Exploring the changing landscape of media coverage on scandals in India, and why ‘Scam’ became scarce in headlines after 2014.
The year 2010 saw the CAG Chief Vinod Rai accuse UPA II, led by INC, of issuing 122 low-priced 2G licenses in 2008, claiming a 1.76 lakh crore loss. This led to the ‘2G Scam’ label. Seven years later, a CBI court acquitted all 17 accused, citing selectively presented evidence. The media continued using the ‘2G Scam’ despite the spectrum sale’s innocence, fueling anti-corruption protests and the INC-led government’s fall. It was not just during the 2G revelations. But many other wrongdoings and allegations had a commonality in being termed as a “scam”.
However, since PM Narendra Modi took office in 2014, the media rarely uses ‘scam,’ even when CAG uncovers financial losses. Headlines focus on ‘red flags,’ ‘highlights irregularities,’ ‘flags high cost,’ ‘flags huge cost overruns,’ ‘flags sky-high,’ ‘excess fee collected,’ and ‘bidding irregularities.’ When we scrutinize media headlines of some of the major newspaper agencies on corruption between 2006-14 and 2014-23, we observe a shift from the rampant use of the term ‘scam’ during the former period to its conspicuous absence, despite ongoing instances of financial impropriety.
Media Reports of “Scams” During the UPA Rule (2006-2014)
In 2006, the Abhishek Verma arms deals scandal emerged, involving alleged kickbacks in the 2005 Scorpene Submarine deal between India and France and his role in the 2010 AgustaWestland helicopter deal between India and Italy.
Media outlets such as The Hindu, Times of India, Hindustan Times, and The Telegraph extensively covered these cases, with headlines like ‘Chopper scam: Long legal battle ahead,’ ‘AgustaWestland VVIP chopper scam case: Supreme Court rejects Christian Michel’s bail plea,’ ‘AgustaWestland scam: Sanjeev Tyagi, Gautam Khaitan get bail in VVIP chopper case,’ and ‘AgustaWestland chopper scam: SC denies bail to alleged middleman Christian Michel James.’
The term ‘scam’ is prominently featured in every headline.
In 2008, the 2G spectrum scandal unfolded, involving the alleged allocation of 2G licenses below market value, causing an estimated ₹1.76 lakh crore (US$25 billion) loss. It began in 2007 when Telecom Minister A. Raja used a first-come, first-served basis for allocation, enabling unqualified companies to profit by selling licenses at higher prices. However, subsequent investigations questioned the scandal’s legitimacy.
Media outlets like The Hindu pondered, ‘Scam, or folklore? ‘ while The Times of India published, ‘BJP releases ‘Congress Files,’ lists Rs 4.8 lakh crore scams in 70 years.’ The Hindustan Times quoted officials saying, ‘CBI has a strong case against 2G scam accused,’ and The Telegraph straightforwardly addressed it as the ‘2G Spectrum Scam.’ ANI also reported on the case, emphasizing ‘CBI seeks daily hearing in 2G Spectrum Scam Case.’
Notably, the term ‘scam’ was integral to these headlines.
The ‘scam’ label was prominent in the Satyam fraud case, dubbed ‘India’s Enron scandal’ in 2009. Ramalinga Raju, Chairman of Satyam Computer Services, confessed to inflating the company’s accounts, causing a fraudulent sum of Rs 14,000 crore. CBI’s investigation led to Raju and 10 others serving prison sentences.
Media coverage included The Hindu’s report labeling it an ‘aberration‘ for Corporate India and The Times of India’s piece on the ‘Satyam Scam,’ which mentioned the unfreezing of bank accounts related to the founder’s mother. Hindustan Times provided an explanatory report titled ‘Satyam scam: All you need to know about India’s biggest accounting fraud,’ and The Telegraph also retained the word ‘scam’ in its headline: ‘Satyam scam: SAT sets aside Sebi’s orders.’ ANI, too, had a headline emphasizing SEBI’s action: ‘SEBI bans Price Waterhouse for Satyam scam role.’
Throughout these reports, the term ‘scam’ remained a focal point.
In 2010, a major corruption scandal hit India ahead of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. It involved the misallocation of funds, resulting in an estimated cost of over ₹70,000 crore (US$10 billion) to the Indian government. The scandal surfaced in 2010 when the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) released a damning report, revealing that the Commonwealth Games Organizing Committee (COCOG) had spent over ₹70,000 crore (US$10 billion), much of which was wasted or misused.
