The media hounds who were chasing India’s scam-stained politicians are running for cover. Leaked tapes contain material that links some media celebrities with a corporate lobbyist.
They had kept the nation on tenterhooks for days with reports on the 2G scam, the biggest in India’s history by virtue of the huge amount involved in suspect deals. Then the X-tapes came into the public domain. Two periodicals, Open and Outlook, put them on their websites and printed the transcripts.
The tapes contain telephone conversations Niira Radia had with politicians, businessmen and journalists during 2008-09. Radia runs a public relations firm whose clients include Mukesh Ambani, who, Forbes magazine has said, may soon be the world’s richest man, and the Tatas, the oldest of the corporate giants. Her mission at one point was to ensure that A. Raja, who recently resigned as Communications Minister, got that portfolio.
Burkha Dutt, Group Editor of NDTV and one of the best known faces on Indian TV, and Vir Sanghvi, Editorial Director of the Hindustan Times and a popular columnist, were among those whose assistance she sought. Going by the tapes, both were willing. A few other journalists also figure in the tapes.
“India, the republic, is now on sale,” Outlook wrote. “Participating in the auction is a group of powerful individuals, corporate houses, lobbyists, bureaucrats and journalists.”
Dutt and Sanghvi denied wrong-doing, the former through Twitter and the latter through his website. Both justified contacts with Radia as legitimate journalistic activity.
“Radia was a valid news source for DMK camp,” Dutt wrote. “She gave info on Karunanidhi, and sought my analysis on what Cong may do next. Valid journalism.”
Her tweets ended with these words: “…bizarre to think any government bases decisions on cabinet formation on what journos say!! End of discussion folks. see ya.”
Sanghvi wrote, “There is nothing at all in the tapes to suggest that I lobbied for Mr Raja.” He added, “While gathering news, journalists talk to a wide variety of sources from all walks of life, especially when a fast-moving story is unfolding. Out of a desire to elicit more information from these sources, we are generally polite. I received many calls from different sources during that period. In no case did I act on those requests as anybody in the government will know.”
Both sought to cast doubts on the tapes and the transcripts. So did Radia’s Vaishnavi Corporate Communications Pvt. Ltd, which said “some media properties” were levelling unsubstantiated, baseless and reckless allegations against it.
In solidarity with scam-hurt colleagues, mainstream media properties blacked out the contents of the tapes. One editor informed readers he received transcripts but did not act on them “because we couldn’t authenticate them.” He wrote under the headline, “Why we are quiet on the Open magazine story.” He may as well have written: “Why we are not quite open on the magazine story.”
Editors actually had time to verify the tapes, if they wanted to, since they had come into their possession months earlier. Girish Nikam, a New Delhi journalist, had mentioned them on his website last May. He also explained why the media shut their eyes to them. Niira Radia, he wrote, “has friends in the media, including some of the highest profiled media figures, apart from newspaper owners and editors.” He added, “The fact that she dictates the media policy of three of the richest corporates means none of the media houses can afford to take cudgels against her.”
While the English language newspapers, which had led the campaign against “paid news” in the Marathi press, steered clear of the Radia minefield, J. Gopikrishnan, a little known staffer of The Pioneer, pursued the story and played a role in the developments that resulted in Raja’s fall. His editor, Swapan Dasgupta, is an Opposition MP.
Breaking with the mainstream approach, G. Sampath of the Mumbai daily DNA wrote in his blog: “The complete blackout of the Niira Radia tapes by the entire broadcast media and most of the major English newspapers paints a truer picture of corruption in the country than the talk shows in the various news channels and the breast-beating in all the newspapers.”
There is nothing in the tapes to indicate that the journalists sought any favours. However, their explanations raise some question. Do ace journalists rely on business lobbies for information on political developments? Do they hold out false promises to get information from dubious sources? Is under-the-table sale of newspaper space to politicians a more heinous crime than use of media clout to further corporate motives, which, as Outlook implies, amounts to sale of the republic? -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 22, 2010.