Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Radia tapes and journalism (!)

This blog was supposed to be about food, but well...

My bengal post column on corruption, journalists and niira radia. sorry. but it's an epaper but I've done a cut and paste as well. (edit page, page 8)

Ranjona Banerji

As if the 2G spectrum scam was not bad enough, we now have the added horror of finding out just how badly our system is being eroded and manipulated by lobbyists working on behalf of top industrialists. You are almost tempted to take a pragmatic approach here – this is the way the world runs, no point being na├»ve about it, didn’t George W Bush start the invasion of Iraq to help Halliburton and Bechtel and so on. But too much cynicism -- or dependence on conspiracy theories -- is as corrosive as too much naivete.
First there is the scope of the scam itself and the reluctance of the political class to admit – or even understand – that they’ve been busted. A Raja and his party the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam took ages to realise that he had to go. The future of the government itself was being threatened and yet, with normal political arrogance, the DMK felt that its own political and caste compulsions and calculations were enough to hold everyone else to ransom. In Karnataka, chief minister BS Yeddyurappa has shown similar reluctance to read the writing on the wall. Of course, it was no different with Suresh Kalmadi and then, one has to imagine, that Ashok Chavan of Maharashtra got a bit of a raw deal – he was out in a few days that awaited only the end of Barack Obama’s visit. No time or scope for tantrums and negotiations.
So after the departures of Raja, Kalmadi and Chavan, we all felt quite smug that we had managed, in some small way, to get India’s politicians to respond to public pressure. That corruption was not going to be tolerated as routinely as it had before. And then, we learnt just how terrifyingly corrupt we are as a society.
In 2008 and 2009, the government authorised the tapping of the phones of certain individuals, one of which was PR lobbyist extraordinaire Niira Radia. Among her clients are Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani, arguably India’s biggest and most powerful industrialists. The tapes have been floating around for a while but it was only last week, after Prashant Bhushan, lawyer for the Centre for Public Interest Litigation, presented a CD with several taped conversations to the Supreme Court that the conversations were released to the public.
What emerges is a compelling story of how Radia lobbied to make sure that A Raja was made telecom minister in the second UPA government – Dayanidhi Maran also of the DMK had held the portfolio before that. She also tried to get advice, support and media collaboration for Ambani gas project in the Krishna-Godavari basin.
There is some discussion now about the legality of the tapes. But that matter aside, a reading of the transcripts show in full Technicolor how media professionals and others are seemingly willing to bend over backwards to help Radia. Personal credibility and even basic ethics come into question here. The two journalists who seem to be most involved are both famous, Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi. Both have denied any culpability but the transcripts – the veracity of which neither have denied – paint a distressing picture. One journalist is heard agreeing to pass on Radia’s message to the Congress to make sure that Raja becomes telecom minister. The other appears to take instruction from Radia on what he should write in his widely read column about Mukesh Ambani and the sharing of the KG basin gas with his brother Anil. Both journalists have claimed in their defence that the conversations were normal journalistic fact-gathering. But here’s the rub – most journalists would not consider following instructions of a PR person, even a friend, as quite ethical. Even those who do it are aware that they are crossing the line. Cosying up to PR people is one thing, pushing their agenda forward is quite another. The stories about the tapes and the names of the journalists were mentioned in some newspapers like Pioneer and magazines like Outlook and the transcripts were first published and placed online by Open Magazine.
The problem is that journalistic credibility is a fragile and hard-fought-for contest. It’s a battle fought everyday to convince the reader or the viewer that the facts presented before it are fair and objective. The temptations to cut corners are many but the attempt is constant. It does not take much to dent that credibility so the effort is constant. Certainly, in keeping with the laws of the land, presumption of innocence is required here. But still, were these two popular and respected journalists just suffering from delusions of grandeur, taken up with their proximity to the powerful? Or were they pawns in the hands of a shrewd and manipulative lobbyist? But the lobbyist herself was only doing her job – pushing the agendas of her clients. It’s a murky road that’s being walked here. Everyone may be partly innocent and yet, everyone is apparently guilty. For years, the media has tried to discourage public scrutiny of its internal workings. But now that rot within has been exposed, surely it is time to come clean in the open? The rules cannot be different for politicians and the fourth estate.
On the one hand we have the 2G scam itself, the astounding loss to the exchequer and the inexplicable delay in taking action once the scam was revealed by the Comptroller and Auditor General. We’re talking about Rs 1.70 lakh crore – it is terrifying to imagine what a country like ours could have done with that money, even assuming that some percentage of it wasn’t siphoned off in the “ normal” alleys of corruption.
On the other hand, there are the revelations of just how deep the corruption runs in the system. How rather than sleazy little middle men, you have respected members of society who have either colluded or conspired in an attempt to rob the nation. And you have the hand of big business everywhere – from the mines of Karnataka, Chhatisgarh and Jharkhand to the various telecom companies looking to jump into 2G spectrum to who-knows-where-else, insidiously or openly tweaking the system.
We always knew there was a nexus but now we know that we need not be quite so silent or coy about it anymore. If we want anything to improve at all, we need more than moral posturing and protestations of innocence.
The Bengal Post, November 24, 2010

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