SCANDAL

Hartosh Singh Bal turned from the difficulty of doing mathematics to the ease of writing on politics. Unlike mathematics all this requires is being less wrong than most others who dwell on the subject. He is the Political Editor of Open.

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This Is Not Journalism as We Know It

In their response to Open’s X-Tapes exposé, Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi are defending the indefensible. Here is why.
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A week has passed without India’s mainstream media—print or TV, bar Outlook magazine and Mail Today newspaper—following up on the story of the Radia tapes that was broken by Open. The only time the issue figured on Indian TV channels was when Times Now and CNN-IBN hosted half-an-hour shows on corporate lobbyists without mentioning the names of the two most prominent journalists who figure on the tapes—Vir Sanghvi, advisory editorial director of Hindustan Times, and Barkha Dutt, group editor of NDTV. Newspapers, bar The Hindu, have restricted their discussion to the editorial rather than news pages, and again without naming Vir Sanghvi and Barkha Dutt—the equivalent of discussing the allotment of 2G spectrum without naming A Raja. This closing of ranks betrays one of the weaknesses of the media in this country: eager as we are to hold others up to scrutiny, we shy away from the truth where our own are concerned.

Since the story broke, both Barkha Dutt, through NDTV, and Vir Sanghvi, on his website, have posted clarifications on the tapes. NDTV on behalf of Barkha Dutt has argued, ‘At every stage effective journalism involves engagement with a multitude of characters in the process of gathering news and information. To call this process “lobbying” is a serious and defamatory distortion of journalistic practices.’ Vir Sanghvi has stated, ‘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.’

There are various counter-arguments that can be made. One, of course, is that the very media that resorts to the court of public opinion in calling for the resignation of ministers and bureaucrats for perceived wrongdoing is ignoring the upheaval in non-traditional media such as Twitter. But there is reason to go beyond the voice of public opinion and reflect on what the Radia transcripts, which neither Barkha Dutt nor Vir Sanghvi has denied, actually say about the journalism they practise. This is necessary because they seem to suggest what they did was in the nature of the job of most journalists in this country who deal with political matters. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Take Barkha Dutt’s case first, because the case against Vir Sanghvi is even more extensive. In her own defence, she has tweeted, ‘Radia was a valid news source for DMK camp. She gave info on Karunanidhi, and sought my analysis on what Cong may do next. Valid journalism.’ Let us consider the scenario most charitable to Barkha, where, contrary to the evidence of the taps, we accept her claim that she may not have made the calls she promised to in the course of the conversations. Even so, hers is a damning admission. It confirms what the transcripts clearly indicate, an exchange of information between her and Niira Radia.

The context in which Barkha was talking to Radia is important. Negotiations were underway between the DMK and Congress for places in the Union Cabinet. Barkha makes the claim that Radia was a valid news source for the DMK camp. Among the portfolios on offer was telecom, and Radia was the top PR representative of the Tata Group of Ratan Tata, which has a major interest in the telecom sector via its firm Tata Teleservices Ltd, and also of the Reliance Group of Mukesh Ambani, which had a direct interest in the sector via Reliance Infocomm before the Ambani brothers split.

For any political journalist worth her salt, the alarm bells would have gone off at this stage, and should have led to one of the biggest stories related to government formation in this country: ‘Tata telecom PR chief handles negotiations for telecom portfolio.’ Did you happen to see this story on NDTV?
Barkha not only failed to do this story, by her own admission, she actually passed on information that she, as a journalist, had acquired from the Congress to the head of a PR agency handling two of the biggest corporate groups in the country, each with more than mere curiosity about who gets into the Cabinet. From the conversations, it is clear Barkha knew that even within the DMK, Radia was doing her utmost to ensure it was A Raja, not Dayanidhi Maran, who finally got the telecom portfolio. At this point of time, Raja was already under the scanner for the 2008 sale of 2G spectrum, and the PM did not want him back in the Cabinet. Any information that Radia got about what happened within the Congress would help her to this end. Is this what Barkha thinks is valid journalism?

Only a handful of prominent journalists have rushed to speak on her behalf, among them Rajdeep Sardesai of CNN-IBN, who has argued that ‘conversation between source and journo is legitimate. If quid pro quo is shown, expose it. Else, don’t destroy hard earned reputations’. This is a ridiculous argument; there are grave degrees of journalistic impropriety that stop short of a quid pro quo. However, in this case, the very fact that Barkha did not expose Radia’s role in this whole murky affair is indeed a quid pro quo.

Everything that has been said about Barkha here applies in even greater force to Vir Sanghvi. The case against Barkha with regard to the Cabinet applies to Vir as well, but in his case the evidence goes further.

In his clarification, he has said, ‘The second conversation relates to the dispute between the Ambani brothers. I had asked Ms Radia to explain the position of her client, Mukesh Ambani. And I also asked Anil Ambani’s side for its views.

This was recorded in the piece. I wrote: “My friend, Tony Jesudasan, who represents Anil, took me out to lunch and made out a case for Anil. I was totally convinced till my friend, Niira Radia, who represents Mukesh, gave me the other side which frankly seemed just as convincing to my inexpert ears”.’
The piece Vir is quoting from in his response is this one, which was published on 15 August 2009, while the conversation that we have reproduced took place on 20 June 2009. The piece published by Vir Sanghvi the very next day, was this one. Reading parts of the transcript along with excerpts from the piece (in italics) is illuminating:

RADIA: Yeah. But you want to say that you know, more importantly that here a family MoU has taken precedence over national interest and what the judge has done, I mean you’ll have to attack the judge here because the judge has, what he’s done, he’s given preference to an MoU. He has held on to the MoU, and said, ‘Okay, this had to be implemented.’ But he has forgotten what’s good, that’s why it raises a bigger constitutional issue.

