Illustrations: Naorem Ashish

NIIRA RADIA — owner of PR company Vaishnavi Communications, among others — is not merely a fixer in the old sense of the word. She is a thermometer reading for a very ill society. In April this year, a clutch of mysterious documents had made their way to several media houses. At face value the documents seemed a synopsis of phone conversations between Niira — a powerful lobbyist for Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata — and a range of politicians, corporate captains and journalists. It hinted at the intense political jostling that had gone into securing DMK leader A Raja the ministry of telecom under UPA 2; it mentioned disgraced chief minister Madhu Koda demanding bribes from the Tatas for the renewal of mining leases in Jharkhand; and a daunting array of other corporate wrongdoing, involving several blue-chip companies.

The story went that the Income Tax department had sought permission from the home ministry in 2008 to tap Niira’s phones as she was suspected of financial irregularities. These taps had led to even greater revelations. Now the conversations had been leaked. Very few media houses, however, went public with the story at that stage. It was difficult to authenticate the papers or understand quite what they were referring to. There was no access to the actual phone taps. And the leak seemed a vested corporate manoeuvre: both selective and pernicious.

As the year progressed though, the story kept gathering heat. A couple of papers — The Pioneer and The Hindu — published portions of the documents (though the latter subsequently retracted). Finally, the 3G auction — and the vast difference in the money it earned the national exchequer — blew the lid off the 2G spectrum scam. The CAG report gave it further official stamp.

In many ways, Niira was inextricably linked with the scam. At the very least, she was symptomatic of the ugly crony capitalism, media manipulation and political favouritism that had enabled it. Last week, therefore, reputed advocate Prashant Bhushan attached her tapped conversations in a PIL in the Supreme Court on the 2G scam. This emboldened two newsmagazines Outlook and Open to go public with the transcripts of these infamous ‘Niira Radia tapes’ — with the simple caveat that though they still could not authenticate the transcripts or tapes, Bhushan’s PIL had already put them in the “public domain” and they were merely amplifying the act. In a season of staggering corruptions, this cracked open a whole new front.

These transcripts — which involve conversations between Niira and a range of journalists and editors like Prabhu Chawla, Vir Sanghvi, Barkha Dutt, Senthil Chengalvarayan, MK Venu, Navika Kumar, Ganapathy Subramaniam amongst dozens of others — have shocked readers and created intense heartburn and anger in the media fraternity.

They would. There is much to be shocked and angry and ashamed about. There is much that is cancerously wrong with the media, in fact. But Niira is only the reading. If any healing has to come from it, it’s imperative we get the diagnosis right.

IT IS always a delicate — and tricky — business for journalists to write about fellow journalists. But no one can deny that listening to the Radia tapes is a deeply dismaying experience. Even if one were to discount a lot of it as innocuous bazaar gossip, empty boasting and grandstanding, there is still enough left over for real dismay.

For instance, there is an embarrassing and collusive chumminess on display between Niira, journalists and politicians. On a first hearing there may be no obvious quid pro quo, no crude exchange of money for favours rendered. All the benefits seem to be in the intangibles: proximity, influence, news feeds that can pass for scoops, and everything that flows from such things. But Niira, it seems, can reach anyone. No journalist is hostile to her as she goes around peddling the anxieties of the men she represents and managing the media for them. What the tapes reveal, therefore, is an insidious and vast ecosystem, in which everyone knows the rules and nothing is what it seems: stories can be planted; headlines can be discussed; story positions can be dictated; corporate journalists “belong” to particular corporate camps and are obviously paid retainer fees; stories are slanted to serve patron interests; and journalists can be moulded to bridge between corporates and politicians. The conversations also point to how several corporates leverage every rupee of ad spend to either extract positive stories or intimidate the publication of critical ones.

Listening in, you feel trapped in a giant Truman Show. This, then, is the really murky takeaway from the tapes: the foundational separation between media, politics and business has collapsed dangerously. The ecosystem is eating away at the innards of Indian democracy. Big business has its tentacles everywhere. Almost all the premier publications and channels — The Times of India, Times Now, The Economic Times, CNBC etc — come across as compromised in differing percentages.

Prominence, however, commands a steep price. The publication of the Radia tapes should have triggered intense introspection and dialogue about the structural flaws in the media. But the focus of both the magazine stories and the sharp reactions they have evoked has largely been centred on a few select journalists: Barkha Dutt, Prabhu Chawla and Vir Sanghvi among them.

