The negative media campaign just crushed us

In this section, Yadav analyses the twists and turns in the media’s relationship with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). He also dwells on his personal experiences with particular journalists when he contested the 2014 Lok Sabha elections from Gurgaon in Haryana, and the phenomenon of "paid news" as it played out in the election.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta (PGT): During the India Against Corruption movement led by Anna Hazare, it was evident that much of the media was favourably inclined towards your group, which later became AAP. The media gave huge amounts of space and time to the issues highlighted by AAP, including the issues of crony capitalism and corruption. Yet Arvind Kejriwal himself said—during what was supposed to be a closed door meeting, but which was recorded—that much of the media had been sold or had been bought up. He and others, like you, subsequently sought to clarify that he was not talking about the entire media but only a section of the media, which is corrupt. Was it after this statement that a large section of the media—which had been sympathetic and empathetic towards AAP—turned almost viciously against your party?
YY: That was not the point. I think it would be fair to say that there have been four phases in our relationship with the media. The first phase was during the Anna movement when we were not yet a political party (and I was not at the core of the movement at that time). We were new and had a certain curiosity value. The anti-corruption movement was fresh and was not aligned against any particular political force. It was anti-establishment and therefore it had punch. In a specific political sense, it was harmless. That was the honeymoon period. The media lapped up the Anna movement, although my colleague Prashant Bhushan would say those who covered us had no option but to do so, being smaller channels—it was a small channel that began covering the movement and not the larger ones. It was only after that channel started recording huge TRPs (television rating points) that everyone else followed suit. The fact is that during the Anna movement—between August and December 2012—there was carpet coverage. Even though I sympathised with the movement, I personally thought that the media had gone overboard. Even as a member of AAP, I said publicly that occasionally the media had crossed the boundaries of professionalism in the way it covered the movement. Many in the media were embedded journalists.

PGT: Including some who ended up becoming members of your party and stood for elections; journalists like Ashutosh, who also wrote a book that was extremely adulatory about the Anna movement.
YY: I think writing a book is perfect. I wasn’t thinking of Ashutosh when I spoke of people who crossed boundaries. I was thinking of some young reporters for whom the boundary between being a reporter and an activist had ceased to exist. That moment ended in December 2012 when the Mumbai agitation failed to draw a crowd. This was phase one.

The second phase was when Arvind Kejriwal undertook his second fast, which led to the formation of AAP. On this occasion the media coverage was nowhere close to complete adulation. When we became a party, we once again got very good coverage, quite out of proportion to our actual strength, which I suspect was due to our novelty value. However, when Anna separated from AAP we were not portrayed in a favourable light. By then, we had started getting fairly normal media coverage and the tone had occasionally turned quite critical. However, the amount of coverage we got was still out of proportion to our strength.

Phase two ended with our exposés. The first two exposés were on Robert Vadra and Nitin Gadkari and we received wonderful media coverage. Exposé number three was on Mukesh Ambani. What no one remembers is that by the time AAP did its fourth exposé, on Narendra Modi, media coverage stopped almost completely. When we held our press conference against Mukesh Ambani, our media coverage had dropped and by the time we spoke on Narendra Modi, coverage had ended.

PGT: What were the issues you highlighted in the fourth expose?
YY: In the fourth exposé, we highlighted Narendra Modi’s connections to the Adanis, especially the land deal between the Gujarat government and the business house. There was also the Gujarat gas scam. But no one picked it up. In the aftermath of the press conference, during which we discussed Ambani’s Swiss bank accounts, the media decided to drop the fourth exposé.

Phase three was during the Delhi elections. If you remember, we actually got very bad press during these elections. We did get covered but we were mostly ridiculed. That is the time when two or three television channels actually started a campaign against us—so much so that the party had to boycott those channels.

PGT: Would you like to name these channels?
YY: India News, where Deepak Chaurasia virtually led (and continues to lead) a personal campaign against our party, one that defies journalistic norms. India TV and Zee News are the other channels. All three channels, at different stages, actually launched campaigns against us. So we did not have good media coverage at all during the Delhi elections. Once it became clear that there was a certain attraction towards us on the ground, and surveys picked this up, towards the end of the campaign, the media coverage of AAP went up.

