A panel discussion titled: ‘Editors as Power Brokers?’ was organized by Foundation for Media Professionals (http://www.fmp.org.in/) along with Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (http://www.fesindia.org/) at India International Centre (IIC) Auditorium on 26 November, 2010 so as to ponder on the issue of media-corporate lobbyist nexus. This is the fifteen in the series of media debates organized by the Foundation for Media Professionals to uphold media freedom and promote quality journalism.
Manoj Mitta (Senior Journalist, The Times of India, http://www.timesofindia.com/) in his introduction briefed the audience that some of the editors like Manu Joseph (http://www.openthemagazine.com/) and Krishna Prasad (http://www.outlookindia.com/) have broken the silence pertaining to the Niira Radia tapes. The media was dithering whether the tapes should be brought in the public domain. Consumers of media know how the media functions. Believers of watchdog journalism are happy that the Radia tapes have been disclosed. Proper step has been taken by some honest journalists in favour of public interest. The Radia tapes reveal how the journalists are related to corporate lobbyist. Complicity of some journalists to retain A Raja in the Telecom Ministry under the UPA 2 government is now revealed. Journalists have also played a role in the gas allocation issue involving the Ambani brothers and the Government of India. After the disclosure of the tapes in public domain, there was a long silence maintained by the mainstream Indian media. It was Sagarika Ghose (http://ibnlive.in.com/) in her show titled: Face the Nation who broke the silence about the 2G scam and the Radia tapes. Suhel Seth, Siddharth Varadarajan, Dilip Cherian and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta also spoke in that show. Thereafter, The Deccan Herald, The Business Standard and The Hindu broke their silence over the media-corporate lobbyist nexus.
Vivian Fernandes acted as the moderator of the discussion on the involvement of editors in the 2G scam. He reminded the audience that the discussion is taking place on the very date 26X11—the day terrorists killed innocent people in Mumbai two years back. He introduced the panel of speakers, namely: Amit Goel (Pioneer Media School, http://www.pioneermediaschool.com/), Paranjoy Guha Thakurta (journalist who has worked on media ethics and submitted the report on paid news to the Press Council of India, http://presscouncil.nic.in/Final%20report%20on%20Paid%20News.pdf), Krishna Prasad (Editor of Outlook, http://www.outlookindia.com/), Sunil Jain (Senior Journalist working with the Financial Express, http://www.financialexpress.com/), Shri Manu Joseph (Editor of Open the Magazine, http://www.openthemagazine.com/), Bhupendra Chaubey (TV Journalist from IBN, http://ibnlive.in.com/), BG Verghese (former editor of The Hindustan Times, http://www.hindustantimes.com/) and Shoma Chaudhary (Managing Editor, Tehelka magazine, http://www.tehelka.com/).
Vivian Fernandes informed that Barkha Dutt, Vir Sanghvi and Shankar Aiyer were very much close to the corporate lobbyist Niira Radia. The tapes were recorded by the Income Tax (IT) department for 3 months during 2009. Radia was very much close to A Raja and not Dayanidhi Maran since the latter could not help Tata in the 2G spectrum allocation. Vir Saghvi has defended himself via his column The Counter Point (My response to the Radia transcripts, 18 November, 2010, http://www.virsanghvi.com/CounterPoint-ArticleDetail.aspx?ID=576) and the NDTV has defended Barkha Dutt (NDTV on defamatory remarks against Barkha Dutt, NDTV, 18 November, 2010, http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/ndtv-on-defamatory-remarks-against-barkha-dutt-67210). In his defense, Vir Sanghvi has said that there has been no proper sourcing of the tapes. Conversations were not properly recorded and undue publicity has been sought by the magazines who have disclosed the tapes. Privacy has been breached. Sanghvi wrote to his readers that he expected himself to be judged on the basis of his work. There was a time when ‘man bites dog’ used to become news, Fernandes added. Nowadays, dog biting dog is considered as news (referring to the fight between NDTV and Open/ Outlook on the issue of Radia-media nexus).
On the charges made by Barkha Dutt and NDTV that the Open is not sure about the authenticity of the recordings, Manu Joseph defended by saying that the allegations made were not true. He refused to agree that the recordings and transcripts do not match. In a story of this nature, privacy can be compromised, Joseph emphasized. Barkha Dutt’s statement on ‘journalistic process’ is a strange defense, he argued. Niira Radia was interested in A Raja getting Telecom Ministry but this story told by a ‘talking lizard’ was missed by Barkha so as to come out with a journalistic piece, told Manu Joseph. In fact, Barkha Dutt could have told everybody about the story of the ‘talking lizard’ if she had been following the ‘journalistic process’. Nobody has actually denied the authenticity of the tapes. It was the IT department, which passed the transcripts to the CBI a few months back. Joseph doubted whether some phone calls may have stopped a few newspapers to come out with the Radia tapes story. Journalism should not be equated with activism. Media is very powerful and it is a kind of business. India has lower moral standards vis-à-vis the US and that’s why no arrests have been made so far.
Sunil Jain informed that the 2G scam took place in 2007-08 and not in 2009. He said that the Times of India sells news and also indulged in paid news phenomenon. He was against putting the gas story alongside the 2G story on the Outlook website. Scarce natural resources should be auctioned. Reportage in the local channels (though coloured) is better than the ones at the national channels.
Krishna Prasad said that embedded journalism is presently happening in the corporate world in India unlike the same that happened during the war in Iraq. This is a nationwide phenomenon. This kind of monetization of editorial positions is not new. Journalistic corruption is rampant. Thus, one should not be sidetracked only by Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi as the stories on them are quite juicy. One should frown at the existence of 17 local news channels in Andhra Pradesh. He said that some conversations available on the Outlook website sound innocuous. All such conversations pertaining to 2G spectrum allocation, appointment of A Raja in the Telecom Ministry and gas row between the Ambani brothers have been made available on the Outlook website as a part of editorial judgment. Due to the story being sensitive, Barkha Dutt was not contacted prior to its publication. Prasad also referred to the close relationship between Ramoji Rao (of ETV) and NTR.