The CAG report also exposed how Suresh Kalmadi and his associates had abused their positions for personal gain and favored their friends. Kalmadi was subsequently arrested, charged with corruption and conspiracy, and in 2015, sentenced to four years in prison for corruption, being released in 2019.
Media coverage at the time included headlines like ‘Major scam hits Commonwealth Games‘ by The Hindu, ‘Commonwealth Games Scam‘ in the Times of India, ‘First sentencing in Commonwealth Games scam, five sent to jail‘ by Hindustan Times, ‘Stench of scam as stadiums ‘vanish’‘ by The Telegraph, and ANI’s report on the ‘CBI court jailing two for their role in the CWG scam.’
During this period, every media outlet referred to it as the ‘CWG scam.’
In 2011, the Adarsh Housing Society scandal unfolded, involving a posh 31-story building in Colaba, Mumbai, originally intended for the welfare of war widows and Defense ministry personnel. Over a decade, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India found numerous violations of Environment ministry regulations by the society. Politicians, bureaucrats, and military officers were implicated in bypassing rules related to land ownership, zoning, and floor-space index.
The scandal led to the resignation of Maharashtra’s then Chief Minister, Ashok Chavan, in 2010. The CAG also implicated three other former chief ministers — Vilasrao Deshmukh, Sushilkumar Shinde, and Shivajirao Nilangekar Patil — along with two former urban development ministers, Rajesh Tope and Sunil Tatkare, and 12 top bureaucrats for their involvement in various illegal activities.
Media coverage at the time included headlines like ‘Adarsh scam: The story of a posh high-rise with not-so-posh occupants‘ by The Hindu, ‘Adarsh Housing Society Scam‘ in the Times of India, ‘Adarsh Society scam: HC discharges Kailash Gidwani, Jawahar Jagiasi‘ by Hindustan Times, and ANI’s report on the ‘Adarsh Housing Society scam hearing in SC today.’
In essence, the Adarsh Housing Scandal was referred to as the Adarsh Housing scam by all.
In 2012, the Karnataka Wakf Board land scam, one of India’s largest, emerged. This scandal involved the alleged misallocation of land valued at Rs 2,000 billion. A 2012 report by the Karnataka State Minorities Commission disclosed that 27,000 acres of land under the Karnataka Wakf Board’s control had been embezzled or illegally assigned.
This land was intended for the benefit of the underprivileged through Muslim charitable trusts. Anwar Manippady, Chairman of the Karnataka State Minorities Commission, revealed that politicians and board members, often in collusion with the real estate mafia, had misappropriated over 50 percent of the land at a fraction of its market value, all under the jurisdiction of the Karnataka Wakf Board.
Media coverage at the time included headlines such as ‘Waqf Board law officer held in ‘fake NOC’ case; Scam could be worth ₹6 crore‘ by The Hindu, ‘KARNATAKA WAKF BOARD LAND SCAM NEWS‘ was a separate tab in the Times of India website, ‘Rs 2 lakh cr-scam hits Karnataka Wakf Board‘ in the Hindustan Times, and ‘Wakf board alleges massive land scam‘ by The Telegraph. Additionally, ANI reported that the Anti-Corruption Branch had summoned Delhi Waqf Board Chairman Amanutllah Khan to join an investigation into an alleged recruitment scam in the Delhi Waqf Board.
In September 2012, a scandal involving bureaucrats, political leaders, and several ministers from the ruling political party came to light. The Comptroller and Auditor General, India’s audit watchdog, uncovered inefficient and potentially illegal allocation of coal blocks between 2004 and 2009. Initially estimated at Rs 10.7 lakh crore, the final report assessed the scam at Rs 1.86 lakh crore. The CAG pointed out that both private and public sector enterprises paid less, resulting in government revenue loss. However, in the end, all involved parties were acquitted.
Media coverage included headlines such as ‘Coalgate scam: Former Coal Secretary H.C. Gupta convicted‘ by The Hindu, ‘Why charges not framed in coal scam cases, asks SC‘ in the Times of India, ‘C’garh coal scam: ED names 2 Congress MLAs, IAS officer in second charge sheet‘ by Hindustan Times, and ‘Coal scam: ED detains Calcutta bizman after Rs 1 crore in cash seized‘ according to The Telegraph. ANI reported ‘Coal Scam: Special Court convicts Vijay Darda, HC Gupta, Manoj Jayaswal, others‘.
