November 30, 2010

Radially speaking

Is it any surprise that the Radia tapes involve her speaking to such media stars as Prabhu Chawla, Vir Sanghvi and Barkha Dutt? Only if you cling to the somewhat benighted view that media folks are somehow removed from the rest of the country's impatience with ethics.

Why benighted? Because I know of people in the media who:

* use other journalists' writing, with or without massaging it slightly, and pass it off as their own.

* use other journalists' ideas in their writing without a qualm, and certainly without attribution.

* watch TV during a breaking news story, then write up a "first-person" account of the story.

* write about issues -- like the demolition of slums, for instance -- without once visiting the places where those issues play out.

* when asked by readers to clarify something they have said, angrily accuse the readers of being unable to read properly.

There's more, yes, including things I've done that I'm not proud of. (OK, none of the above).

Not only have the things I listed happened without much of a murmur, there have been plenty of others who have defended this behaviour. Not only that. Far from being punished, some of this behaviour has actually propelled people to stellar heights.

So I wonder, why are we so outraged by the Radia conversations?


Postscript 11pm Nov 30: I just watched part of the discussion on NDTV where Barkha Dutt was questioned by four journalists about what has happened. I think she made a strong case to say that yes, it was at best an error in judgement to have spoken to Nira Radia, but no, by no means was it corruption. So while I won't change the sentence above that mentions the word "ethics" -- there are ethical issues there too -- I will say this: I believe her.

I believe she demonstrated during this discussion a degree of integrity that few journalists achieve -- certainly none of those I alluded to in the bullets above.

And I think too that there's a case to be made for questioning the propriety of publishing material without asking the people involved for their explanations/reactions.


Arun said...

Other than Manu, all the three other journos were shitty. Their hands are not clean, their questions were not sharp, and I guess they dont care much (the editor of a paper who sells their editorial space, the editor of a Financial daily who was the "adviser" to the PM and someone who sold his soul to power - clear establishment smells here) . The fact that Manu is an investigative journalist who is angry about the system clearly shows.

Barkha's arrogance and shrillness in the particular video, her answers to Manu's questions and her past reporting in no way justifies her actions or her accusations of vilifying her. I do not think she was corrupt, in that she was in the payroll of Radia, but clearly she doesnt have her hands clean. If only all the victims of her reckless and biased reporting had options to clear their image like this!

Also, what a sad reason they have for not reporting the tapes for all these days! But they dont mind having Ratan Tata being allowed to justify himself to "eminent" journalist Shekhar Gupta!!

This particular video is also a good example that the most famous journalists in India do not know how to discuss and debate in a calm and organized manner. Noise takes over sooner or later.

Suresh said...

I think she made a strong case to say that yes, it was at best an error in judgement to have spoken to Nira Radia, but no, by no means was it corruption.

The problem is that we don't know whether this was an isolated incident or whether there is a systematic pattern to Barkha's behavior.

Even if one assumes that this is an isolated incident, she is not in the clear as both Manu Joseph and Hartosh Singh Bal argue. The point is elegantly stated by Manu Joseph: It is okay to "cultivate" a source provided the end result is journalism at some point. The information exchanged between Niira Radia and Barkha Dutt was explosive (because it throws light on private sector influence in allocation of cabinet portfolios) and yet Barkha made no use of it in her journalism. You cannot argue that she would have made use of it in the future. If two years is not sufficient, then how much is sufficient? I think this is much more than an error of judgement.

On a related note, I have long been uneasy at the "bribes" our government gives our journalists. In the days when I still used to go to the railway station to book tickets, I was startled to note that there was a separate counter for journalists at New Delhi station. I am aware that there is a quota for journalists in the allotment of government quarters in Delhi. The wages for (at least some) journalists are determined through an act of Parliament called The Working Journalists (Fixation Of Rates Of Wages) Act, 1958. Probably other "bribes" too which remain undocumented. What all this does to the independence of journalists is still unknown and the question has not been addressed seriously in the press to the best of my knowledge.

There are a number of serious issues thrown by the Radia tapes. At the very least, these need to be addressed (but very likely won't):

1. Complete lack of transparency in public policy making This is what allows the likes of Niira Radia to flourish.

2. The nexus between the press and the government;

3. Invasion of privacy We can disagree with Ratan Tata's motivation but there is a serious issue here. I can relate an anecdote. My father who is a former DoT official, knows a high court judge. At one point, his wife told my father that she suspected that their phone was being tapped. The reason was the ruling party in the state wanted to force the judge to give a favourable decision in a particular case. The lady wanted my father's advice on how to deal with this issue. My father told the lady that there was no solution other than to speak always assuming that the phone was tapped.

Discussing the conversation much later, my father told me that phones can be tapped by a wide variety of politicians and bureaucrats. On the bureaucratic front, phones can be tapped by, at the least, RAW, CBI, IB, State IB, ED, Customs, Revenue...the list is endless. If you a high court judge, my father added, it is virtually certain that your phone is being tapped.

