Marathi news channel Star Mhaja has stirred up a storm by telecasting a video clip of Maharashtra Congress chief Manikrao Thakre and former minister Satish Chaturvedi discussing how funds were raised for a Sonia Gandhi rally at Sewagram. They talked about how each of the 11 cabinet ministers in the Ashok Chavan government contributed Rs 10 lakh, and the chief minister himself gave Rs 2 cr.
The CM’s contribution was purportedly to fund 2,000 state transport corporation buses to ferry people to the rally on Friday, October 15. What the ministers provided – Rs 1.05 cr – was used for buying flags. This video was of a conversation the two had on October 13 at Nagpur when microphones were being set up for the array of television cameras for the two worthies to provide bytes towards the end of a press conference.
It was telecast on Thursday. The conversation was in Hindi – the preferred language in Nagpur, the second and winter capital of Maharashtra, where a legislative session is held every year – and was transcribed and run on the screen as the audibility was poor.
While the party chief is shown saying how ministers were asked to chip in, and how one of them parted with only Rs 5 lakh, Chaturvedi is shown saying that by coughing up Rs 2 cr the chief minister had now fallen in line, implying that he had been a reluctant contributor. If the ministers had been asked to hand over Rs 15 lakh each they would not have obliged, they said. The conversation showed how Chavan had fallen in line though he did not have the inclination (niyat). The chief minister, however, later interpreted it differently. They said, according to him, he had no aipat – capability.
This, however, was not a sting operation by the channel. It was, as Rajeev Khandekar editor-in-chief of the channel told me, something the built-in microphone in the camera caught even as mikes were being set up. When the tapes were being screened before being sent for reuse by another team, the conversation was detected by an alert Sarita Kaushik, their Nagpur bureau chief. She was also looking to see if it contained anything that could be of interest for telecast as the rally was on Friday. If it had nothing valuable, the tapes would have gone for reuse. Some shots could have gone to the library for stock.
The practice is for a press conference to be held with cameras rolling but the spoken words are meant for the print media. Later, the TV cameras come closer, the mikes are set up, and as TV editors hope, some tight bytes are secured. The visuals from either could be carried, depending on clarity and other technical considerations.
During the initial days of the 24/7 television journalism, print journalists were irked when the already crowded conference halls were invaded by television crews – reporters, camera men, guys carrying the boom – but over time, it morphed into a more orderly event where the TV crew was around, but waited their turn for the bytes. Growing sophistication among TV crew helped. In those days, those who addressed were apprehensive of the presence of television cameras and print journalists did not like the easy flow of conversation drying up. Off the cuff and off the record remarks were becoming rare.
Khandekar explains that he had no hesitation in airing the video but insists that he does not favour sting operations, or use of anything said in private or off the record. “Even during a press conference, if a person says something is off the record, our staff switch off the cameras. It has happened many times.” This time around, the circumstances were different. The place, Ravi Bhavan in Nagpur, was crawling with TV crews, technicians were within earshot and the risk was obvious. Besides, Thakre and Chaturvedi were aware of the presence of television journalists when the microphones were being set up. They were not novices and ought to have known better, and been on guard. Besides, the process of a press conference had not ended and no one had said ‘off the record”.
On ethical grounds, he feels his decision was appropriate. No doubt this would have implications to internal politics of the Congress, with Thakre aspiring to get into the ministry. Amid the red faces here in Maharashtra’s party unit and the frowns from the high command in New Delhi, there could be major fallout.
It is common knowledge that rallies of any political party are expensive events and money comes from those who have excess of it or have a vested interest. What was done by the ministers in Maharashtra is done all over the country and by all parties but the whole fund raising business is kept under wraps. It is quite possible that other cameras too picked up the same conversation but Star Mhaja reviewed the tape a day later and struck gold.