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29 November, 2010

The Radia Tapes: How did we get here? How do we get out of here?

B.R.P. Bhaskar

The Niira Radia tapes have exposed the rot in politics, business and the media. The decay in the realm of politics was well known to the public already, thanks to the skeletons tumbling out of the cupboard from time to time. No party, big or small, remains untouched by the canker of corruption, which has spread widely, fuelled as much by the private ambitions of politicians as by the rising cost of elections. The media has played a big part in exposing political corruption.

The decay in the realm of business was not equally well known as operations generally take place away from public gaze. Besides, there are well endowed outfits engaged in brand building, which covers business houses as much as their products. The media do not look closely at their doings big business because they are big advertisers too -- unless a major scam like the Mundhra deal of the 1950s or the Harshad Mehta affair of the 1990s compels them to take note of them.

The decay in the media has not come into public view because, even in the midst of seemingly intense competition, they respect one another’s privacy, aware that they are living in glass houses and should not throw stones. They generally shy away from open discussion on professional matters of direct interest to the public.

The existence of tapes of corporate lobbyist Niira Radia’s conversations with various persons, including media celebrities, recorded by an official agency during 2008-09, was known to many for months. As early as last May, a Delhi-based journalist, Girish Nikam, wrote in his website why the mainstream media were not interested in them. Some of the highest profiled media figures, newspaper owners and editors were Radia’s friends and she dictates the media policy of three of the richest corporations, he said. has friends in the media .

Some small publications did look at the tapes and as the 2G spectrum scandal was hotting up they put them in the public dominion. The political class responded along familiar lines: they issued ritualistic statements calculated to reinforce their respective positions on the 2G scam. Businessmen remained silent. So did the mainstream media. When the public reacted with anguish and anger in available space, like blogs and social networks, they untied their tongues just enough to ward off the charge of conspiracy of silence. In the guarded formal discussions on news channels, they studiously avoided inconvenient questions like how did we get here and how do we get out of here.

Predictably, long-time critics of the journalists and media institutions concerned seized the opportunity provided by the tapes to discredit them. Much of the uproar in the public domain was based on inadequate appreciation of the facts. Some went so far as to imagine the problem lay in the close relationship between politicians and media persons.

The press has been involved with politicians in the power game for a long time. It was in the 18th century that Burke reportedly pointed to the Reporters’ Gallery in the Commons and spoke of a “fourth estate, far more powerful than the other three”. It was around that time that Hickey started India’s first newspaper and took on the Governor General, apparently with the support of an incipient opposition within the emergent British Indian establishment. On the eve of Independence, there were two streams in the Indian press: one consisted of British-owned newspapers whose interests were largely identical to those of the colonial establishment and the other of newspapers which inclined towards the emergent nationalist establishment. As the colonial power pulled out and the state machinery it created became the instruments of Free India, the two streams merged to form an Indian media establishment. Soon it broke, once again creating two streams of vastly differing strength. There was a major stream whose interests were largely identical to those of the emergent Indian capitalist establishment. The minor stream mainly consisted of small and medium newspapers in various Indian languages. As the small and medium newspapers grew, their interests increasingly coincided with those of the main stream. In all the political contentions of the last six decades, both the streams played their part, sometimes with a degree of professional sophistication, but more often in a partisan manner. Against this background, it is ridiculous for any one to pretend to be scandalized by the Niira Radia tapes which provide telltale evidence of the ties between politics, business and journalism.

This is not to suggest that the tapes are of no great significance or that the public uproar they have provoked is unjustified. They are significant since they give us a keyhole view of the incestuous affairs of the power wielders. The strong reactions reverberating in the unregulated cyber world is quite justified as the tapes throw light on goings-on inimical to public interest. If A. Raja was planted in the Cabinet by shadowy king-makers to serve corporate interests and his handling of 2G spectrum allocation resulted in losses of billions of rupees, some of the conversations caught on the tape tantamount to evidence of a conspiracy to defraud the nation.

The tapes are also important as they reveal a qualitative change in the nature of the engagement between those involved in politics, business and journalism. This aspect deserves to be examined carefully to understand how we reached where we are and to be able to find ways to get out.

The nature of the relationship between the various players has been varied. The Dalmia Jains, owners of the Times of India group, had a troubled relationship with the political leadership and were hauled up for breach of the law more than once. One of them landed in jail and another was in risk of going to jail when the news of his death was announced. The Birlas, owners of the Hindustan Times group, had an easy relationship. When a Birla wanted to enter the Rajya Sabha from Rajasthan the Congress made available to him the surplus votes of party legislators and he was resourceful enough to find from among the large number of Independent MLAs sufficient additional votes to win.

Owners who used the clout of the newspapers to further their business interests generally dealt with political leaders directly. However, from time to time they also enlisted the services of editors or correspondents. N. J. Nanporia of the Times of India and B. G. Verghese of the Hindustan Times ran into trouble as they could not measure up to the owners’ non-professional expectations. Ramnath Goenka of the Indian Express group had a complex and chequered relationship with politicians. He was elected to the Lok Sabha from Tamil Nadu on the Congress ticket in 1952. He provided free accommodation for the reception committee of the Avadi Congress which declared a socialist pattern of society as the party’s goal. In 1971, he went to the Lok Sabha again, this time from Madhya Pradesh as a Jana Sangh candidate. In the 1980s he allowed Ram Jethamalani to hang a name board at the Indian Express guest house in Bangalore so that he could claim to be a Karnataka resident and take advantage of Janata Dal Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde’s offer of a Rajya Sabha seat from that state. Some letters Goenka exchanged with political and business leaders, published posthumously, throw light on the way he used his influence to further his business interests and his friends’ political interests. Some aspects of Dhirubhai Ambani’s climb to the top got into print only because of his partisan interest in corporate rivalries Today he is remembered as a newspaper owner who stood up to the Emergency regime. Few even know that after Indira Gandhi’s comeback he had tried in vain to get into her good books. The long arm of the law reached up to him at one stage. While he was acquitted, the court found his son and co-accused Bhagwandas guilty and gave him a jail term, from which premature death saved him.

