Journalism of the Dubious Kind

Written by  //  November 27, 2010  //  National Politics  //  8 Comments

If your primary source of information on the goings on in the world is the mainstream Indian English electronic media, you have been led up a diabolic garden path. Though the pervasiveness of the deceit is hard to estimate as of now, it is likely to be serious and the manipulation likely to be wholesale. The Radia tapes scandal is down there with the basest of scandals to hit India, exposing the despicable corporate lobbyist- journalist- politician nexus. NDTV, Barkha Dutt, Vir Sanghvi and their accomplices in the many other media houses have dredged a new abyss in chicanery and corruption. They have been thrown down from the high moral horses they ride and shown to be conniving spin doctors. Yet the mainstream electronic media and an overwhelming majority in the English print media have maintained an orchestrated silence. If you had hopes of the media showing some spine in the matter, the Radia tapes convince us why such flights of fancy should be scorched. In the tapes, Radia is heard gloating over the stories she has managed to get ‘killed’ at the behest of her clients. In some tapes Radia is heard bullying journalists. In others she is seen tutoring pliable journalists, getting them to give just the sort of spin on a story she wants. We the people, who some of the tainted journalists have so often sanctimoniously pretended to represent, have been consistently and systematically misinformed. The fourth estate, it seems, was to a very large extent, a synchronized racket. We would have to be deluded to expect them to probe and question their own failings. Trust NDTV & co to now start a systematic Goebbles like propaganda, belabouring falsehood till this news is confined to oblivion. I suspect Ratan Tata’s cryptic interview with Shekhar Gupta on NDTV where he blames the press (whatever honest press there is left in this country) for exposing this story- and thereby he thinks, tarnishing India’s image- may be a first move in this propaganda juggernaut; use Tata’s perceived clean image as a fig leaf for all these journalists to flee the dock. But thousands of Indians on the internet are seething with anger and see the glib defences put up by Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi as an insult to their intelligence.

In the Radia tapes, Barkha Dutt is seen holding out on behalf of the Congress in portfolio negotiations with the DMK. Few of us would have been this outraged had a Jaya TV or Sun TV journalist held out for AIADMK or DMK like Barkha Dutt is seen doing. But then these Jaya and Sun TV folks openly pin their party cards to their jackets. We know that we must take whatever these chaps say with a sack-full of salt. We hardly expect them to be serious independent journalists. None of them even pretends to be beyond reproach. But such behaviour ill behooves someone who claims to be of impeccable integrity and was honoured with a Padmasri (for her integrity one would have liked to believe). Barkha Dutt and NDTV shape the opinions of millions of Indians and they do that on the claim to clean and impartial journalism. Were it to be a well -known fact that she was holding out for a political party or corporate house, NDTV would no more have shaped our opinion than Saamna does.  Just like a judge who is seen to be affiliated to a political party loses all his credibility, so does a journalist. It is to prevent the definite erosion of faith in NDTV & co, that an exposure of these tapes may cause, that such a concerted effort is being made to bury the story.

Barkha Dutt however thinks she did no wrong. Oddly, despite her confident conviction in her innocence, she tweets her defense rather than bravely discuss it on air:

“I think there is nothing wrong in stringing along a source for info… I think EVERY journo has the right to engage a source, its NO CRIME … as a matter of record, I never passed the message. But info sharing per se is not immoral in a fluid news situation”

