The Niira Radia tapes have been making news, even as the electronic media has chosen to ignore them, especially the ones that feature two leading television journalists – Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi. The tapes suggest that there was extensive lobbying to make A Raja the telecommunications minister for the second term of the UPA and Niira Radia, a Public Relations professional, was at the center of this lobbying.
Now, this in itself is not any news frankly. “Lobbying” is no secret or crime; it’s called “Public Affairs” by most of the Public Relations consultancy companies and they proudly put it up under the “services” section on their websites. Take for example the following paragraph that appears on the website of IPAN, one of the leading PR agencies of India:
“Among our successful campaigns are those on behalf of STAR TV (to beat back a discriminatory cable TV regulation bill), the Soaps and Toiletries Manufacturers Association (to secure reduction in duties on cosmetics), the Express Industry Council of India (to stall a bill designed to protect the monopoly of the post office), the All India Meat and Livestock Exporters Association (to counter militant vegetarian groups seeking the closure of mechanized abattoirs producing meat for exports) and the Tea Packeters Association of India (to secure removal of excise duty on packaged tea).”
From the above paragraph, one can conclude, and (s)he would technically be not wrong, that some corporates paid money (unless IPAN carried out those campaigns out of some goodwill) to “beat back” and “stall” bills (inside or outside the parliament?) and decide excise duties that determine the revenue receipt of the government.
Should we be outraged that this is how policies of our nation are framed?
It depends upon how do you look at this whole public affairs thingy; clearly it’s not “illegal” in the present scheme of things. PR companies indulge in it, and more often than not, they depend upon bureaucrats, politicians and journalists in their “network” to carry out such “campaigns”.
But the problem in the current case is that Niira Radia’s company Vaishnavi doesn’t make a mention of this “achievement” of making A Raja the cabinet minister again on its website (in fact, there is no mention of “successful campaigns” on the website at all). There is an element of “secrecy” that has now suddenly come to light with Open magazine making Radia’s telephonic conversations with industrialists, politicians and journalists public.
Talking in terms of a purely public affairs campaign, it seems that the “deliverable” of the campaign that Niira Radia was heading was to install A Raja as the union cabinet minister. But it’s yet not clear who was the “client” or set of clients who “commissioned” this campaign and what were the clients’ motives (to reward A Raja for having carried out “successful” 2G spectrum allocation a year back?).
Clearly, if it was “just another” public affairs campaign, Niira Radia would have spoken out by now. Only she knows the truth and she is missing in action. We need to know who the “clients” were and what “strategies” were used, and of course, the professional “payments” that took place; we need a full case study and not just disconnected case facts (to use b-school lingo).
Unfortunately all the focus is on Barkha Dutt right now. Not that her involvement should be ignored, as has been blissfully ignored by the electronic media, but she’s not really the kingpin of this whole drama.
To the extent I could understand the transcripts related to both Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi, one thing is quite clear that both of them were acting as a conduit between Niira Radia and Congress leaders (for trading information) over the issue of cabinet formation when UPA came back to power last year.
Now both of them, in their defense, have claimed that this was a “normal” part of their job as a journalist – to talk to all kinds of people in order to glean information. Sounds plausible to me, for I’ve been a journalist myself.
But at the same time, there is a tone of “willingness” to be a messenger between Congress and Radia by both of these reputed journalists, which has cast aspersions on their motives. The tone and content of the discussions (in the leaked telephonic talks) points to the following three possibilities:
- Smooth-talking by them to win over the confidence of Radia and get more information – a normal part of a journalist’s job and nothing unethical about that (Barkha Dutt claims Radia was a “valid news source” on DMK affairs).
- They believed and trusted Radia in good faith and were being manipulated and used as pawns by her (to strategize against Congress?) as part of her campaign to install A Raja as cabinet minister again. They had no idea of what Radia was up to.
- They knew the details of the campaign (lobbying) and were willingly a party to it (party to the campaign of making A Raja minister again, and not any party to the 2G scam; there is nothing in the tapes to suggest that) i.e. they were lobbying for A Raja.
Funnily, or rather tragically, we’d never be able to know the truth unless this issue is raised in a court of law, which means either Barkha Dutt or Vir Sanghvi has to sue one of the publications for defamation. (added on 20 Nov 2010 at 00:30 AM – and of course, Niira Radia can tell the truth, if we can trust her with that) I don’t think any publication has categorically accused these journalists of being hand-in-glove with Radia and being a party to the scam; most of them have uploaded the transcripts and asked people to draw their own conclusions. And no, please don’t sue me; I am not drawing any conclusions here!
In fact, I’d like people to stop drawing conclusions on Barkha and Sanghvi for the moment and not let the focus get away from the scam and the ring-masters of the scam. That’s the bigger issue.
Also, we must know why were the phones being tapped at all? Clearly it couldn’t have been done without the approval by the government and their knowledge, else it is illegal. If it’s legal, the government knew that there was a campaign to install A Raja as minister again. So they knew about the 2G scam, its ring masters, and kept quiet, something even the courts have suggested now.
Some conspiracy theorist can as well claim that these tapes were selectively leaked to shift the public focus on these two journalists and shield the real scamsters and ring masters. Quiet possible.
But that doesn’t mean that we completely ignore the involvement (in whatever capacity) of journalists (yeah, only Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi’s names are not there) and it’s really sad to see a complete blackout of the news by the electronic media and most of the print media except 3-4 publications (Open, Outlook and Mid-Day are the ones I know).
Silence will only make the whole thing appear fishier and erode the creditability of media, especially the electronic media, even further.
Unfortunately, this is not for the first time when media has refused to look inwards. Earlier, Press Council of India had showed some courage and had spoken against the menace of “paid news” but the whole issue was weakened and swept under the carpet.
Media organizations have often shown zero tolerance and have responded with threats when someone asks them uncomfortable questions or shows the ugly side of theirs. On many occasions, all of the media organizations have ganged up to suppress and silence criticism. Blogs like warfornews and mediaah were threatened and told to shut up and a website like Bhadaas has received legal notices from media organizations for publishing “news” against them.
If the Indian Army can accept that there were black sheep within their ranks who could be involved in human rights abuse, land grabs and other forms of corruption, why is media running away from the truth?
One can feel sad for Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi, as their credibility and integrity is being questioned based on vague speculations, but if the public, especially on Twitter, is behaving like a lynch mob, somewhere this incestuous and ostrich like behavior by media on the earlier occasions is responsible.
I don’t know how media could redeem itself in this particular situation. Someone could argue that just like politicians are asked to resign due to negative perception in the public, should the journalists not do the same?
But for that, media, especially the electronic media, has to feel itself as being answerable to the public. Unfortunately most of the television journalists don’t feel like that.
I don’t know if you guys recall, but this aspect was shown in the movie Peepli Live, where this “socially conscious” local print journalist named Rakesh (who dies in the movie towards the end) shares his frustration with media sensationalism over Natha’s suicide with Nandita, the hotshot English speaking television journalist. Nandita asks Rakesh not to fret over such issues and reconcile to the “fact” that journalism was just another profession like engineering, banking, etc.
Having been a television journalist myself, I can guarantee that many of the journalists today think the same way, it’s just another profession for them, and maybe there is nothing wrong with that.
But in that case, they’d be treated as just another professional, who must not be given any special privileges and treatment for the “nature” of their job. That’s what the mob is doing right now.