As for the bijli-pani agitation, the media thought this was one more theatrical show put up by AAP and was negative about it. This phase ended with the CD episode, which should go down in the history of Indian media as one of the strangest incidents of its kind.

A doctored sting report on AAP was run by nearly every television channel for hours on end. We exposed it as fraudulent in 48 hours and proved that the CD had been doctored. The same channels who ran the original report for hours devoted only two minutes to our refutation. This was the sting that insinuated that Shazia Ilmi and Kumar Vishwas were willing to accept money in a wrong way. Only two media houses—NDTV and Network18­­-- exercised restraint.

Furthermore, all the opinion polls predicted that we would win far fewer seats than we were expecting. I then had to come out of my sanyas (renunciation) from opinion polls and make a forecast, which is not actually the business of a politician. But I did it because I thought I had to protect the party from planned infanticide.

Then came phase four (of the media coverage of AAP). After the Delhi election results were declared, we were suddenly part of the establishment, and once again harmless. Everyone salutes the rising sun. I would say that this period—which lasted roughly six weeks after the Delhi election results—was akin to the kind of honeymoon with the media that Narendra Modi is enjoying right now. At a press conference that was telecast live, I told journalists that we did not deserve this kind of media coverage. There were silly stories about us. The Times of India had a 600-word story that I had fixed an interactive voice response (IVR) system on my phone since I was getting 600 calls a day.

PGT: But was it not correct?
YY: It was correct. The story was done in good faith, I am not saying it was a dirty story. But did we deserve it? That’s my point. Our second media honeymoon ended with the Somnath Bharti episode; the protest, the dharna and the days after Arvind Kejriwal resigned (as chief minister of Delhi). I personally thought something big was at work and I will again leave it to you to discover what that big thing was. Narendra Modi was off the front pages of newspapers for six weeks. Someone must have been worried. The effort (to project Modi) that had been put in over four and half years was coming to naught and clearly, someone started dialing the phones. Someone started doing something to make sure this trouble (created by AAP) was fixed. It could well be that we contributed by our own mistakes. But I have never seen mistakes of that order being blown out of proportion the way they were then. Somnath Bharti was not accused of sex trafficking or corruption. The worst accusation you could have leveled against him was that he was insensitive to those African women. (Some residents in the Khirkee Extension area of Delhi had complained to Bharti, who was the AAP MLA for the area, about a drug and prostitution racket allegedly being run by African nationals, and Bharti got controversially involved in the matter).

PGT: He was almost racist and insensitive in his reaction.
YY: If you look at what BJP ministers may have done already (in the new government), you will get that kind of masala almost every second day. I am not saying that the media should not have reported the Bharti episode. It is, of course, their job to do so. But the way Somnath Bharti became the centre of a national media campaign was extraordinary. The way in which the media covered the dharna, and finally the resignation, of Arvind Kejriwal as chief minister of Delhi, charging him with being a bhagoda (one who ran away), shows clearly that someone -- I will never know who it was -- wanted AAP fixed.

PGT: Was it someone or some group? Who can that someone be, is that someone Narendra Modi, Mukesh Ambani or somebody else?
YY: All I can say is that someone thought that all their efforts of the last four and half years were coming to naught and they acted very quickly. That someone had the backing of a person who has unlimited money. These two things came together, and suddenly everyone in the media turned against us.

PGT: When exactly did this happen?
YY: This was after the Somnath Bharti incident and we could not do anything about it. Everything we did, small or big, came under an unfavourable scanner.

Mohammad Ghazali (MG): Before and during the Delhi elections of 2013, AAP and Arvind Kejriwal got a great deal of media coverage, as compared to other parties contesting that election. But during the general elections, when the media started covering Modi and sidelined AAP, your party started complaining.
YY: It is true that we got a lot of media attention then, although it was not necessarily positive attention. A lot of it was very negative and so hostile that on the night before polling in Delhi, a half-hour programme ran on one of the channels saying that Arvind Kejriwal had cheated his uncle in some land deal.