Does Barkha Dutt seriously think this provides her with a kosher defence? Does Barkha Dutt really appear to be stringing along a source for information? In the tapes Barkha Dutt gives every impression of someone who was holding out on behalf of the Congress. Her demeanour appears to be of one who is at ease in the power broking game. The fact that a dyed in the wool lobby shark like Radia contacts her for sealing a portfolio deal is enough to show that she is perceived as a reliable conduit to the Congress in power broking circles- whether or not she really is one. Such a perception could not have evolved spontaneously with Barkha Dutt giving Radia the impression in course of their telephone conversations over the course of two days. The more plausible and likely explanation is that Barkha must have consistently worked hard to earn that reputation over a course of time. Had Barkha not found to have been effective previously, Radia wouldn’t have approached her in a crisis. Besides Radia is not just any ordinary ‘source’; she is a mighty power broker who knows the game and knows just which string to pull when, as her phone calls to several people reveal.  Whatever appeal that ‘stringing the source argument’ might have had, dissipates rapidly when we realize that a shark like Radia wouldn’t in such a fluid situation – one where her corporate client’s interests are at stake in ensuring that Maran doesn’t get the Telecom ministry- go on a random fishing expedition and approach someone who she knew wasn’t a reliable conduit to the Congress. The fact she turns to Barkha in a political logjam  to get to the Congress gives us licence to infer that she must have done a pretty good job at getting to the Congress on previous oocasions. Also pause to consider the perception that Radia had of Barkha Dutt. When referring to the information she received from Barkha Dutt, in her conversation with an India Today journalist, Radia alludes to Barkha as her ‘Congress Source’ without naming her; the information that she attributes to the ‘congress source’ is the very information she gets from Barkha in one of the previous conversations. Again in her conversation with Ranjan Bhattacharya (Vajpayee’s son in law) she says that Barkha will get a statement from Congress as directed by her. All this shows that regardless of what Barkha Dutt may claim, there was a perception in the power broking circles that she held out for the Congress. Barkha Dutt’s other claim, that she never relayed the information, doesn’t seem any more plausible. She had six separate conversations with Radia bringing in new information in each of the conversations and also assuring to relay information to the party high command. Barkha Dutt enquires what should she convey to the party high command and also relays back the mind of the party high command. Some of the conversations are sampled here:

RADIA: And Congress is sending messages through media and through various sources, saying that. And Maran is telling everyone that he is the only acceptable person.

BARKHA: Person, yeah, yeah, yeah. That I know.

RADIA: But that’s not correct, naa?

BARKHA: No, I know. We’ve taken that off. We’ve taken that off.

Here Barkha Dutt is referring to the news that Congress wants Maran as minister and when Radia tells her that it is hampering the deal, she says that WE [Congress? or NDTV?] have taken off that story. Soon thereafter:

BARKHA: Okay. Let me talk to them again.

RADIA: Yeah? The choice of candidate we will leave to you. We have some reservation about Baalu. And let them tell the reservation. And we have not said anything about Maran. We are not talking

I don’t want to make too much of Radia saying here to Barkha ‘the choice of candidates we leave to you’ for the identification could just be a semantic point; but put in context it shows that Radia saw in Barkha Dutt a reliable conduit to the Congress and hence the identification of Barkha with Congress . And then when Barkha Dutt’s assures to ‘set up’ a meeting it does appear to be as res ipsa loquitor as it gets:

BARKHA: No, I’ll set it up as soon as they get out of RCR.

RADIA: What she saying is that, you know, that someone senior like Ghulam [Nabi Azad, senior Congress leader]—because he is the one who is authorised to speak. ….

BARKHA: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

RADIA: Right? Was to speak to her then she can tell her father that I have got this message from the Congress.

BARKHA: Theek hai, not a problem. That’s not a problem, I’ll talk to Azad—I’ll talk to Azad right after I get out of RCR [Race Course Road, presumably, the PM’s residence].

Vir Sanghvi’s is more of an open and shut case than Barkha Dutt’s. Of course on the portfolio-Congress story Sanghvi has the exact same implausible defence that Barkha has. Though the specifics of the stories differ what was said about Barkha Dutt applies with cosmetic alterations to Sanghvi as well. But Sanghvi has also been seen colluding with Radia to spin stories for Mukesh Ambani. He doesn’t even make an attempt to explain this conversation he had with Radia instead explaining some other easier case from which he could hope to escape easily:

VIR: ….You can work out a script in advance. You can go exactly according to the script. Anil can’t do any of those things, no?

RADIA: Right. But we can do that, no?

VIR: Yeah.


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

Vir Sanghvi will find that he needs to put a lot more spin to oil out of this one. At places Vir Sanghvi is heard telling Radia that in spinning stories for Mukesh Ambani he can’t seem ‘too tilted’. This is just the smoke screen of integrity I have been referring to, all along. While they serve their corporate and political masters, they also want to be seen as being impartial and honest. If these conversations go out to millions through the mainstream media, who will take this man seriously ever again?

