SOMETIMES ONE must have the courage to assert there are no greys. The Zee News scandal — peaking with the arrest of two of its top editors on 27 November — is such a moment. As a media fraternity if, out of a false sense of fellowship, we do not call these colours for what they are, we will have turned a very dangerous corner. Zee TV editors Sudhir Chaudhary and Samir Ahluwalia caught on a “reverse sting” brazenly negotiating Rs 100 crore in exchange for not airing their investigation on Jindal Group’s alleged involvement in the coal scam is not a “grey area”. It’s not even the politeness of black. It is the sewer.

For a month-and-a-half, while the tape was being forensically examined for authenticity, it was important to extend Zee the benefit of doubt. But now that figleaf is gone. If the tapes are not doctored, we are looking at the biggest media scandal this country has ever seen: It’s our News of the World moment.

Screen grab of sting on Zee editors

Zee has apparently filed a defamation suit on Jindal for Rs 150 crore, but that seems just desperate grandstanding because there is one uncomplicated but dark question it has to answer first: why were they as a media group entertaining such a conversation over six meetings? Zee claims it is they who set out to sting the Jindals because the company(JSPL) was offering them a bribe in return for killing the story. If that is the case, why did they not air the footage the moment they got it? Why have they not aired it even now? And how does it contravene the shameful conversation Congress MP Naveen Jindal has made public between the Zee editors and his men? Clearly, Zee does not have any counter-footage.

On the contrary — in a shocking display of moral flaccidity — Zee CEO Alok Agarwal says in defence of his team, “It is Jindal who offered the bribe first… We have never denied a conversation, so a forensic report confirming the CD’s veracity was a foregone conclusion. But if you show 14 minutes of footage from six hours of conversation, it can be distorted to look like anything.” The frightening thing is, for Agarwal, “distortion” does not mean the conversation is an untruth; it is merely a quibble over how it began.

The point is, it may yet be true, as Agarwal claims, that Jindal’s men offered the bribe first and it was not Zee who went to extort. But Agarwal fails to understand that this makes no difference because the old question persists: if journalistic exposure was not their intent, what were his top editors doing cynically trying to turn a Rs 20 crore deal into a Rs 100 crore deal in exchange for dropping the story? Why were they sitting around discussing “roadmaps”, the “subtle pulling back of damaging stories” and the building of a “cosy relationship that would last forever”? Samir Ahluwalia refers to an earlier conversation at a coffee shop — when the sum discussed for all these favours was Rs 5 crore a year — to be a “communication error”. If they had wanted to expose Jindal’s bribe offer, they could have gone public at this stage itself. Why call it a “communication error”?

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Given all this, to claim the arrest of Zee’s editors is an attack on media freedom is to deepen these travesties beyond redemption. Earlier this year, the visual of a TV camera feasting on a girl being molested in Guwahati; the journalist’s voice allegedly asking the mob to strip her and lift her face to the lens for better drama had seemed the nadir. But the darkness just grew vaster. One of the most depressing aspects of Jindal’s “reverse sting” is to watch the two Zee editors reassuring his men that their demand for money is not a one-off case, but the way business is routinely done in the Indian media.

For some, the Jindal Group’s alleged corruption in receiving out-of-turn benefits in the coal block allocations seems a confusing strand. It should not be. Jindal may indeed be corrupt, but that’s a separate story in need of a separate probe. Where Zee is concerned, one hopes they will yet furnish evidence that puts them in the clear. But until they do so, they deserve the harsh scrutiny the media reserves for others. The Murdoch scandal was tried as much by the fraternity in the UK as the grand jury. We cannot afford to do less.

Indian media is in crisis in a myriad ways: structural, ethical, financial. If we do not self-critique and self-regulate, we will find it is done for us. Then the darkest corner would have been turned.