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Radia Silence on Indian Media

December 3, 2010

Vir Sanghvi will NOT call you back, Niira

One of the most remarkable things about ‘new’ India is its ability to believe in its newness, and to distance itself from the messy realities that exist outside its charmed circle. The new media is-or was-one such shining star in this constellation of glories—including a 9 percent growth rate, luxury malls and a regular supply of celebrities getting hitched in heritage hotels. The ‘new’ media was for the most part considered free, fair, and fearless. Maybe it was a little too given to sensationalism. But when some corruption crazed official reportedly tried to bill the public Rs4000 ($87) for a roll of toilet paper, like in the recently concluded Commonwealth Games, for instance, the media was there, acting as watchdog for the public. Except when it wasn’t. Over the past few days, the chummy connections between journalists, politicians and questionable corporate lobbies have been pushed into the open, with the release of phone conversations between a high-profile PR professional and every power list in town. But for an inordinately long time, the media response to these tapes was a stunning silence.

At the heart of the controversy is A Raja, minister for telecommunications, implicated in a scandal for selling off telecom licenses in the worlds fastest growing mobile phone market for a song. The cost to the state from this is estimated to be around $35 billion. Even for a country inured to epic swindles, this is big news. The tapes are part of evidence against him, submitted to the Supreme Court of India, taken from phone taps made by the Income Tax department on Niira Radia, a PR professional who is very, very good at her job. In the tapes, Radia is heard talking to many people, including her corporate clients, politicians and several journalistic eminences.

Here’s a sample, where Radia is talking to media honcho Vir Sanghvi, editorial director of the venerable Hindustan Times newspaper, about a TV show he hosts.

VIR: But Mukesh has to be on board. He has to sort of realise. It has to be fully scripted.

RADIA: No, that’s what I mean. I think that’s what he’s asking me.

VIR: Yes, it has to be fully scripted.

RADIA: He is saying is that, ‘Look Niira’, that ‘I don’t want anything extempore.’

VIR: No, it has to be fully scripted. I have to come in and do a run through with him before.

RADIA: Yeah, yeah.

VIR: We have to rehearse it before the cameras come in.

‘Mukesh’ here is Mukesh Ambani, one of the worlds biggest industrialists and Radia’s client. ‘Vir’ is a soft and cuddly side of Sanghvi that is hard to believe, let alone explain. But despite being pretty hot stuff, the Radia transcripts were carried by only two magazines. Two. In a democracy with a free and fair press… Or forget about that. In an aggressive market with TV channels hyperventilating in breaking news battles, and with influential English dailies and magazines engaged in bloody turf battles, somehow two magazines had the field all to themselves with this story. Both magazines- ‘Open’ and ‘Outlook’- admitted that they couldn’t authenticate the content of the tapes. But since they were already in the public domain, they were placing them on record. Meanwhile, the rest of the ‘free and fair press’ wrung their hands and made noises about the New York Times taking three months to verify the Pentagon Papers. Only after a gap of several incredible days did others pick it up-that too mostly on the editorial pages rather than as news. As media critic Sevanti Ninan points out, the list of those who sat this one out is long and illustrious.

It took a whole lot of Internet chatter, plus stories in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Huffington Post, to break the impasse. This is the biggest crisis in the Indian media since the dark years of censorship during the Emergency in the 70’s. The names involved are stalwarts-besides Sanghvi, there is Barkha Dutt, managing editor of New Delhi Television (NDTV), one of India’s oldest and most respected television news networks, variously described as India’s Oprah and Katie Couric. Besides setting the standards for ‘alpha male’ reporting, Dutt is someone bloggers love to hate, after NDTV served legal notice to a blogger for being uncomplimentary about her reporting on the Mumbai terror strikes. Prabhu Chawla is associated with India Today magazine. Several other journalists feature on the 140 tapes, which have been uploaded by ‘Outlook’ magazine on its website. The leaks are only part of the complete conversations tapped by the IT department, and each of the journalists has presented their own defense. (Dutt even appeared on her own channel to defend herself before a panel of eminent colleagues, but ended up spending most of the time scrapping with ‘Open’ magazine editor Manu Joseph). But the initial response of the media has established one salient fact: when it comes to the crunch, in India, journalists protect their own.

Despite the virtual blackout, the tapes have reached around a million people. They’ve blown the lid off the chummy networks that shape journalism in general, and business journalism in particular. Listening to them is disturbingly like eavesdropping on a cocktail party. One can almost hear the delicate clink of glasses in the background. But the part that’s truly gut-churning is the cynical way in which Radia and Sanghvi talk about spinning his column, Counterpoint (“most-most read.”) in favour of Mukesh Ambani, using the language of national interest. Background: They’re talking about the legal battle between Mukesh and his brother Anil on gas pricing and allocation.