Between 2006 and 2014, there were seven major scandals reported, and notably, all 35 headlines unequivocally referred to them as scams without any qualifiers.
Media Reports of “Irregularities” During the NDA Rule (2014-2023)
In 2015, the Indian Prime Minister’s surprise announcement during a visit to Paris revealed plans to purchase 36 Rafale fighter planes from French manufacturer Dassault Aviation. The deal was expected to generate significant revenues for Anil Ambani, the less successful brother of India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, despite Anil’s lack of experience in fighter jet manufacturing.
Media coverage included The Hindu’s investigative reports by N. Ram on the Rafale deal, the Times of India reporting on alleged bribes to middlemen by Rafale makers from 2007-2012, Hindustan Times highlighting a fresh row between the opposition and government, and the Telegraph had a special headline daring to question Modi, titled ‘Kickbacks in Rafale deal: French portal Mediapart.‘ Interestingly, only ANI quoted Rahul as calling the Rafale deal a ‘scam,’ but it was presented in quotation marks, raising doubts about the usage of the term “scam”.
None of these stories explicitly mentioned that this was a scam other than quoting opposition voices.
Shortly after the uncovering of a $2 billion bank fraud at Punjab National Bank, a photo surfaced of Prime Minister Modi alongside the alleged fraudster, Nirav Modi, taken at the World Economic Forum in Davos with a prominent business delegation.
Media coverage included The Hindu’s report on the undetected PNB fraud, Times of India’s coverage of the Rs 11,400 crore fraud discovery, Hindustan Times reporting on a close aide of Nirav Modi being remanded to CBI custody, The Telegraph’s news of Nirav Modi’s arrest in London, and ANI’s report on the return of Nirav Modi’s close aide from Cairo. Interestingly, the term ‘scam’ was absent from all these headlines, despite the substantial sum of 11,400 crores being unaccounted for.
The term “PNB Scam” was however used much later by media in their headlines when Nirav Modi escaped India.
The CAG of India raised concerns about the high construction cost of the Dwarka Expressway, which was built by the Narendra Modi government at Rs 250 crore per kilometer, significantly above the planned Rs 18 crore per kilometer. While a similar allegation during the UPA rule may have been termed as a “scam”, it was not the case this time around.
Media coverage included The Hindu’s report on AAP members seeking a probe into the Dwarka Expressway ‘scam,‘ Times of India’s coverage of the CAG report and AAP’s criticism, Hindustan Times reporting on AAP’s protest at Dwarka Expressway over cost overruns, The Telegraph’s news about the Aam Aadmi Party’s protest at Dwarka Expressway, and ANI’s report on Congress chief’s allegations of corruption in infrastructure projects.
Notably, the term ‘scam’ has been used in quotes, indicating uncertainty, a trend that emerged after 2014.
The CAG report on the Performance Audit of Ayushman Bharat-Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana – Union Government (Civil) National Health Authority Ministry of Health and Family Welfare – has found several instances of corruption in one of the Narendra Modi government’s flagship schemes on health.
In 2.25 lakh cases, the ‘surgery’ date was after discharge. Over 1.79 lakh cases in Maharashtra claimed over Rs 300 crore. Auditors found corruption in insurance claims. Hospitals made claims before the scheme started. Claims kept coming for ‘deceased’ individuals.
In other instances, the hospitals had made claims and the State Health Authority (SHA) transferred money for dates even before the inception of the scheme. Lakhs of claims continued to be made against some who had been shown as ‘deceased’ in the database.
The Hindu reported Health Ministry defends PMJAY as the CAG audit exposes multiple frauds. Times of India headlined Ayushman Bharat scheme: CAG flags gaps in 3 states. While Hindustan Times reported ‘Cheating the poor’: Congress slams Centre over PMJAY data discrepancies, The Telegraph wrote, Chink in Prime Minister’s health insurance scheme. ANI reported Ayushman Bharat Scheme: CAG report exposes dummy numbers, Aadhar irregularities
Despite the availability of some serious data, none of the above-mentioned news houses reported this as a scam in their headlines.
The CAG report on the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways Toll Operations of National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) in Southern India has found that in five toll plazas, a total amount of Rs 132.05 crore was collected from commuters in violation of toll plaza rules.
The Hindu headlined, Congress questions PM’s silence over CAG reports that flag irregularities and Times of India reported that toll rules were violated, NHAI collected Rs 154cr from commuters, says CAG.
Hindustan Times said Congress charges at Modi govt over CAG report, AAP alleges ₹7.5 lakh crore scam.