Rajdeep Sardesai, who is also heard in the one of the tapes agreeing to be “briefed” on a story by Radia, has come to defend Barkha Dutt and Sanghvi by enunciating a lofty moral principle which he thinks is dispositive of the case.He tweets:

” conversation between source and journo is legitimate. if quid pro quo is shown, expose it. else, dont destroy hard earned reputations”

If Mr.Sardesai does indeed think that there is nothing wrong with what these people have done, then why doesn’t his channel air those tapes and then try convincing people that there was nothing wrong in what they saw? Rajdeep Sardesai knows only too well that perception of impartiality is what makes his friends’ news shops run. If the tapes are run on air, people will stop buying the ‘custom made’ news wares they peddle.

About the Author

Shiv is reading for a Doctorate in Jurisprudence at Oxford University. He read for a B.C.L at Oxford University in 2005-06. He read for his undergraduate law degree at Indian Law Society, Pune (1999-2004).

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8 Comments on "Journalism of the Dubious Kind"

  1. Alok November 28, 2010 at 4:52 am ·

    Spot on Shiv! I share your anger and outrage at these alleged defenders of our democracy.

    Truth be told (and because this is Delhi, it is very hard to do so), the rumours and the whispers in the corridors always said that x journalist was on this payroll and y newspaper on the other’s. I had had my doubts for sometime but to this sort of convinced me.

    What is even more galling is that none of the journalists in question even for a moment concede that they may have done something wrong! As far as they are concerned all the conversations were just “journalism”!

  2. Anirudh Krishnan November 28, 2010 at 9:06 am ·

    Interesting read Shiv. I thought I would put up a few interesting links on this topic.
    1. Karan Thapar led “cross-examination” on this issue.
    2. Barkha’s defence

    As one of the journalists on CNN IBN points out, an honest journalist who has a readymade story with her about Ratan Tata not wanting Maran as the Telecom Minister, would at the very least, report this news on air.

    Also, you mention in your post that in one of the conversations it was clear that Nira had got Rajdeep to doctor a story. Where did you get this information from ? Can you please post the link to this conversation. (I did come across a conversation between Nira and Kanimozhi where Nira says she just spoke to Rajdeep who said that the source for a story on the Congress not wanting Baalu and Raja as Ministers was the Sun TV. This raises another worryign issue- how an a “neutral” news channel rely on news that is provided by a clearly biased source?)

  3. Shivprasad November 28, 2010 at 2:00 pm ·

    @ Alok, Like you said this confirms what so many of us have heard privately, about journalists’ being on the payroll of political parties / Corporate houses.

    @ Anirudh, thanks for the links The Rajdeep/Radia conversation is here

    I didn’t mean to be arguing that this tape shows that Rajdeep agreed to fix a particular story. The tape shows Radia wanting to visit Rajdeep’s office to brief Rajdeep on a Reliance story and he agrees. I have clarified the part about Rajdeep to reflect this understanding.

  4. Anisha November 28, 2010 at 5:13 pm ·

    Thanks for the article, Shivprasad. The buying and selling of news seems pretty commonplace as well. Listen to Radia’s phone conversation with Manoj Modi, Mukesh A’s right hand man. He comments on Sanghvi’s scripted article that the the appearance of bias is so clear to the industry insider that “people will know from where it’s coming”.

    The implication seems to be that each constituency has its people in the media producing articles on demand and each side can identify which articles have been specifically commissioned as well. Modi certainly recognises that Anil A’s people would figure out from the article that Sanghvi was Mukesh A’s man. The only dummies who didn’t understand any of this are the likes of us…

    More upsetting to me than the fact of scripted news, though, is this dreadful blackout. There has been little attempt by most mainstream media houses to engage with this issue beyond blog posts and twitter. An outlook opinion piece sums up the malaise within Indian journalism better than I do:

    “How can TV anchor-journalists pretend the Radia tapes aren’t viral on the net and then repair to their nightly orgies of Twitterlicking and Facebukkake? How do you go from the indignant maven of We the People to “Okie. Gnite tweeple”? Why does Rajdeep Sardesai describe his own monogrammed opinions on CNN IBN as “our editor’s take”? Why does he shout so much? Why wasn’t it bigger news when the son of a famous newsmagazine editor was apprehended for passing a Rs 10 lakh bribe from a newspaper to the Company Law Board? Why is plagiarism not a firing offence for newspaper film reviewers? How can the editor-in-chief of a newsmagazine explain his plagiarised editorial by telling us it was ghostwritten? How can an editor describe her own prose as ‘searing’ on the cover of The Halka? Is the copy desk just the workstation where you concoct the ‘Letter for the Editor’? What is wrong with Arnab Goswami? Why is every story an ‘exclusive’, even if it’s not? Are TV anchors journalists, or entertainers? And aren’t newspapers supposed to have front-page news instead of one big ad—sorry, edvertorial?”