It can be tempting to lump all three together in a band of derision — and many commentators have done that. But the truth is, each of these cases separately point to one crucial thing: the Radia tapes offer a big opportunity for a muchneeded and long-overdue debate on media ethics. To get that, we must sift what we really should be afraid about in the media. And eschew overblowing or mixing the rest. It would be a pity to take an axe to something where a little pruning will do. Or just chop down what actually needs to be rooted out.

Very briefly, therefore, each of these journalists’ conversations bears individual scrutiny. Barkha’s conversations with Niira revolve around a period immediately after the general election when Cabinet formation is on and communication between the Congress and DMK seems to have broken down. There is obviously an acrid rivalry between Dayanidhi Maran and Raja, and Niira, who is rooting for the latter, calls Barkha several times asking her to speak to the Congress and get them to speak to DMK chief Karunanidhi directly, bypassing Maran. On a couple of occasions, Barkha agrees to talk to Ahmed Patel about this.

There is much that is cancerously wrong with the media. But Niira is only the reading. If any healing has to come, it’s imperative we get the diagnosis right
There is much that is cancerously wrong with the media. But Niira is only the reading. If any healing has to come, it’s imperative we get the diagnosis right

Prima facie, Barkha seems to have become a player in a script she should merely have been reporting on. If Maran and Raja were gunning for each other, shouldn’t she have been doing a story on their spat rather than trying to resolve the crisis? Should she have been the carrier of messages between two parties, to the detriment of one? Step back from the apparent inappropriateness of this and examine some of Barkha’s defence: She says she never spoke to Patel on Raja’s behalf and was merely putting on a standard show of exaggerated empathy to prime a source for news; she also challenges her critics to prove any personal quid pro quo or any slack in her own or NDTV’s coverage on Raja to prove that she was brokering a ministerial berth for him. The odds are, she would come absolutely clear on the latter, while no one can ever really prove the former.

So the question is, is a journalist wrong to string a source along into a comfort zone that will make them share information? Conversely, is it morally wrong for a political journalist, who depends on information flow from politicians, to trade in innocuous, non-privileged information between parties as Barkha might have done? Raja’s subsequent corruptions has made this a much more emotive question than it might ordinarily have been, but even Barkha’s harshest critics would concede that her actions do not count as the dark heart of the genuine media crisis in India.

Vir Sanghvi’s conversations, on the other hand, are much more ambiguous and difficult to defend. Approached by Niira to speak to the Congress on the same hectic crisis — of bypassing Maran and speaking directly to Karunanidhi — Vir is much more emphatic both in his offer of help and his selfidentification with the Congress. Even more damagingly, in another set of conversations with Niira on the Ambani brothers’ epic fight over gas in the KG Basin, he seems to be offering to script his widely read ‘Counterpoint’ column in concert with Niira’s specifications. He’s also recorded in a conversation offering to stage a pre-scripted interview with Mukesh Ambani.

Vir’s defence runs on similar lines as Barkha’s: he says he was stringing a source along and challenges his critics to read his ‘Counterpoint’ columns on the Ambanis and see if there is the slightest favour towards Mukesh, or whether he ever conducted the scripted interview. He also says his conversations have been spliced. While he might be right on all these counts — and his columns do display no bias — his tonality is much tougher to surmount. He comes across as someone peddling influence and journalistic propriety be damned.

Of all the three though, Prabhu Chawla’s conversations with Niira come closest to exposing some of what ails Indian media. Niira calls Chawla for some “perspective” in the aftermath of the Bombay High Court judgement on the Ambani brothers’ gas-sharing dispute. They talk casually and knowingly about how the court judgement has been “fixed” and what Mukesh Ambani must now do to reverse the judgement in the Supreme Court. There is no stringing of source here: Chawla openly admits that he wanted to get in touch with Mukesh Ambani to “forewarn” him about the impending judgement and to advise him on what people and routes he should use to swing things in his favour in the Supreme Court. No claim of loose talk or misrepresentation, therefore, can take the compromising sting out of this conversation. Going by this phone tap, there is very little to distinguish Chawla from Niira.

