Mangalam was one of dailies which unquestioningly accepted material handed out by shadowy police and political sources.

In the age of breaking news Mangalams sordid history and murky journalism
Voices Media Ethics Wednesday, March 29, 2017 - 15:15

Instances of media exposure bringing down the high and mighty are not rare in the history of journalism. In the most celebrated case, two young reporters of a reputed US newspaper, who were fed vital information in driblets by a high-ranking official, had to toil for two years to put an end to Richard Nixon’s presidency.

A Malayalam news channel has set a record by forcing a Minister in Kerala’s Left Democratic Front government to quit within hours of its launch last Sunday.

The “breaking news” with which Mangalam TV opened its very first bulletin was based on an audio clip in which a man, whom the channel identified as Transport Minister AK Saseendran, addresses a woman endearingly and indulges in explicit talk. The voice of the woman, who was identified only as a person who had approached the Minister to make a complaint, was not on the tape.

Saseendran, who belongs to the National Congress Party, was at Kozhikode when the channel broke the story. At the state capital, responding to a question, CPI(M) Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said that the matter was serious, and that he would take a decision after examining the facts.

Shortly afterwards, Saseendran scheduled a meeting with the press, where he announced his resignation “to uphold political morality”.

Saseendran did not challenge the channel’s claim that the voice on the clip was his. But he insisted he had done no wrong, and demanded a proper investigation.

With the Minister’s resignation, public interest in his conduct must cease, for he has paid the price for his apparent indiscretion. In the absence of a complaint against him from the woman, there is no case of sexual harassment for the police to investigate.

Honey trap or harassment?

Although the channel insinuated that there was an attempt at sexual exploitation, on listening to the clip one gets the impression that the sexually explicit conversation was consensual. That raises the issue of the channel’s conduct. Was it performing a legitimate journalistic function, or was it being voyeuristic and pandering to the viewers’ base instincts?

The scandal kept social media abuzz. Paucity of information about the disembodied and voiceless woman and the circumstances in which the conversation was recorded and the clip reached the channel did not deter members of the public from taking sides and arguing vehemently for or against the Minister or the channel.

By and large, they divided along political lines, as happens so often in Kerala where party loyalties run deep.

Some websites said the woman was a honey trap, and not one who had approached the Minister with a complaint, as claimed by the channel. Some critics alleged the channel had telecast the story after taking a huge sum from the NCP’s other MLA, Thomas Chandy, a businessman with interests in the Gulf. He, too, was a contender for the party’s place in the cabinet at the time of government formation. The party reportedly gave Saseendran the post on the understanding that after two and a half years he would step down in favour of Chandy.

Interestingly, journalists associated with other media institutions were among those who came out openly against the Mangalam scoop, holding it unethical. Some went so far as to suggest that, as media persons, they were feeling ashamed. With vicarious pleasure, Mangalam’s supporters reminded them of occasions when their channels had aired similar reports.

Mangalam’s defence

On Tuesday evening, in an hour-long discussion with a panel which included some of his colleagues as also other journalists, Mangalam TV’s CEO and Editor-in-Chief R Ajithkumar justified the channel’s conduct. He claimed an overwhelming majority of social media users had supported the channel. He also said the channel had lodged a complaint with the cyber police against those who maligned it.

Ajithkumar chose not to provide any information about the woman which would help establish that she was a victim of lechery, and not a honey trap.  

His words indicated there was little journalistic effort behind the story. The channel did not conduct a sting operation. Nor did it record the telephonic conversation. The woman had given the tape to a reporter of the channel. All that it did was to confirm that the voice on the tape was Saseendran’s.

From Ajithkumar’s account, it would appear that the conversation was taped by the woman, or someone else with her knowledge, and given to the channel after editing out all her words. He did not say anything to rebut critics’ suggestion that the tape contained parts of a consensual conversation.

He diverted attention from the issue of consensual sex talk by raising a question: Is it proper for a Minister to talk to any woman in such a manner? He interpreted the Minister’s statement in the tape, that he would do anything for her, to mean he was ready to misuse his authority as Minister.

Ajithkumar said the channel’s staffers had been working for weeks on several “breaking news” stories to come with a bang, but when the woman gave the clip, they decided to put their stories  aside and make that the inaugural bombshell.

What could have prompted a woman with a grievance to approach a channel which was yet to begin telecast, and not one of the several that were already in business and engaged in stiff competition for eyeballs? Ajithkumar’s answer was that the reputation Mangalam had established as a daily newspaper might have influenced her.

Mangalam group’s sordid history

Mangalam is the newest kid on the Malayalam news television block. It is the sixth news channel launched by the promoters of the state’s newspaper chains. Competition among the news channels is intense and one-upmanship is their stock-in-trade.

The Mangalam group’s professional reputation is not such that one can rule out the possibility of them contriving a sensational opening story to make a quick impact in the crowded marketplace.

Mangalam was one of dailies which unquestioningly accepted material handed out by shadowy police and political sources. They entertained readers for weeks in the 1990s with fanciful stories of a Maldivian woman, Mariam Rashida, who alleged spied on the Indian Space Research Organization’s establishment for Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence, and siphoned off valuable information on rocket engines with the help of two top scientists.

The then Chief Minister K Karunakaran’s foes within the Congress party used the stories to engineer his exit, charging him with protecting a high ranking police official who was in league with the spy.

The Central Bureau of Investigation though, which was entrusted with the ISRO espionage case, came to the conclusion that it was a fabrication.

The Supreme Court upheld this finding.

The spurious case meanwhile ruined the careers of two top ISRO scientists. One of them, S Nambi Narayanan, who was working on the cryogenic engine when he was framed, said later that the case delayed the important project by many years.

Nearly a quarter-century after he was discharged, he is still fighting, demanding action against the cops who wrecked his life.

While the spy case was hot news, Ajithkumar had flown to the Maldives to dig up information about Mariam Rashida. His report in the daily indicated that he had hoped to find evidence of her family living in opulence on earnings from espionage, but was disappointed to find it living in modest circumstances.

Who is the victim?

If what the Mangalam TV story reported is a case of sexual harassment, Saseendran is the perpetrator of a crime and the woman is the victim. As such, the channel is well within its rights in shielding her from public gaze.

If, on the other hand, it is one contrived by the channel to get the better of its competitors, the woman is part of a media conspiracy and Saseendran is the victim.

The judicial inquiry that the state government has announced is essentially a fact-finding effort, which will take a long time to produce results. If the inquiry reveals wrongdoing on the part of the Minister or the channel, it may then be too late to initiate criminal proceedings against the offenders. Valuable evidence would have been lost or destroyed by then.

The Mangalam group was founded in 1969 by M.C.Varghese, who had begun life as a newspaper boy in Kottayam. He started with a monthly with a circulation of only 250 copies. It soon became the largest selling Malayalam weekly with a circulation of 1.5 million.

The journal’s phenomenal growth, which took place as Kerala was marching towards total literacy, was widely attributed to the pulp novels it serialised, which were read with avid interest by neo literates.

Eventually, its older and more resourceful competitor, the Malayala Manorama weekly, displaced it from the top spot by virtually adopting its success formula.

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