VIR: Which is?

RADIA: Which is natural resources is really a constitutional issue. It has to do with the country and the nation.

VIR: It’s not between two brothers and their fight.

Few of us laypeople understand what the recent court battlewhich ended in a victory for Anilis about but from what I can tell it relates to the purchase of gas from the government. Mukesh had paid for the gas and Anil argued that he deserved to also get it at a lower price because of some agreement with his brother.

I have great respect for the courts and little understanding of the law but as far as I can tell, the judge basically said that the MoU between the two Ambani brothers had precedence over everything else because this was a special case. They should go back to Mummy who would decide how to divide our gas between her two children.

Here’s what I don’t understand: why is this a special case? And why should an Indian natural resource like gas be sold at prices fixed according to an MoU between two brothers? I’m sure they love their mother and that she loves them but is this how gas is allocated? The Ambanis are welcome to their fight but do we have to pay the price?

RADIA: How what has happened as far as the order is concerned is completely against national interest.

VIR: Okay.

RADIA: You know and even if we were to assume that they get gas or they get coal or they get iron ore or whatever one gets. If you look at how Tatas have always gone into those areas and done something for the people even before they have been able to extract anything out of it.

Honest business housesthe Tatas, for instancestruggle to get their projects off the ground while the more unscrupulous ones thrive. Last week, I interviewed L.N. Mittal, who is ready to invest billions in India but who has faced needless delays and obstacles in every single project so that the investment is still to reach India.

Most of us do not get too self-righteous about corruption, we have been brutalised by decades of it. But I think we feel differently about attempts to sell off our scarce resources.

It’s one thing for an industrialist to pay off a politician to build a factory; quite another for him to corner our gas, our coal, our spectrum, our iron ore or whatever.’

RADIA: Yeah, even ministers. You want to really look at, maybe there’s EGoM that got set and is looking at the pricing issue and natural resources should be decided not by any of this arbitrary mechanism. It has to be one for the country. And there should be some sort of a formula that Manmohan Singh has to…

VIR: Yeah, that is the message, you know. There should be a formula by which resources will be allocated in a transparent non-arbitrary sort of way. That has to be a message, no?

And yet, as long as allocations are done by corrupt ministers, bent regulators, dishonest chief ministers and on the basis of family agreements, this is exactly the direction in which we are heading.

Along with most of India, I have enormous respect for the Prime Minister. Not only is he an honest man, but he is also a brilliant economist. Plus, he has worked in government for long enough to understand the nuances of the system.

He must recognise the danger to our scarce resources. He must know that we cannot afford to become a land of oligarchs. And I’m sure he realises that this goes beyond corruption — it touches the core of the kind of India we want to create.

Surely, he can come up with some transparent system, which allocates resources fairly and without corruption? Anything would be better than the present system.’

Interestingly, Niira Radia made a judgment of her own about this piece. Consider this excerpt from a transcript between Radia and her colleague Manoj discussing this very newspaper article:

DATE 20 JUNE 2009 TIME 22:53:23

Niira Radia discussing Vir Sanghvi’s article with her colleague Manoj

MANOJ: I am just downloading the text, I am cut pasting it because I have to do some tigdambaaji to it, if you just…

RADIA: Ummmm, okay, rdddda, okay I can’t see it, not… I can’t see the one person, thing, oh yeah, it is one thing for an industrialist to… yeah, yeah.

MANOJ: Yeah, yeah, likha hai, boss. Verbatim.

RADIA: Another for [unclear] him to corner our gas, our coal, our spectrum, our iron ore or whatever (both laughing). Yeah, that’s right.

MANOJ: Yeh sab log samajh jainge kaun hai iske pichhe karke (Everyone will understand who is behind this).

RADIA: Haan?

MANOJ: All the people whom you have spoken to with the same argument will realise who is behind this article.

While TV channels and newspapers have remained largely silent on this issue, most journalists actually know where the truth lies. Consider this internal mail circulated by Arnab Goswami of Times Now:

Colleagues,

There has been news about two senior journalists from other media groups being involved in collaborating with corporate lobbyists and corporate groups on the 2G scam issue. This is a low point in the news business. It’s downright shameful. I am writing to reiterate some of the core values of the group and the channel. We believe in fierce editorial independence and complete personal honesty. Our standards have to remain impeccably high. In your interactions at any level, remember that you are ambassadors of India’s number one news channel. In an earlier edit meeting, I have said that even a pass into a stadium that’s accepted free amounts to being compromised, and today I am writing to reassert that. No gifts, no favours, no lobbying, no free dining and wining, no cash, no kind, no pass, no trip, no holiday, no promise, no passes, no special treatment, no tall or short claims, no disrespect to the organization that you represent and the group that we are all a part of, no loose talk, no flexibility on values, will be accepted. If I hear of any, we will come down hard, and no exceptions will be made...

—Arnab

What Arnab is stating is not about an individual editor or a single news anchor; it is about upholding the basic norms of journalism. If effective journalism required these compromises, Arnab would hardly be arguing against them in an internal mail. The code of ethics framed by the News Broadcasters Association, which includes NDTV, CNN-IBN and Times Now, says, ‘The underlying principle that news channels abide by is that the intrusion of the private spaces, records, transcripts, telephone conversations and any other material will not be for salacious interest, but only when warranted in the public interest.’ This applies not only to the transcripts Open carried, but also to this internal mail.

There cannot be any possible reason for NDTV and Hindustan Times to disagree with Arnab, even if, like him, they cannot say so in public. Arnab seems to suggest that if Barkha and Vir had done what they did while working for him, he would have come down hard on them. So what stops NDTV and Hindustan Times?