IN A sense, the Radia tapes are as much a window into a sociological phenomenon born out of the peculiar powerleavened corridors of Delhi as an exposé on the state of Indian media. The conversations in the tapes show a kind of moral flaccidity, a clouded vision born out of too much proximity, a kind of loose-tongued insincerity. So a former CII director general is on tape cadging for a five-acre piece of land. Some of India’s most influential businessmen are on tape wondering why ministers are behaving so unkindly towards them when so much has been done for them. And journalists are bending over for approval from those they should have been reprimanding. India’s political, corporate and media establishment sounds like a mobile cocktail party, gliding champagne glasses in hand, in and out of each others’ drawing rooms, television studios, boardrooms and award ceremonies like actors in an elaborate charade. For those watching from the outside, it looks apocalyptic. For those within, there is not even a redeeming self-awareness. The media’s cosiness with corporate India is almost suicidal. All the health indices — both of a self-respecting media and a self-respecting society — seem to be smudged. Where there should have been scepticism, distance, vigilance and creative friction, there is only a great and saccharine chumminess.

Unless Indian consumers of news train themselves to pay for truth-telling, they will always be hostaged to advertisers and vested corporate interests
Unless Indian consumers of news train themselves to pay for truth-telling, they will always be hostaged to advertisers and vested corporate interests

Despite this, it would be a mistake to interpret these tapes with excessive self-righteousness or too many broad-strokes — either from within the media fraternity or from outside. For one, it is segments of the same media that has gone after Raja; the CWG corruption; the Adarsh Society housing scam and the Bengaluru land scam — to name just a few of the recent victories the media has drawn up for itself.

For another, information gathering can be a complex business. The relationship between a journalist and a source, therefore, is a complicated one that needs careful and individual evaluation. What is a legitimate relationship? What counts for harmless play and what for collusion? What is the line that cannot be crossed? What constitutes mere friendliness with a politician or corporate and what constitutes favour or partiality? Are we misreading faux sympathy — a ploy journalists often use — because it has been pulled out of context? These questions need a calm and reasoned debate.

Equally, the tapes themselves come shrouded in many inconsistencies. Given its ambiguous origins, the talk is that there are 5,000 conversations that have been tapped. The CBI has transcribed only 3,000, of which only 104 or so are in the public domain. What’s worse is that some of these conversations are literally fragments, often cut off midway. Who has edited them? What has been edited out? Who decided what gets put out and what doesn’t? Who leaked the transcripts and tapes? Have people been made victim to some shadowy corporate war? Are we comfortable with having our conversations tapped officially and then being leaked into public? Do private conversations take on a different tenor when yanked out of context and made public?

The chagrin amongst some of the journalists on the tapes is that Outlook and Open did not take the trouble to frame their exposés with any of these admissions.

The Radia tapes are a complex mix of idle conversation, social banter and conversations with grave public impact.

Given all this, the pity is, where there should have been engaged debate, there is now largely a dangerous and unprofessional silence. Most news channels and newspapers have sidestepped the entire issue — choosing to duck rather than straddle the complexities.

As Rajdeep Sardesai, editor of CNN-IBN says, “We urgently need an open and transparent debate on the relationship between corporates and media. I am just very wary of the kind of shock and awe or sensational journalism that has surrounded these tapes because they detract from the genuinely serious issues that confront us.”

THE LIST of these serious issues is legion. One of the most damaging symptoms in Indian media today is its slavish relationship with corporate power. Political misconduct is often brought to book, corporate crime almost never. There are crippling structural reasons for this. In print, media must be the only business in the world that loses money on its selling price. Indians are willing to pay 50 for a packet of chips or a coffee but they baulk at paying that for a magazine or newspaper. Unless consumers of news train themselves to pay for truth-telling, they will always be hostaged to advertisers and vested corporate interests.

In television, the entrapments get even more complex. Set aside the launch and running costs of a television channel, just the cable distribution cost every year runs upwards of Rs. 50 crore. This is sheer profiteering but the government has done nothing to curb it. Given all this, the moment a television channel is launched, the economics militate against it doing the really hard-hitting, rock-boat stories. For media companies that are publicly listed, the corporate skulduggery is even more complex. Miffed corporations have been known to invest in media shares and drive the stocks up or down depending on their compliance.

Individual greed and misconduct. Individual loss of vision and moral sight is only a minor part of the problem. The greater challenges are the design faults. If the shock of the colossal corporate cronyism made visible by the hyperbusy, hyper-networking Niira Radia helps change the architecture of media practice in India, its damage would have been worthwhile.

But for that to happen, the media fraternity will have to give up its silence and take up its primary function: engender debate.