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Channel tunnel vision

The channel's freedom of expression may include the right to conceal. It may include the right to abuse the BJP. Yet, it seems to end where Amar Singh’s nose begins, writes Arun Jaitley.

india Updated: Aug 17, 2008 22:00 IST

The political class is subject to permanent critical scrutiny. We are accountable to the electorate. So we must be constantly under the spotlight. As another pillar of democracy, the media, however, are accountable to no one. Sagarika Ghose’s assertion that the BJP’s urban space “will melt faster than the holy lingam at Amarnath” (Psst... We’ve finally lost it, Aug. 13) is a case of reckless assertion of hope over reality. As Senior Editor of CNN-IBN, Ghose is understandably angry with the BJP. Her channel has recently suffered a self-inflicted loss of credibility. If, like political parties, the media were exposed to the same level of scrutiny, how would CNN-IBN’s role in the ‘Cash for Votes’ issue be judged?

The channel’s participation in the ‘sting’ was entirely voluntary. Its editor has publicly asserted that its interest in a sting was prompted by AB Bardhan’s claim that MPs were being lured with Rs 20 crore to side with the UPA in the June 22 trust vote. The three BJP MPs were merely whistle-blowers. The channel was told that the MPs had been approached by those managing the UPA’s survival strategy and if it wished to expose corruption, it could undertake a sting. CNN-IBN chose its own team and used its own equipment. It recorded the three sequences: the interaction with Samajwadi Party MP Revati Raman Singh; the arrival and departure of the MPs to Amar Singh’s residence; and Amar Singh’s associate Sanjeev Saxena’s visit to Ashok Argal’s house to deliver the money.

After the sting was completed, strange things began happening. 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. The reality was far grimmer. The channel abandoned all pretence of any investigation and focused on finding fault with the existing evidence. Pious assertions couldn’t conceal the fact that the channel was embarrassed by its own story.

Yet, faced with immense public criticism and loss of credibility, the channel decided to telecast the tapes on July 26. I was approached the previous day and agreed to participate in a programme at 8pm. Shortly before the proposed telecast, CNN-IBN informed me that 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 most pertinent question in the ‘Cash for Votes’ controversy was: on whose behalf did Sanjeev Saxena deliver the money to the MPs? It is an established fact that he did deliver cash. The channel was in possession of the sms that Saxena had sent to its own reporters on July 20 inviting them for Amar Singh’s press conference at 7 pm that day. It concealed this message.

The car in which Saxena travelled was registered in the name of a company controlled by Amar Singh’s family member. The number of the car was noted by the CNN-IBN team and given to me both by a member of the team and the MPs. Subsequently, the CNN-IBN reporter publicly denied knowledge of the car.

These two evidences in possession of CNN-IBN were further proof of Saxena having come on behalf of Amar Singh. In view of the CNN-IBN having abandoned the investigation, the BJP investigated the Saxena-Amar Singh link and produced it as corroborative evidence. More corroborations have followed.

Meanwhile, CNN-IBN sought to create a perceptible equality and moral equivalence between the bribe-giver and the whistle-blower. Was it interested putting the collusive sting on par with its own genuine recordings? Amar Singh’s utterances in the programme telecast by the channel gives me the uneasy feeling that the tapes which were withheld from the public were privately screened for him. Why else would he confidently reveal in a pre-recorded comment what is on the tapes and what is not?

I am clear that it is for CNN-IBN to decide its own programming. But there is a fundamental difference in the relationship of a whistle-blower and an investigator. 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.

The channel's freedom of expression may include the right to conceal. It may include the right to abuse the BJP. Yet, it seems to end where Amar Singh’s nose begins.

Arun Jaitley is Rajya Sabha MP and General Secretary, BJP

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