Thursday, 2 December 2010

Dangerous Liaisons

Journalism, a former editor-in-chief of the Time magazine once said, can never be silent. That is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. "It must speak and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air".

At a time when the Indian media are a shining a light on some of the darkened crevices of our society, the journalism fraternity are accussed of having fallen unconsciously silent, as the fraternity suddenly finds their own dealings forced out of the shadows, as they become the story, as their faults are revealed and virtues reduced. The chances are you have either read the transcripts or heard the audio of the phone taps involving thirty journalists, including NDTV's group editor Barkha Dutt; Vir Sanghvi and the editor (languages) of the India Today group Prabhu Chawla; former managing editor Shankkar Aiyar; managing editor of The Financial Express MK Venu and The Economic Times assistant editor Ganapathy Subramaniam. There are indirect references to the editor-in-chief of the Hindustan Times Sanjoy Narayan.

Income Tax authorities probing possible tax evasions recorded these conversations over six months in 2008 and 2009 from the phone of powerful Bombay corporate lobbyist Niira Radia, whose clients include India's biggest corporate names, the Tata group and Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Industries. The backdrop is the so-called "2G scam", a much larger-and-ever widening scandal involving the dubious sale of telecommunication airwaves, or spectrum, for the second generation (2G) mobile phone networks. The sale, engineered by former Telecom Minister A Raja--whose appointment Niira Radia lobbied for--led to notional losses of more than Rs. 1 lakh to the Indian exchequer.

I see two immediate positives from the recent Mediagate. One, there appears to be more moral wrongdoing and silly talk than outright corruption; there is no evidence of payments. Two, the media have not stayed completely silent. The magazines Open and Outlook first published the raw transcripts and tapes, obtained they say from a petition filed before the Supreme Court by lawyer Prashant Bhushan, who asked for an investigation into Niira Radia's role in the 2G scandal.

The government has now ordered investigators to find out who leaked the Niira Radia tapes, some of which were first delivered earlier this year as anonymous envelopes to many editors. Tata Group chairman Ratan Tata, whose conversations with Niira Radia also feature in the tapes, has moved the Supreme Court, calling the tapes an invasion of his privacy. These tapes, all high-quality recordings, are certainly not fake. Were the phone taps legal? Yes. They were authorized by the home secretary of India after a request from the income tax authorities.

Phones are routinely tapped in India, perhaps more than in any serious democracy. A range of government authorities listen, legally and illegaly, to phone conversations, as do corporate spies, illegally. I doubt whether if my mobile or my landline at home is significant enough to be tapped, but my local telephone authority at the exchange could do it--with or without my permission. It is rare, though, for transcripts to become public. Legal phone taps fall under the Indian Telegraph Rules, 1951 and any leak is a serious violation of the law and of privacy, as Ratan Tata rightly argues. These are leaks motivated by a noble purpose but to push as-yet unclear corporate or political agendas.

Yet, I am glad these conversations came to light. The liaisons between journalism, business and politics are not new, but the extent of these connections, the blurring of lines and the violation of public trust were certainly unknown to the public at large and unclear even to many of us who have chosen to steer clear of this cozy, make-believe world. I say make-believe because journalists delude themselves in thinking they can influence political choices, as they appear to be trying in some of the recordings. No minister has ever been picked or dropped on a journalist's recommendation. Many journalists had no qualms discussing a range of other murky business with Niira Radia--from story placements to "managing" a High Court judge.

It is always hardest to look within and acknowledge one's failings. That process has begun. This does not mean journalism will clean up it's image tomorrow morning. The era of what we call the "gifted journalist"-- who accepts gifts of silver, gold, land, preference shares and more from politicians and business--has been evident for years but still remains hidden from the public eye.

More of us are now writing about the recent Mediagate, confronting our compromises and the larger question of the compromised profession. On Wednesday night, NDTV's Barkha Dutt--a Padmashri awardee and a role model for many young people--subjected herself to grilling by her peers but did not acknowledge faults beyond "an error of judgment". We flinch now, as we should, from the taunts over Mediagate, I only hope it will push to cleanse, correct--at the very least, never stay silent again.

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