In the case of Narendra Modi, no one can complain about the fact that that he got more coverage in the media than Rahul Gandhi or Arvind Kejriwal. I think it’s the kind of attention he got, in which the line between reporting and propaganda was blurred…this is actually what our complaint is all about. It was the tone of the coverage (that we objected to) and to call it positive would be an understatement.

MG: When you start boycotting certain channels, don’t you think that you provide them with a chance to run a negative campaign against you, as there is no party representative on that channel to present your version? For example, we always saw Professor Kamal Mitra Chenoy on Times NOW defending the party instead of the party spokesperson.
YY: We never decided to boycott Times NOW. We drew a distinction between friendly and unfriendly channels, then between unfriendly and hostile channels, and finally between hostile channels and those that did a hatchet job on us. We only boycotted those in the last category. Otherwise, there was no reason to boycott anyone. Television channels can occasionally be hostile and Times NOW was indeed perceived to be hostile to us for quite some time. But it was not a channel that crossed professional boundaries, and generated nothing but propaganda against us. That description would fit Deepak Chaurasia’s channel.

I do agree that boycotting the media is a very bad strategy and should be resorted to only when every other remedy has been exhausted, and that’s exactly what we did. In the case of Zee News, one guest coordinator rang me up to say that his editor wanted to speak to me and invite me to a programme. I declined. He asked me why, and I said that your channel has been very unprofessional…They actually recorded that conversation and played it on air. That is what I meant when I said the limit had been crossed.

PGT: How did you yourself become a victim of paid news? Please tell us about your campaign in Haryana.
YY: This election has been quite an eye-opener for me, even though I have been associated with the media for a long time, and do have a media profile myself. There is no doubt that the national media took considerable interest in my candidature and gave me coverage that was quite out of proportion to my own popularity (in the constituency)—as the results very convincingly showed. So, I can’t complain about that. What I wish to focus on is the local media and how it functioned. This was an eye-opener; for the first time I saw the games played by the local media, in my own constituency and in other constituencies that I got to visit after the election (in Gurgaon) was over.

Let me mention just two aspects. First of all, I would like to highlight how paid news was at work. In all fairness, I must state that no newspaper approached me, personally, with the offer of an advertisement package. On one occasion, a couple of journalists did ask me if their advertising manager could speak to my election manager, to which I said "no". But no one gave me a rate card or anything of that kind. However, all my AAP colleagues contesting elections in Haryana confirmed to me that each of them had been approached with a proper rate card by the local print media and the electronic media.

What I encountered was somewhat different. The same local media that used to run after me for interviews, quotes or news coverage became very reluctant to carry anything about me. I am not saying I was blacked out, except in some cases—I think it was Dainik Bhaskar's edition from Rewari that nearly blacked me out. It didn’t look like a management decision. In other cases, it was not a complete blackout. I did get some media attention. But what was funny was the spin put on many stories relating to me.

Arvind Kejriwal came to Rewari and Gurgaon for a roadshow and everyone in those two towns agreed that this was a spectacular roadshow, in terms of the crowd he drew. In Rewari, especially, it seemed as if the whole town was out on the road. However, in one corner, there were six protestors showing black flags. Arvind threw flowers at them and I said namaste to them. The next morning that was the only news that appeared in the newspapers. There was no news about how Arvind was received and no mention of the popular response. The media reported as if the only response from the crowd was to wave black flags.

In Gurgaon there were no black flags. People turned up and there was a crowd of more than 5,000, which was very good by Gurgaon standards. However, one English daily described this rally as a flop show. I happened to speak to the reporter and the editor of this daily, and it was then that I realized that the story had been manufactured somewhere in between the reporter and the editor. The reporter had not filed that story and did not know what was carried.

I felt there was some rigging in my constituency and one national daily had photographic evidence of this, but refused to carry it on the day after polling. Fifteen days later, when I spoke to the editor and asked him why the photographic evidence was not published, he responded that no one had brought this to his notice.