Other than, the Hindustan Times none of them used the word scam. Not surprisingly, even the Hindustan Times used the easy way out of quoting the AAP to be on the safer side.
Up to March 2021, three rounds of bidding for UDAN 1, 2, and 3 were completed and the same are covered under the scope of this audit. 774 routes were awarded till UDAN-3 connecting 139 airports/heliports/water aerodromes. The operations commenced at 371 routes connecting 71 airports/heliports/water aerodromes. Out of 329 routes commenced till March 2021, 87 routes (26 percent) and 35 airports/heliports/water aerodromes (27 airports, 5 heliports, and 3 water aerodromes) were selected for audit. Up to UDAN-3, 52 percent (403 out of 774 routes) of the awarded routes could not commence operations and from the 371 commenced routes, only 112 routes (30 percent) completed the full concession period of three years. Further, out of these 112 routes, only 54 routes (i.e., 7 percent of the 774 awarded routes) connecting 17 RCS Airports could sustain the operations beyond the concession period of three years, as of March 2023.
The Hindu wrote Mallikarjun Kharge cites CAG report to slam ‘lies’ about UDAN scheme
Times of India said, that Congress alleges corruption by Modi government in projects over CAG reports, holds PM accountable. Hindustan Times reported ‘Udan scheme did not work on 93% routes’: Kharge slams Centre, cites CAG report. And The Telegraph said, Kharge slams govt, says CAG report shows UDAN scheme didn’t work on 93 per cent routes.
Bias in Headlining and Reporting?
Considering India has not made a significant improvement with regards to its corruption perceptions index, it is interesting to not see that the metrics applied pre-2014 are not being used post-2014 when it comes to term a case of allegation of corruption as a “scam”.
Many subject matter experts have written on the significance of headlines and how they change the way we think. A headline can tell you what kind of article you’re about to read and it sets the tone for what follows. Psychologists have long emphasized the significance of first impressions with headlines, mainly influenced by word choice tone, and emotion. Our initial encounter with something greatly influences our subsequent perceptions. This principle extends to articles, where headlines play a crucial role.
Similar to how individuals can control the impression they make through clothing choices, crafting a headline can subtly mold the reader’s perception of the ensuing text. Headlines, by highlighting specific details or facts, can shape which prior knowledge is triggered. Through careful phrasing, a headline has the power to steer your mindset during reading, leading you to remember details aligned with your initial expectations.
There could be different reasons for why we are seeing such disparities in the leading headlines:
- Media Priorities and Agenda-Setting:
Media outlets often set their priorities based on public interest and the narratives that gain traction. During the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government’s tenure from 2006-2014, there were several high-profile corruption cases and scandals that received extensive media coverage. This coverage might have shaped the perception of widespread corruption during that period. After 2014, the media might have shifted its focus to other issues deemed more pressing, such as national security, economic reforms, or political developments.
- Change in Political Leadership:
In 2014, there was a significant change in political leadership in India, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Narendra Modi coming to power. New governments often promise to tackle corruption and may take measures to address it. This change in leadership might have led to a shift in the types of corruption allegations and the political actors involved.
- Anti-Corruption Measures:
The period after 2014 saw several anti-corruption initiatives, including the Digital India campaign and the push for a cashless economy. These efforts might have contributed to a reduction in corruption-related reports. Additionally, there were high-profile actions like the demonetization of certain currency notes, which were aimed at curbing black money.
- Media Ownership and Control:
Media ownership and control can influence the content and tone of reporting. Changes in ownership or editorial policies within media organizations might lead to shifts in the emphasis on certain topics, including corruption scandals.
- Political Framing:
Political parties and leaders often frame issues in a way that suits their narratives. The ruling party may have focused on promoting its anti-corruption agenda, which could influence media coverage and public perception.
- Complexity of Corruption:
Corruption is a complex issue, and the lack of reports does not necessarily indicate its absence. It’s possible that corruption continued in different forms or that the nature of corruption cases changed, making them less visible or sensational.
- Selective Reporting:
Media outlets may choose to report on certain corruption cases while ignoring others. This selectivity can be influenced by various factors, including the availability of credible information and the potential impact of the story.
It’s essential to note that the perception of corruption can be subjective and shaped by multiple factors. To gain a comprehensive understanding of corruption trends in India during these periods, one would need to consider official data, legal proceedings, and expert analyses in addition to media reports.
The thoughts and opinions expressed in this are those of the author and not necessarily WeThePress.