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Radia Tapes: Bhushan condemns cosy relationship between media and elite; Time to introspect?

Tape recordings
Tape recordings
Exclusive: Activist lawyer Prashanth Bhushan has condemned media ownership and its consequences after secret wiretap tapes that were released as part of the 2G scam case, which contained alleged conversations between well-known publicist Nira Radia and India’s rich, powerful and the Fourth Estate.

One of the highlights of Indian democracy is a free and independent press. For many Indians cynical and fed up with political apathy and bureaucratic corruption, the media offered the last glimmer of hope.

But to the shock and consternation of many, the recent surfacing of phone taps and transcripts allegedly between top journalists and influential lobbyist Nira Radia – who represents the companies of billionaires Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata both - has exposed the rot in the working of Indian press and other institutions. If the Adarsh land scam has dented the image of the army, these tapes are a pointer to the stark reality that media is not a holy cow either.

The recordings were made of Radia’s phone line by the Income tax department and Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to investigate one of independent India’s largest scams which led to a loss of Rs 170, 000 crore ($37bn) to the national exchequer.

Radia represented embattled former telecoms minister A Raja, who had engaged her for public relations work and on the tapes is purportedly heard brokering mega deals in politics and business and smoothing the waters behind the scenes.

Prashant Bhushan, advocate for Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL), had filed a case in the Supreme Court against the telecom scam and has submitted these transcripts to the court as evidence.

These tapes have hinted that some of the best known faces of Indian media work as part-time journalists and full-time political lobbyists. And a stark reminder is that lobbyists like Radia are powerful enough to even dictate the contents and coverage of newspapers.

Commenting on the tapes and the media’s role, Bhushan told me: “It is unfortunate that some media houses which are owned or have links with corporate houses have become power brokers and fixers for their ambitions.”

“Planting stories” is a phrase widely known in journalistic circles, as where articles devoid of truth and authenticity hog the newspaper headlines with benefits to a selective few.

These lobbyists have some of the biggest corporate houses and powerful politicians as their clients so inability to publish the dictated and planted stories could lead to loss of advertisement revenues to the newspapers and news channels.

Of course the benefits to pliant editors and reporters are a natural corollary. I know of a certain lobbyist who claimed (or rather bragged) that he knew precisely what articles are kept in a journalist’s house, because all the articles were gifted by the lobbyist.

One of the journalists caught in the eye of the storm, Hindustan Times columnist and TV presenter Vir Sanghvi has claimed that his interaction with Radia was in course of seeking sources for his story which he defended as legitimate in journalism. In one of the transcripts of the tapes with Radia, he allegedly asks her “What kind of story do you want?” and appears to offer her and Reliance chief Mukesh Ambani a fully-scripted TV interview. In another conversation he appears to suggest at Radia’s request that he would act as a go-between for Raja’s party DMK and the Congress Party, Radia’s client, although Vir denied that he ever actually acted on it and made any of those introductions.

But didn’t we know that seeking information from a source (Radia) is different from securing cabinet ministerial berths and facilitating government formation at the center? Does an editor of a leading financial daily need to clarify to a lobbyist why a particular story was not published or rather not planted? Is there no accountability to innocent readers who erroneously believe in the truth and authenticity of the stories published?

To be fair, the Wall Street Journal does present some defence of Sanghvi in one of its blogs, arguing that journalists often say many things to get contacts on their side and to open up but it might not mean they necessarily are true: “You could say that the proof of Mr. Sanghvi’s willingness to do Ms. Radia’s bidding should come only from the column that resulted. In the column, Mr. Sanghvi recounts the battles fought by Dhirubhai Ambani, the Ambani brothers’ father, and sees signs of history repeating itself in their feud. Overall, he sounds rather fed up with the whole Ambani saga and concludes with this message to politicians: ‘Just do the jobs we elected you to do.’ The column does not appear to be slanted toward Mukesh Ambani as Ms. Radia might have hoped.

However cosy the relationship between journalists and PRs, what is even more galling is near censorship of the Radia Tapes by some of the leading media houses. Only a few selective publications like Open Magazine and Outlook India have published the transcripts of these tapes, although others are slowly following suit.

The end result is that this has added to the ever increasing cynicism of the all-pervasive rot in our system. Of courses we all know the authenticity of these tapes would never be probed. Didn’t we know how our leaders fight corruption: establish committees and commissions (to unravel the truth or to put it correctly bury the truth) which publish reports when the alleged culprit has one leg in his coffin. At best the tapes would be sent to a government-owned forensic lab, which would declare these tapes to be doctored.

That said, the Central Bureau of Investigations told the Supreme Court yesterday that it would continue examining thousands of Radia’s recorded telephone conversations, which were taped as part of income tax department investigations in 2008 and 2009.

Irrespective of the CBI doing its job, however, it is now the media’s job to also do theirs.

Manish Ranjan was formerly working as legal writer with financial daily Mint and is presently studying at Berkeley in California.

Read transcripts and listen to the Radia Tapes via Open Magazine and Outlook India.

Photo by rockmixer

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