The first Press Commission, appointed in the 1950s, made certain proposals to protect the editor from under pressure from the owner but they could not be given effect to. It also made recommendations to provide a level playing field for big and small newspapers. A law enacted for the purpose was struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. In the age of economic liberalization such measures are unthinkable. Newspaper managements now ignore laws nonchalantly. The law requires all newspapers to publish the names of individuals who own more than one per cent of the shares. Some give the names of only companies, not of individuals. A newspaper group brought out an Indian edition of a foreign daily flouting rules framed by the government.

Politics, business and the press interacted closely not only at the national level but also lower down, from Kashmir to Kerala. Political parties and ambitious politicians, instead of relying on established newspapers, started their own publications. Some bought newspapers which were on sale. More than 80 per cent of the newspapers now in the field began publication after Independence. They were all launched with political motives or business motives or both. Many newspaper owners found it easier to succeed on the political front than on the business front. However, it deserves to be noted that most of the parties that wield power in the states did not rise to the top by piggy-riding on newspapers. On the contrary, they grew overcoming the indifference – and, in some cases, even the open hostility -- of the newspapers that dominate the region. Dravidian politicians still recount how in the 1950s The Hindu had dismissed their legendary leader’s speech in these words “Mr. C. N. Annadurai also spoke”. If newspapers could decide the outcome of elections the Communist Party of India in Kerala and the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh could not have come to power. The only known instance of a newspaper playing a decisive role in elections occurred in Andhra Pradesh, where Ramoji Rao, owner of Eenadu daily, helped N. T. Rama Rao’s Telugu Desam Party to come to power within a year of its formation.

Influential politicians are known to have helped journalists in various ways. Sometimes they helped them land plum jobs without even being asked. Khushwant Singh has publicly acknowledged Sanjay Gandhi’s role in his appointment as the Editor of the Hindustan Times. A chief minister had only to threaten to cut off a measly subscription of Rs 1500 a month to set the UNI’s general manager thinking about transferring \the news agency’s bureau chief in the state. At election time media persons could be seen hanging out at the houses of Congress leaders hoping for the party ticket to contest for Parliament or the State Assembly. However, the possibility of journalists trying to influence the choice of ministers at the Centre or in the states, at the behest of business interests, was unimaginable in those days. That possibility has been created by the developments of the past two decades.

Money now plays a bigger role in politics than at any time before. There are politicians like M. Karunanidhi who have been in the field for years and emerged as billionaires (he was simultaneously active in the cinema field too) and there are billionaires who have come in, knowing that their riches will stand them in good stead. Editors and lesser journalists now had more opportunities than before to trade their skills and influence for political or personal favours.

The change in the field of business is exemplified by Dhirubhai Ambani, who was well placed to take full advantage of the opportunities that globalization presented. All the top business houses had maintained large public relations outfits in Delhi since long with separate executives to liaise with media persons, bureaucrats, legislators and judges. Ambani, who had built the company with the widest base of shareholders, went on to set up the country’s largest publicity and public relations machinery. Liquor flowed so freely that in journalistic circles Dhirubhai’s PR man came to be known as darubhai. Ambani’s media advisors drew up a plan to establish a satellite-linked nationwide newspaper chain. For some reason, it was not put into effect. The Ambanis’ low-key entry into the media world was a disaster and they discovered that news management was a lot easier and cheaper than media management.

Samir Jain of the Times of India also made a discovery. He proclaimed that the newspaper was just another product to be sold in the market and that the managers who helped increase his profits by selling the newspaper and newspaper space were smarter people than the editors and other journalists who produced it. He rewrote the rules of newspaper competition and forced reluctant owners and editors to change the way they were functioning. Every bit of space in the newspaper, including the editorial column, became saleable. Today you may get the biggest news stories of the day wrapped up in an advertisement sheet. Newspapers are still growing but journalism was declining.

And then satellite television arrived. Even before the government, which had a monopoly over air waves, was ready to let private operations in, entrepreneurs brought satellite television into homes. There was an influx into the electronic media from other sectors as well. Television created media stars. They are not mere media persons. They are also entrepreneurs and media owners.

There was now a new India with new politics, new business, new bureaucracy and new media. Boundaries were crumbling, facilitating a convergence. A Marathi regional party could send a Bengali media person or a Keralite bureaucrat to Parliament. It was in this new India that Niira Radia incarnated as a catalyst promoting speedy interaction among its various constituents.

The people view the media not as just another estate of the realm but as one will act as a watchdog and blow the whistle when things go wrong in other fields. When media decays, it loses the ability to raise its voice against decay elsewhere. In the final analysis, in the absence of reliable a regulatory mechanism in any field, situations of the kind exposed by Radia’s taped conversations cannot be avoided. The regulatory mechanism set up for the print media has lost its relevance. The mechanism for self-regulation established by the electronic media is ineffective. The sooner an appropriate media regulatory mechanism is created the better.

This article, posted at CounterMedia ( November 28, 2010, is a revised and enlarged version of one originally written in Malayalam for Madhyamam daily. The newspaper had sought the views of several experienced media persons on issues arising from the Radia tapes.

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