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Cobrapost Sting: Network18 Agrees to Run Polarising ‘Paid News’

A top official of Network18 described himself as “a strong Hindu man who talks about nationalism from the heart.”

Updated
India
3 min read
In a sting operation on Network 18, news agency <i>Cobrapost</i> has alleged that the organisation agreed to air propagandist news.
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In the second part of what it calls “Operation 136”, news agency Cobrapost has released footage of its sting operations against two dozen media houses. One of the media houses featured in the sting is the Reliance-owned Network18 group. Top officials are seen agreeing to demands made by the Cobrapost reporter to run propagandist material in exchange for money.

Some officials have described their channels as “BJP supporters” and themselves as “strong Hindus”.

In the sting, the reporter Pushp Sharma, who poses as a functionary of the Srimad Bhagvad Gita Prachar Samiti, is shown speaking to seven top functionaries of Network18. In all his conversations, he explains a three-pronged approach that he’d like to make through the media to propagate Hindutva and “bash up” political rivals before the state elections of 2018 and also the Lok Sabha elections scheduled for 2019.

Pushp Sharma is first shown meeting an Ayan Bhattacharya in Kolkata. Bhattacharya is Senior Manager (Sales) at ETV, one of the many verticals of the Network18 group.

A still from the Cobrapost sting.
A still from the Cobrapost sting.
(Photo: Screenshot/Cobrapost)
In the clipping, Bhattacharya tells Sharma that his channel “supports BJP only” and that efforts towards the propagating the party ideology will increase from “80 percent to 90 percent.” When Sharma asks for rival parties to be “thrashed”, he says, “We are thrashing anyway.”

Sharma then purportedly met Network18 group’s Sales and Marketing Head, Harsh Vardhan, in Delhi. In the course of the conversation, Harsh Vardhan talks about winning Sharma’s confidence and in that context, describes himself as “a strong Hindu man who talks about nationalism from the heart.”

Network 18 official Harsh Vardhan in the sting saying that he’s a Hindu man.
Network 18 official Harsh Vardhan in the sting saying that he’s a Hindu man.
(Photo: Screenshot/Cobrapost)

He also assures Sharma that he will “personally be there” whenever any in-field activity of his has to be reported. The reporter then asks for a special focus on the opposition in West Bengal and Odisha and at least “one big story against the rival a month” – Vardhan is seen agreeing to everything.

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Pushp Sharma’s next meeting was with Dheeraj Saraswat, Network18’s Senior Manager in Chandigarh who advises him on how to best use Free Commercial Time to further his propaganda.

Saraswat also gives in to Pushp’s demand of members of the organisation retweeting his propagandist posts. 

Sharma’s next few meetings are in Mumbai, where he’s put in touch with Executive Vice Presidents Priyanka Dutta and Joy Chakraborty.

Both Joy and Priyanka are seen discussing Free Commercial Time and creatives with Pushp.

Cobrapost’s reporter explains how he wants to use polarising tactics ahead of the elections, to which both Executive Vice Presidents agree.

A still from the Cobrapost sting.
A still from the Cobrapost sting.
(Photo: Screenshot/Cobrapost)
At the end of the meeting, Chakraborty (while addressing Dutta) is seen saying: “Only you and me will get involved. I don’t want anybody to know.”

Sharma also scores a second meeting with Priyanka Dutta after this. where the deal is all but finalised. She says that Joy in on board with the plans and even shows the Cobrapost reporter a teaser that they’d created based on his directives.

Dutta also says that if the network feels “uncomfortable about something”, they will “neutralise” it.

Sharma also met with the Ad Sales Head of Viacom18, Deepak Luthra, with whom he’s seen discussing various advertisement creatives. Sharma mentions that they are looking to rope in “all 44 channels of the Network18 group”. He adds that the channels may be asked to use satire to target the opposition.

To this, Luthra replies that “MTV can get away with anything”, referring to the group’s musical entertainment channel.

Network18 is yet to respond to the allegations of the sting operation.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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