Shoma Chaudhary told that Prabhu Chawla is unforgiveable. Earlier Chawla’s son was involved in a Corporate Affairs scam. The shortcoming of the tapes is that we still don’t know whether Vir Sanghvi spoke to Ahmed Patel. The tapes provided on the websites are selective and they have been edited. Some of the conversations available on the website of the Outlook and Open are just fragments. There is no framing essay. She asked whether the media is free to report on corporate India. Indian media needs structural changes. The television media is entirely dependent on advertisements. She informed that the Tehelka magazine is running on losses. People take salary cuts to join the Tehelka. One has to understand the economics of how the media operates. There is a need to change the contours of business journalism. Legal and media transparency are vital, she added. Media may be good at exposing corporate corruption. Peer pressure on editor can work.
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta agreed to what The Business Standard wrote that the Lakhman Rekha (line of ethics) has been crossed by a few journalists. He said that journalists in India suffer from delusions of grandeur. However, media has played the role to expose this journalistic scam. We in the media are at best bid (/bit) players, he said. It was the Income Tax (IT) department, which sought the permission of the Ministry of Home Affairs to tap the conversations. Media in India does not have the clout to influence ministerial appointments. The ‘journalistic process’ did not lead to a story that Maran does not want Raja. Paranjoy questioned why it is so important to influence the media. Minority voices in the media do get blacked out but this is not always successful. It is the CMOs who run the media. The Press Council of India has got no teeth. It is not the counterpart of Federal Communications Commission (FCC, http://www.fcc.gov/) in the US. There are all kinds of ‘dogs’: watch dogs, lap dogs and sniffer dogs having various functions. ‘Dog bites man’ does not become news but ‘man bites dog’ certainly becomes news. But ‘dog bites Sonia Gandhi’ can become news too, Paranjoy told. The future of media is not so bleak. Competition has not led to improvement in quality because this has not happened for television channels (despite increase in their numbers).
Amit Goel said that when evidence comes out in the open, then this kind of discussion is essential. Journalists are not sharing information when they are actually seeking information. When J Gopikrishnan broke A Raja’s 2G scam, he came under a lot of pressure (http://www.dailypioneer.com/296854/The-man-who-felled-a-king.html). The Pioneer group fortunately did not take money to shut him. The hidden agenda of the editor/s is not known when reporters work under them. Competition can lead to improvement in quality.
BG Verghese told the audience that journalists do keep contacts with various sections of the society and this is not strange. But there is a Lakhman Rekha (line of ethics). He shared his experience that when he joined journalism in 1949, there used to be the license-permit Raj. Governments used to provide housing facilities to the journalists. Media played into the hands of corporates after the opening up of the economy in the late eighties. Due to technological breakthroughs, multiple editions of newspapers started coming out. A phenomenon called ‘breaking news’ is nothing but sensalization and is devoid of quality content. Managers have taken over the editors in media. Press is now used as a multiplier and magnifier by the political and business classes. Media is the custodian of freedom of speech. However, the public service broadcaster has been killed by the media. Indian media is the most unregulated. He said that had he been the editor of either Outlook or the Open, he would have contacted Barkha and Vir to cross check the story (prior to its publication) as a part of media ethics.
Bhupendra Chaubey said that Krishna Prasad from Outlook wanted everybody to believe that their story is not entirely based on Vir Sanghvi and Barkha Dutt. But the faces of these journalists were printed on the Outlook magazine issue. He questioned how journalists can influence policy by talking over the telephone. Finally, he questioned whether Barkha and Vir met the leaders of the Congress Party.
Shalini Singh (from The Times of India, http://www.timesofindia.com/) who was in the audience reacted by saying that the panel discussion established that the media is subject to temptations. There is disproportionate power, which has been given to the editors, she alleged.
The Raja-Radia Tapes, Outlook, 18 November, 2010,
The Vir Sanghvi-Niira Radia Tapes, Outlook, 18 November, 2010,
The Power Tapes, Outlook, 18 November, 2010,
The Ratan Tata, Barkha Dutt & Other Tapes, Outlook, 18 November, 2010,
Some Telephone Conversations, Open, 20 November, 2010,
This Is Not Journalism as We Know It by Hartosh Singh Bal, Open, 27 November, 2010,
The Buck Stops Here Too by Manu Joseph, Open, 27 November, 2010,
Media ethics: why we need both panic and a pinch of salt by Shoma Chaudhury, Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 48, 4 December, 2010,
Oh what a lovely blackout by Sevanti Ninan, The Hoot, 23 November, 2010,
The spotlight is on the media now by Priscilla Jebaraj, The Hindu, 24 November, 2010,
Corruption in the neoliberal era by CP Chandrasekhar, The Hindu, 30 November, 2010,
2G Scam: ED Questions Lobbyist Nira Radia, Outllok, 24 NOvember, 2010,
What is the 2G spectrum scam about? The Economic Times, 15 November, 2010,
Govt probes tape leak, The Telegraph, 30 November, 2010,
Ratan Tata Moves SC Against Leakage of Radia Tapes, Outlook India, 29 November,
Her Sinister Ring Tone by Shantanu Guha Ray, Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 48, 4 December, 2010,
The Girl Who Was Once Nira Sharma by Sunit Arora, Outlook India, 6 December, 2010,
Lobbying charge by Arun Shourie stirs row, The Times of India, 29 November, 2010,
Media-lobbyist nexus may go to House panel, The Times of India, 27 November, 2010,