what additional preparation/information did IBN present when IBN finally telecasted the tapes after 20 days of preparatory work? Did IBN investigate and expose on whose behalf did Sanjeev Saxena deliver the money to the MPs? Did IBN expose who and which organisation was the brain behind the cash for vote operation? Did IBN find out on whats basis UPA giverment spokesperson's asserted that they were going to manage victory with cross-voting and abstention?What additional information IBN gathered from 22nd or 23rd of July 2008 to 11 August to make the case water tight, the nation deserves to know.
  2. IBN also claimed that this sting was unique as IBN was ‘flies on the wall’. Is this editorial policy of IBN? or was it reserved for just this case? We would like to draw the attention of IBN to a similar sting operation by the IBN Network and Cobrapost which exposed some MLAs from Congress, BJP and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha in Jharkhand who were willing to vote for a Rajya Sabha candidate in return for money. In this sting carried out by the IBN Network and Cobrapost in June, 2010 showed certain MLAs demanding money to the tune of over Rs one crore from reporters who posed as middlemen and asked for votes for an RS candidate. The investigation, carried for over a month, purportedly showed that the MLAs entered into bargaining with the decoy middlemen and some of them even demanded cars along with money.
  3. Lastly, IBN claims that credible journalism is based on accuracy not speed. Media Watch differs on this. It is true that media has the right to decide its own programming. However, the freedom and the right has to be exercised considering what is in the larger public interest. 
  4. Media Watch would like to draw IBN’s attention to Arun Jaitleys statement on this

When a whistle blower alerts an investigator, the investigated material is held in trust for public interest by the investigation. It does not become the private property of the investigator. This is the misconception the channel suffered from.

This blog posting is base on following information


2. Arun Jailtleys Channel tunnel vision

3. Written statement made by Sudheendra Kulkarni, the former aide to prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee

4. Blogpost from fellow blogger SUDHIR KUMAR


  1. Great job at compilation!

    What I really don't understand is how BJP could be so naive and foolish as to trust pro-congress CNNIBN with something like this?

  2. since that day i have stopped watching IBN, I request others also to do it.