In the case of the Rewari incident, I spoke to a reporter and asked him whether he had only noticed black flags or had managed to see anything else. He said that he had sent a different story (to what was eventually carried) and had then got a call from his seniors asking him not to file that story. He went on to say that he was dictated a different version of the story on the phone and told to write it.

I could see why the eventual winner of the election in my constituency was getting so much attention, but (it was striking that) every other rival, including some of the smaller ones, barely got decent coverage. I once visited 20 villages on a single day during my campaign and I got no media coverage. I know of another candidate who was sitting at home and was reported to have visited 23 villages that day. I could go on and on.

Clearly, paid news in some form or the other was at work, although I will not be able to establish who paid how much to whom to get what kind of coverage. The funny thing is that at the end of it, I got a notice for paid news. What was it for? The AAP has a small in-house publication, a broadsheet called Aap ki Kranti, which does not pretend to present objective news. What it carries is clearly party publicity material. One of the issues of this paper was distributed and as luck would have it, expenses had to be filed the following day. While doing so, we had duly named this publication as propaganda expense. Strangely, the election officers sent me a notice for paid news. We responded by saying that the paper does not pretend to carry objective coverage, and in any case, we had included it in our election expenses statement. This simple explanation was rejected and I was penalized. The appeal is still pending at the state level—there is an appellant body in the state.

PGT: Was this the report given by the media monitoring committee of that district?
YY: Yes. Clearly, that monitoring committee could not see any paid news except in our party publication.

PGT: Do you know the individuals who made these allegations?
YY: No. I don’t know if this was a complaint. I thought it was suo motu. The other thing that worried, upset and hurt me (because I have not yet learnt to have a thick skin) was the claim that I was using a Muslim name in the Muslim-dominated areas of my constituency. The allegation was that when I go to Mewat, a predominately Muslim area, I introduce myself as Salim. A couple of days later, there were further allegations that not only do I call myself Salim in Mewat, when I go to Rewari I call myself Krishnavanshi. I initially took it lightly. I thought that this was too low a charge to respond to. But later, I challengedjournalists to substantiate either of the two allegations, and said I would withdraw my candidature if they were able to. Of course no one had any evidence; media persons admitted it was all hearsay. When I was told someone had made the allegations, I asked them to bring that 'someone'—please produce an audio, a video or a witness stating the facts. No one came forward.

It did not end here. After that, in every conference and interview, I was asked questions about why I had said what I had not said at all. And this is where the BJP’s rumour mill came in, too. Even today, when I post on my Twitter account that I visited Tauru (in Haryana), these people respond by saying, "How are you Salimbhai?" When I went to public parks, people would walk up to me and say, "Mohammad Salim-sahab, how are you? Three nationally recognised newspapers made the same allegations. In all three cases, I asked the publications to substantiate their charges, and all of them offered private apologies.

PGT: Would you like me to name these publications?
YY: Yes. Tehelka carried an article saying that AAP leaders were falling prey to identity politics—Ashutosh calls himself Ashutosh Gupta, Yogendra Yadav calls himself Salim. I asked the journalist the source of his facts and why I was not contacted for my version. I was offered a nice private apology.

Shekhar Gupta also mentioned the story in his column (in the Indian Express). The column said nice things about me—it wasn’t intended to hit at me. It said that even someone like Yogendra Yadav had to resort to something of this kind. When I contacted Shekhar Gupta, he said he had never written anything of that sort. But when I reproduced the (relevant) paragraph, he was kind enough to send me a private apology. The moment I realized that this matter was getting out of hand, I gave an interview to the Hindustan Times in the hope of putting the "Salim story" in perspective and laying the controversy to rest. Yet, that story began by saying Yogendra Yadav had officially admitted that his name was Salim!

PGT: This is exactly the opposite to what you said.
YY: No. My childhood name actually is Salim.The point (of contention) was whether I was using that name during the election campaign to garner Muslim votes. (But the story made it sound) as if I was denying or hiding that my childhood name was Salim. Again, I asked the reporter how this had happened, and he said that it was the work of the people on the copy desk. The report was not malicious.

