Why Didn’t They Run the Tapes?

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.
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Media outlets raising the ‘right to privacy’ must explain their own evasions.

Media outlets raising the ‘right to privacy’ must explain their own evasions.

As the discussions set off by the Radia tapes continue to grow, two important issues are being raised and conflated: the right to privacy and the journalistic duty that supports transparency in the public interest, a duty recently strengthened both by the RTI Act and the proposed Whistleblower’s Protection and Public Disclosure Act.

As far as the strict journalistic issue at stake goes, we as journalists entered the picture after the tapes were already in existence. Once the authenticity could be verified, and we at Open took great care to do so, the journalistic question that remained was: whether the contents should be published in the public interest. The clear answer was, and is, ‘yes’. This involved a process of selection and editorial judgment that we exercised with due care, and the results speak for themselves. Each of the transcripts released by us answers this criterion of public interest. The question that remains, then, is not why we published the transcripts, but why others did not. In failing to do so even when they had access to the tapes, they failed their readers and viewers, and in fact abdicated their journalistic responsibility.

In this context, it is important to set aside some fanciful conspiracy theories. One, of course, is the question of motives. It is true that those who leaked the tapes may have had their motives, but the transcripts in themselves, as is obvious now, reveal something that goes well beyond the motive of corporate warfare ascribed by those at the receiving end of these tapes.

The second is the question of timing. The tapes were with us for over a month. The timing of their publication was chosen by us, not by those who leaked them. The tapes are not a smokescreen, nor are they intended to divert attention from the problematic allotment of 2G spectrum, they instead illuminate and extend the issues raised by the spectrum allotment. They shed light on the processes that make such scams possible, how in ways small and big, the failure to observe the basic norms of our profession entangles journalists in the vast and powerful networks of corporates, lobbyists and politicians that make men like Raja possible time and again in our system.

Interestingly, most of these questions are being raised by the very media organisations that failed to do their journalistic duty and have in the past used tapes, government correspondence and private conversations with far less care than we have exercised. This sidelight runs the risk of degenerating into the farce of ‘my tape is better than yours’, ‘my scam is bigger than yours’. It is no coincidence that these very organisations have tried to bring up the right to privacy as an argument against the publication of the tapes. This is the real smokescreen.

Important as the right to privacy is, it is strange to wake up to the problem in the middle of the debate engendered by the publication of these tapes. It is no one’s case that surveillance by the Indian State has increased in the recent past. It is also no one’s case that any law, however liberal, would have prevented the surveillance of Niira Radia’s phones. If there was ever an apt case for such surveillance, this is one.

These recordings by the Department of Income Tax made in 2008 and 2009 were then passed on to the CBI. What has come out so far shows that the contents of some of these tapes are of vital importance and the delay in making them public has only harmed public interest. Given this delay, a valid case could be made under the proposed Whistleblower’s Act for any official who did leak the tapes. The Act actually seeks to encourage such disclosures when officials feel that their organisation or colleagues are not acting in a manner consonant with public interest. A valid case could also be made that once the tapes are with a government department, such as the Income Tax department, they fall under the purview of the Right to Information Act (RTI). In any such case, discretion would have to be exercised on which tapes fall within the purview of public interest, but it would be difficult to argue that none of them should ever be accessed under the RTI. Simply put, the Radia tapes were not only born of a legal procedure, there is even a tenable legal argument for why some of them should, at least in principle, be open to public access. The difference between publishing the contents of some of these tapes and none of them is at the heart of the journalistic process. When we at Open published these tapes, we exercised the very care that needs to go into such a process.

The questions on privacy will, of course, be dealt with in court, and many of the issues raised here will come up for discussion, but these should not blind us to the fact that as media organisations, we must above all answer to a journalistic calling, a calling that clearly makes it our duty to publish the contents of the tapes after exercising due care.

The onus in now no longer on us to explain why we published the tapes; the onus is on other media organisations to explain why they did not.