New Delhi, Nov. 6: The unexplained "exit" of an exit poll has drawn much comment on social media, bringing into focus the line that separates editorial judgement and deliberate action aimed at appeasing the government of the day.
The exit poll was carried out by Axis Ad-Print-Media (India) Ltd and it was reportedly commissioned by Network 18, now owned by the Mukesh Ambani group and whose stable includes the English news channel CNN-IBN.
The purported survey surfaced on the Internet this morning, predicting a sweep for the Grand Alliance of Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad and the Congress.
The exit poll projected 169-183 seats for the Grand Alliance in a House of 243 members - by far the rosiest forecast for any group fighting the elections whose official results are scheduled to be declared on Sunday. Two other exit polls had forecast a definite win for the Grand Alliance while one had predicted 155 seats for the BJP-led combine. On Friday, an exit poll broadcast by NDTV forecast 120-130 seats for the BJP-led group and 105-115 seats to the Grand Alliance.
The Axis survey later disappeared from the Net, prompting questions whether the projection was deliberately suppressed with ulterior motives.
Axis is a relatively new name in poll surveys but it had caught attention during the last Delhi Assembly polls as its findings were closest to the final outcome. Axis had predicted 53 seats for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The AAP got more, winning 67 of the 70 seats in Delhi, but Axis was the closest in predicting the huge victory.
On Thursday, a senior journalist with CNN-IBN had tweeted that an "exit poll show" would be aired but had not specifically mentioned the Axis survey.
"Exit poll show, begins 5 pm. Stay tuned this whole evening. Voters have done their job now time for experts and analysts," CNN-IBN executive editor Bhupendra Chaubey had tweeted.
The channel aired a "poll of polls", a compilation of exit polls done by other polling agencies and commissioned by other news channels. Several newspapers, including The Telegraph, also published a compilation of exit poll projections.
"A news channel sponsors a poll and doesn't telecast because it doesn't agree with result! Sponsored journalism," tweeted Sagarika Ghose, a journalist who used to work with CNN-IBN.
"Pollsters are commissioned by media houses. The content belongs to the media house. Axis was not supposed to put it out," tweeted Rohini Singh, a journalist who does not work with CNN-IBN.
"The Axis exit poll is absurd; sound editorial judgment not to air it," said another tweet.
Media organisations do use editorial judgement and discretion while publishing or broadcasting news as well as opinion. But the screening process is usually aimed at ensuring that inflammatory and libellous material, especially those that can hurt religious sentiments or cause communal disturbances, does not get into the public domain.
Whether a similar yardstick can be applied to an exit poll is a debatable question. Exit poll means that it is based on the "opinion of voters exiting the polling station" and it cannot be construed as either inflammatory or libellous in a democracy. Neither can the projections be described as the opinion of the media outlet that is publishing or broadcasting it.
"Opinion polls are scientific methods to know voter preference. Having commissioned it, channels or newspapers owe it to their readers to publicise them. They cannot tamper with these polls. Suppression is the worst form of tampering," N. Ram, chairman of The Hindu group, said in response to a question from this newspaper.
The Axis survey clearly mentions that the figures mentioned are seats "likely to win" and "popularity index is only the projection of the limited sample survey done and is not an indicator of the final poll results".
However, governments -- as well as the Opposition, depending on which way the projection has gone -- are known to miss the fineprint and portray projections based on psephology (the statistical study of election trends) as the opinion of the news outlet that is publishing or broadcasting it.
Sometimes newsrooms and editors do debate the reliability of exit polls when the projections dramatically vary from the assessment of reporters who cover the elections on the field and travel extensively. In such circumstances, some editors feel the survey should be carried but with a prominent announcement that the projections do not match what the news organisation's journalists had gauged from the ground.
Officials of neither Axis nor Network 18 were available for comment on record despite repeated attempts by this newspaper to contact them.
CNN-IBN sources, who were not authorised to speak to the media, cited the inability to access raw data as well as the change of management as the reasons for not broadcasting the exit poll projections.
"We got doubtful when the exit poll predicted the Congress may win 30 of the 40 seats it contested. We asked for the raw data but the company did not share it. Then we decided not to air the exit poll," a source said.
The channel had aired a pre-poll survey carried out by the same Axis, which too had predicted a sweep for the Grand Alliance.
The sources in CNN-IBN said that Axis was hired by the earlier management headed by Umesh Upadhyay. Upadhyay was recently replaced by Rahul Joshi as chief executive officer, news, and group editor-in-chief of Network 18.
Today, several twitterers asked Chaubey, the CNN-IBN executive editor, why the Axis survey was not broadcast. "Did your channel withhold the results of the survey because you did not like the results?" one tweet asked.
Chaubey did not give a direct reply but he tweeted around noon in response to a question whether the rumours on social media were true: "Rumours are rumours. Exit polls are mere exit polls. Please go (by) my clear-cut assertions on who is ahead."
He was referring to his own tweet two hours earlier, which had said: "Exit polls as usual a mixed bag. If numbers confuse, always better to go by ones own gut, right or wrong. I still believe @NitishKumar ahead."