This is not the way a liberal democratic society should operate.

4. And last but not least, I wish someone would put an end to these tiresome numerologists. First, Jayalalithaa and now Niira. Incidentally, does numerology only work with respect to how a name is rendered in the English language? Is this because of the non-phonetic nature of English? (I can't imagine any scope for such idiocy in Hindi, for instance.) Whatever the reason, it's tiresome.

Suresh said...

Dilip (or is it, Diilip, Diliip or Diiliip):

Sorry for the additional posting; please delete the extra one. I got an error which is why I posted it again.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Maybe it should be Deeleeeppp.

Jai_C said...

(lonng comment, slightly rambling. sorry)

1. I didnt catch this show; cant help reacting when I see her on NDTV serenely pursuing and grilling *others* on their lapses as part of her job in the interim. it is ofcourse part of her job, but i kept gagging. I've started skipping NDTV quite a bit now.

I will get back to watching her but its going to take some time.

2. Meanwhile, Manu Joseph's follow-up:

"...There is at least one recording in which Radia clearly mentions that Dutt has made some calls to the Congress. ..."

3. It is to be carefully noted that this is a selective leak, only a small fraction of the tapes made. We dont know how many others would be compromised by the remaining tapes.

4. However, as some other blogs have been saying, "is hamaam mein sab nange hain" is not a good enough response. The idea is to lean towards the better among several flawed and faulty options and incentivize improvement among the whole crowd of them.

5. Corruption to me is not just a financial thing. It can be moral. It can be corruption of the soul.

6. I can think of another possibility than corruption:

pure ideological tilt.

A journo that sincerely believes a particular party or alliance, is better (for reasons of the alternative being evil/ dangerous) may quite freely and for free, provide his/her services to foster that alliance and keep it stable.

7. It is their right as much as it is mine, to be so disposed towards any group of their choosing, in their individual capacity.

8. Its probably acceptable for such a person to be openly supportive of any group in their professional capacity as long as their org. agrees with it (possibly for reasons of the org groupthink aligning with this).

9. I would not consider the above people (7,8) *corrupt*. Biased yes.

10. It can reasonably be assumed that a news org places a high premium on sounding or at least claiming to be fair & balanced- h*ck even FauxNews claims to be.

There is such pressure to be non-leftist, non-rightist, non-partisan that everybody and their uncle claim to be in the centre.

11. So any background work any person in a media role does out of their personal political leanings will be well hidden. Safest of all for them since they decide what gets reported.. we saw the safety net across media in operation for nearly a week after the thing broke. There is some "honor code" thing.

12. That is *rational* but there is lots of impropriety here and deception.

13. Inspite of these points above, I still think the newsanchor in question does a *reasonable job* in going after the murk in an alliance he/she may favor over a rival alliance.

14. Bias may come into play only when the survival of this alliance is in question. He/she may softpedal issues OR while presenting the issue to highlight, even in the absence of any current news, old scandals from the alternative formation to make sure they are perceived as worse transgressors.

15. It is even possible that such an anchor, mindful of their reputation will seek to exert pressure on "their" alliance to be *extra clean* avoid corruption and sack the corrupt ones? (ie. they will use their influence for good not bad).

16. Yes 14 & 15 above are in conflict. I'm confused. Need more thinking. 6 onwards is just my hypothesis.

17. Good piece by Tunku Varadarajan


Anonymous said...

How about 'The Lip' ?

Ketan said...


Apart from the point Suresh made about Barkha Dutt not revealing private sector's undue influence in cabinet formation, it is important to note that the conversations point to a continuous engagement between Barkha and Radia as the entire cabinet-formation had evolved (and now, it appears, there are tapes that reveal, even much beyond). So, her interaction with Radia does not seem to be a one-off incidence.

However, as a skeptic of mediapersons' motives because of the impact it would have on perceived (by me) reliability of their reporting, what was most disconcerting (though suspected by me for long) was the mutual comfort felt by the top Congress leaders and Barkha Dutt in letting latter be the ONLY communication channel between the Party and an important political ally, the DMK. Extraordinary amount of trust needs to exist for Congress politicians to be assured that the details of these kinds of dealings and negotiations would not be revealed to the larger public by a person entirely capable of doing so and even expected to do so. However, most people have overlooked or missed the implication of existence of this kind of agreement and understanding between few members of an influential political party (The Congress) and influential opinion-maker. What do you think of this aspect?

Anonymous said...

d'souza never criticizes his friends or members of his club. or he will make some slightly negative noise, and then bring in occurances from 1890 and 1924 to suggest that this transgression is nothing in comparison. and we are fools to get worked up over something so trivial.

sab saale chor hain.

how do we know barkha is not benefitting from her proximity to the ruling party? perhaps a convenient call for some permit or license? if you're doing a favour to ratan tata or ambani, surely there will be an occasion to cash in on it at some point in the future.

if you are caught with your hand in the cookie-jar, it is up to you to show that you had no intention of consuming the cookies.

sab saale chor hain.