    Outlook article:
    Radia-Modi tape:

  5. Shivprasad November 30, 2010 at 4:35 am ·

    Anisha, I agree totally. I am disturbed by this media black out. In my opinion what Shekhar Gupta has done is also very wrong. While elsewhere he keeps mum on the issue, he interviews Ratan Tata giving him a chance to defend his position. The ‘Walk the Talk’ interview( though they are both seated this time round ) seems to be just as probing as one given by Nithyananda to one ‘independent journalist’ who also happened to be his devotee, after his infamous tapes leaked. In the interview Shekar Gupta never asks Mr. Tata any tough questions; he begins by asking Mr.Tata’s views on the ‘situation’ generally . I think that Mr.Tata is as much in the dock as any one else in those tapes and if he has agreed to come on an interview he must be questioned by a journalist impartially; if anything the stakes for Mr.Tata are higher because of his perceived clean image. If the Radia tapes are any indicator of how the media in India works, we should hardly find this friendly interview surprising. It was wrong for Shekhar Gupta to have done that interview without first publishing in Indian Express a transcript of all the tapes or at least those involving Mr.Tata and Radia. How does the citizen make up his mind on what Mr.Tata is saying unless he is also allowed to read the transcripts? But why let any of that come in the way of business?

  6. kishore November 30, 2010 at 12:11 pm ·

    Let’s not get naiive in fooling ourselves that journos are extra special with highest moral values and high respect for their profession. They are people who are opportunists to the core, they lead two lives, one in front of camera/pen, they are competitive and want one-up-manship to be the first to reveal anything thru media. And on the other side they are people who understand that they have access that others don’t and they simply use this access to broker various things for various commercial/non-commercial reasons.
    But the issue here is not who said what, who colluded with whom, the issue is who benefited the most from dodo’s telecom regime (A Raja = Dodo). Obviously its the few telecom companies in the 2G scam case apart from who ever controls Dodo’s mind and body. And let there be no guesses who controls dodo in this case.

    Somebody changes profession overnight and jumps from being a concrete developer to a telecom company, the other starts a second company in somebody else’s name while leaving another dodo’s name intact as contact person for the front company…even a kid can understand who all are looting the country.

    I am not saying once, let’s leave these power brokers alone, but let’s get our priority right in the 2G scam. The objectivised result of this case should be to get money back into our treasury and book the culprits (politicians, bureaucrate and corporates) under severe criminal acts.

    And once we have this is in order, one can go after these power brokers…jai hind !

  7. Shoma December 12, 2010 at 7:20 am ·

    More such analyses will indeed seal future journalistic career of the rogues who pretend innicence after being caught with their hands in the cookie jar. But I’m wodering why you have ignored the crook of connaught place–Mr. Seedhi Baat? Listen to his conversation with Radia carefully. He is two-timing on his past client, Anil Ambani, calling him ‘kanjoos,’ and offering to enlist the help of his son to facilitate Mukesh Ambani’s camp at the Supreme Court in the gas case.

    To know who his son is, one has to follow the Vasudevan case in which this Company Law Board member, a quasi-judicial person, allegedly took bribe from the hand of this lawyer-son of the man who destroyed India Today, the magazine. The ‘lawyer’ is fac ing trial.

    Why did the C-C-P refer to his son in his conversation with Radia, repeatedly referring to his ‘expertise’? He was offering to fix Bench. Radia was clever enough not to rise to his bait.

    The latest about C-C-P is, the present real owners of India Today are fonally throwing him out, and he is joining the southern arm of a daily known for his p[ast trouble with the Congress. With such journos on its side, the anti-Congress Opposition will hardly need friends.

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