Their shame is our shame
Radia tapes reveal that India needs better editors, reporters
Sheela Bhatt, India Abroad, Dec. 24, 2010
January 1, 2010, I didn’t imagine Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would be fighting a political battle to save his famed credibility. I didn’t imagine he would have to prove that as the chief guardian of the people’s interest he did everything possible to stop A Raja, India’s former telecommunications minister, from adopting wily methods while allotting 2G spectrum to favor companies that would result in monumental financial loss to the Indian exchequer.
In the last 12 months, Prime Minister Singh has lost something intangible an aura that defies description. He was the face of India’s liberalization and economic reforms. He was, it was claimed and is still being claimed, an honest man and an honest prime minister of a corrupt country. But, his statement as the year drew to a close, claiming that Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion, is shocking. It sounds like he is telling the people: ‘I am not stealing money from your pocket. Like Caesar’s wife, I should be above suspicion.’
Things coming to such a pass suggest a tragedy in Singh’s political career this year. The 2G spectrum controversy betrays the thinking Indians’ faith in liberalization. We wanted the license raj to go. So came liberalization, where government babus lost some of their clout. With it came the ‘open’ policy where spectrums were sold for a price to private players by the government because airwaves that allow mobile telephony are public property. Why this corruption, then, Mr Prime Minister? Why did you allow under-invoicing? Why didn’t you stop it before it happened? Where is my money? Is this corruption or blatant loot?
The issue is so simple that there is hardly anything to investigate.
Sadly, this year also destroyed the reputation of the Indian media. The Niira Radia tapes that exposed a power broker’s ugly universe in New Delhi were evidence that journalists who are supposed to confront, investigate and expose power brokers and their money-hungry clients’ activities in the corridors of power are stringing them along. Why? Because it’s the short cut the laziest way to get inside information, which is difficult to get these days. You see, we don’t get time to read, study and analyze the issues these days. The politicians in India know that the illiterate media need many Radias.
The Radia tapes, released by Open and Outlook magazines, should be part of the syllabus for political scientists and students of mass communication. They are a guidebook of what happens behind closed doors in the pursuit of power and money in India today.
It shows how cozy Barkha Dutt, Indian youth icon, editor and shareholder of the Indian news channel NDTV, was with ace power broker Niira Radia. When the year began, nobody ever thought Dutt would be grilled in the television studio, and that she would have to confess that the way she dealt with Radia was an error of judgment. She was forced to declare on the same prime time television slot that she had ruled that ‘in 16 years of my career, no one has cast a doubt on my reputation.’
Uncanny, the similarity of her defense to that of Prime Minister Singh’s’, ‘But, you know me! I am not corrupt!’
In her evident embarrassment is hidden our own shame.
Many of today’s senior journalists and editors came up in the post-Emergency years and enjoyed the fruits of post-1992 economic reforms. Now, we have Blackberries, iPads and swanky cars. Some like Dutt and other iconic editors drive SUVs too. All this was unthinkable before Dutt’s generation, a generation that boasts of a drive for success and the guts to scorch the fast lane of breaking and making news. Dutt was a leader in the pack of the urban clan including media activists, the NGO brigade and television-supported celebrities that is very much part of the new India that has emerged out of Manmohan Singh’s envisaged economy.
It is also ironic that Dutt, Singh and this government have been tainted by the mobile telephone perhaps the best metaphor for a new India. When the social history of mobile phones is written, the Radia tapes of 2010 should be mentioned.
After the Radia tapes, there are allegations against Dutt that she was playing middle-woman between Radia’s client Kanimozhi, Dravida Munnethra Kazhagham leader from Tamil Nadu, and a few top Congress leaders to get Raja the telecom portfolio. Dutt has repeatedly and aggressively denied that and has explained why she was talking to someone like Radia so cozily.
Her defense: ‘Unless we believe in only press-conference driven journalism, the need to tap into what’s happening behind-the-scenes in the corridors of power involves dealing with a multitude of voices, and yes, we cannot always vouchsafe for the integrity of all those we use as news sources. We concern ourselves primarily with the accuracy of the information’ This controversy has made me look at the need to re-draw the lines much more carefully.’
Dutt continues at NDTV; maybe she is redrawing the line that she has promised to. But, the Dutt-Radia conversation has thrown up a crucial question: Why have we, New Delhi-based journalists, abandoned the traditional role of questioning the establishment? How can the fundamental watchdog-role of the media be made to look dull and old-fashioned by the new breed of media icons? Why do we need Radia in the first place to elicit information, as Dutt claims? Why don’t we treat the Radias and her ilk around Parliament with the contempt they deserve? Why dsn’t our blood boil at such exploiters of the system who render our economy vulnerable, who loot the money that should go to tackle India’s terrible poverty?
Dutt thinks there was nothing wrong in her attempt to get information about the process of cabinet formation from Radia. Which implies that the road to get ‘exclusives’ and ‘breaking news’ is through the gutter of ‘fixers’ in the system. We will get information, but we will have to wade through the slime.
Dutt and Radia’s relationship exposed to the public through the tapes that were legally recorded by the government and illegally leaked to the media reminds us about all that we are doing wrong while reporting the Indian Parliament so shabbily. This country deserves better editors and reporters. If you don’t have severe allergy to the Radias of this world, you should not be a journalist. Let us learn that, again.
Historian and author Ram Guha put it bluntly to me: Editors in New Delhi are so close to power that they seem to be losing their sense of proportion.
I want to remember 2010 for my own career’s sake. I want to thank the person who leaked the Radia tapes. It is the loudest wake up call for Indian journalists, who lust for exclusives and breaking news without bothering to read even one insightful article a day, or a good book a year on current affairs.