VIR: What kind of story do you want? Because this will go as Counterpoint, so it will be like most-most read, but it can’t seem too slanted, yet it is an ideal opportunity to get all the points across.

RADIA: But basically, the point is what has happened as far as the High Court is concerned is a very painful thing for the country because what is done is against national interest.

VIR: Okay.

RADIA: I think that’s the underlying message.

VIR: Okay. That message we will do. That allocation of resources which are scarce national resources of a poor country cannot be done in this arbitrary fashion to benefit a few rich people.

RADIA: That’s right.

VIR: Yeah. That message we will get across, but what other points do we need to make?

RADIA: I think we need to say that you know it’s a lesson for the corporate world that, you know, they need to think through whenever they want to look at this, whether they really seriously do give back to society.

VIR: So I will link it to the election verdict. The fact that there has been so much Narega ( a rural employment guarantee scheme), that Sonia (Gandhi, president of the Congress party)has committed to including everybody, that it should be inclusive growth. It shouldn’t just benefit the few fat cats.

Just when you thought the idea of journalism as public service was dead.

Besides the media silence on the tapes, this kind of cynical twisting of the language of public good is the scary heart of the matter. The irony of talking about protecting public resources from ‘fat cats’ with a PR agent lobbying for the country’s most powerful industrialist clearly eludes Sanghvi.

For those unfamiliar with Brand Sanghvi, he’s the dapper gent who samples caviar and truffles at fancy restaurants and inspects the linen at the world’s finest hotels. One of his recent columns advised readers, in the manner of Head Boys everywhere, that the best way to deal with Arundhati Roy talking about Kashmir was to ignore her, otherwise we would be as bad as her. (It is often suggested that Roy should leave off talking about ‘real’ issues since she lives in a nice house in a nice part of Delhi. By that measure, Sanghvi should’ve been gagged with a silk handkerchief years ago.)

The tapes have also solved the little mystery about why the Indian media is so aggressive on reporting political scams, but is happy to play dead on corporate wrongdoing. As Manu Joseph, editor of ‘Open’ magazine, puts it, its because the government is now a minor advertiser. The whole thing makes you nostalgic for Walter Mathieu in ‘Front Page’.

The defenses trotted out mostly involved the old chestnut of ‘balance’, the need to avoid ‘hysteria’ in terming legitimate talk between source and reporter as lobbying (the irony of that phrase used in relation to Barkha Dutt, known to Indian viewers as the queen of tonal variations, is delicious enough to be savoured). But as Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of ‘Open’ magazine, showed in his column, Sanghvi’s Counterpoint was clearly shaped by his talk with Radia. This is not journalism. This is stenography.

Sanghvi’s last column titled “Setting the Record Straight” is a defense of his chat with Radia. He claims the tapes are doctored, and that in any case he didn’t do what he told Radia he would do. Then, because all this shit hitting the fan has left him feeling “battered”, he’s not going to write Counterpoint any more, until we all think about what we’ve done. Boo hoo?

Sure, no money changed hands. But then, that’s what the tapes establish. Its not just money that carries currency in this finely honed system. It’s just as important to trade in information, and influence. The widespread nature of this malaise is evident in the fact that nearly every media house ignored the story after it broke. This means, quite simply, that nearly every media house in India has something to hide.

Part of the reason for this is the baggage our press shed along the journey from reporting India to being part of the ‘India Shining’ story. Journalists lost rage, and the idea of moral responsibility. Both these terms make reporters too isolated in India’s shiny TV offices-too unemployable and naïve. The tapes have shown the pliability behind the headlines, the phoniness of the hour-long special on corruption, the silence behind the crowing voices delivering another scam at the audience’s bloodied feet. To paraphrase that other astute observer of public moods, “l’scam, c’est moi.

But despite that, our hypnotized gazes are sure to return to the spectacle on prime time TV. Perhaps in time we will learn to appreciate the high wattage drama on shows with aspirational titles like ‘The Buck Stops Here’, or ‘We, the People’ for what they are—well scripted farce. For the facts, there’s always fakingnews.com.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. free_verse permalink
    December 12, 2010 5:37 pm

    Hey, great post. It’s a sad day for Indian media today when the second set of around 800 tapes are being updated constantly on Outlook website and not ONE TV channel has had the balls to report on this. Had these been tapes on any other issue, they would have trampled upon each other to get hold of it. I feel my faith in this fourth estate of democracy shatter. Perhaps in today’s world, it is idealistic to expect even this much out of media.

    • April 16, 2011 12:19 am

      Wkalnig in the presence of giants here. Cool thinking all around!

  2. December 17, 2010 5:55 am

    Yes, though journalists are now trying to make noises about ‘introspection’, its true that it will take massive amounts of imagination to expect any kind of agenda-free reporting by the ‘free press’. The big story here is that the Radia tapes have exposed the way India really works. Something we all knew, but is now out in the open. Again, that is being studiously underreported.

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