I wouldn’t say the Cobrapost sting has taken the media by storm. For those who have been in the profession long enough, the developments aren’t least bit surprising. Owners prostrating before power, editors suppressing anti-establishment stories is not new.

What Cobrapost did was that it quantified what we already knew. It brought out the specifics of the plague in the media through video recordings. It showed media the mirror with a reflection so horrible, that most have decided not to see it. Perhaps that is the reason why majority of the media houses have decided to ignore it, while other hid behind the self-righteous garb of the ethicality of stings, leaving only social media to have a debate over it.

Journalist Pushp Sharma met several marketing executives, owners and few editors with a budget that lured them into agreeing to peddle hateful communal propaganda in exchange of money. Some even boast about being endorsers of Hindutva. Times of India’s managing director Vineet Jain is happy to discuss the price for it, and when caught red handed, Times group says it was conducting a reverse sting. So basically it took Times more time to release one sting than it took Cobrapost to release 17.

Except for the two newspapers in West Bengal, everybody else had a discussion with Sharma, which is shameful in itself. Any owner or editor with a tad bit of consciousness would have kicked him out of the room. Alarmingly, the ones stung indicated the overlapping of editorial and advertising content.

The sting has revived the malice of paid news in the media, which was first brought out in public by P Sainath in 2009, where he exposed Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan in The Hindu. After a nationwide outrage, press council formed a two member committee to look into it. The findings were so explosive, that the press council did not release the entire report. It implicated almost every major mainstream newspaper but there was no action taken against them.

Expectedly, the phenomena has expanded beyond our reach and taken new forms. Earlier, there was at least a pretence of morality. Today, it has become naked. The interference of marketing in editorial has increased. After 2008 recession, the advertising revenue declined and media owners started compensating it ahead of the elections.Owners started cozying up with moneyed politicians and corporates, which put pressure on editors to not publish anything against them.

It took form during the Congress regime, and the last four years of BJP fortified it. The earlier paid news has a communal overtone now. Those who are willing to accept money from Hindu extremists would may even consider getting in bed with radicals of any kind. Because the commitment is towards money, and not an ideology. They are merely exploiting the atmosphere.

However, the editors cannot absolve themselves from the mud by blaming owners. It is the duty of the editor to make it difficult for the owner in pushing an agenda and protect the integrity of the newsroom. How many editors do that today? Most are worried about losing their jobs. Some toe the line, others compromise and find a middle ground. But there is a limit to the compromises as well. It is difficult for the owner to make profits while protecting the utmost freedom of editors. But if the owner is sensitive enough, I can vouch from my 40 years of experience that it is not impossible either. The owner should be intimidated by the editor’s integrity. Acharya Javdekar back in the day, and Vinod Mehta in recent times, have said the editors need to carry their resignation in the pocket. But most of the editors today are part of the owners’ sins. If journalism is stripped in the meantime, it should not be a surprise. Cobrapost has only underlined it.

In an ideal situation, it should have triggered a debate through Press Council, Editors Guild and National Broadcasting Association. Instead, we are busy discussing whether stings are ethical or not, conveniently running away from the debate. Further, there are stories done against the journalist who conducted the sting to dilute the credibility of the evidence brought out by him.

Even if several media houses do not practice sting operations, if the evidence it brings out is in public interest, it should trigger a debate, like it happened with Julian Assange and Snowden, who obtained their documents unlawfully. But the reason behind debating the ethics of stings is not honest here. Because everybody ran “exclusives” on Cambridge Analytica, which was also a result of sting operations. The hypocrisy is too stark to go unnoticed.

Finally, do you know why Cobrapost named its story operation 136? Because when they started working on it, India was ranked 136th in press freedom index. By the time they released the sting, India had slipped to 138. And the reaction by the media to the sting tells you exactly why.