I must also mention the famous Indian Express report published on the paper’s front page that said "Modi PM ban jayega…. Aag lag jayegi" (14 March 2014). This was supposed to be an excerpt from my speech in Mewat, Haryana. The reporter was definitely present. But he simply picked up three words from the fifth minute of my speech and joined it with something I said in the twenty second minute of my speech by putting three dots in between and this was published as the headline.

Again, I cannot say that the report was malicious, because the rest of the reporting was correct, but the report literally destroyed me—you know how many people read the headline and how few care to read the full report. Besides, the full report was on the ninth page. So who would read the entire report? The next day we protested and then, the Indian Express duly published our rejoinder. But for the rest of the world, I had indeed said that if Modi comes, aag lag jayegi, so much so that this became the basis for filing a complaint against me with the Election Commission. My friend and colleague Madhu Kishwar took the trouble of travelling to Mewat 24 hours before polling day to lodge a first information report (FIR) against me on this issue.

PGT: How do you react to the fact that Rao Inderjit Singh, a former member of the Congress party who is now with the BJP, and who defeated you in Gurgaon, headed a Parliamentary committee that was very critical of paid news?
YY: (laughs)… It is funny, interesting and amusing.

PGT: How will the AAP improve its media strategy and what are the lessons you have learnt?
YY: First of all, we would do well to remember that themedia is not one undifferentiated entity. There are all kinds of media and there are layers. There is an owner, then the editor and finally the reporter. Sometimes, in our anger against the media, we ended up not understanding the difference between the reporter and the owner. Most of the biases that upset us originated at the level of owners and editors. When we critiqued the media, it seemed that we were targeting reporters, which was unfair to many reporters, who are as professional as any technocrat in our country. We also need to remember that while some journalists were doing a hatchet job on us, there were others who were straightforward.

All said and done, we got more coverage in the Lok Sabha elections than a party with two per cent vote share should get. I think the coverage we got during the Anna movement may have (mistakenly) led us to expect that kind of coverage on a routine basis. We should be more prepared for criticism. We should avoid reading motives in routine criticism. Sometimes, we may have appeared very prickly about the smallest of criticisms against us—so all that is lesson number one for us.

Understanding the media, knowing how to fine-tune our response and critique the media itself, is another lesson. We have also learnt that perceptions matter, and if you do not correct perceptions on time, this can damage you very deeply. I learnt this during the Somnath Bharti episode. I do not believe that we were defending someone corrupt or indefensible. Our mistake was that we took the matter lightly and did not respond promptly. (By contrast), during the CD episode, we knew that our very existence was at risk and put all our efforts together to counter the doctored CD.

We now realize that we should have done the same on day one of the Somnath Bharti episode. We should have produced the videos, we should have clearly established that nothing racist was actually said by him. We should have offered counter narratives. By the time we swung into action, the basic “facts”of the case were established and no one bothered to check if these were true. It was like my Salim case. By the time I started responding, the media was asking ‘why I did so’ and not ‘whether I did so’. In this age of 24x7 television, you have to be on your toes all the time.

The next lesson is that a party like ours has to generate news, be newsworthy and be worthy of positive news. Because there is little else that we can offer to the media. If we don’t do this, we would be beaten in the race. I thought something like our Delhi dharna, which generated such negative vibes for us, was avoidable. The Somnath Bharti episode, too, generated so much negativity about us that, in hindsight, I feel that maybe we should have respected perception instead of reality and asked him to step down. We did not sufficiently appreciate the media. The people had different expectations from us (while we were) governing compared to the expectations they had during the (anti-corruption) movement. We should have paid attention not just to governing well, which I believe we did, but to appearing to be governing well in the eyes of the media.

And the last lesson is the saddest of them all—facing the convergence of social, economic and media power, there is very little a small party like ours can do. It is a fact that we are tiny, that we did not have money, and those who do not have money or the capacity to influence the media heads, can only occasionally be lucky. When faced with the brute facts of media power, we realized how the negative media campaign just crushed us.

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