Sunday, December 12, 2010

Feisty Adversary or a Hanger-on

The public face of the journalist is of a brave, feisty adversary to the rapacious establishment, not the party animal who will wilt before the charms of the corporate lobbyist.

To succeed, a politician has to keep his ear to the ground. Yet success can be cruelly destructive; it is so deceptively flattering that it eventually insulates him from the very thing that has made him a success: public opinion. For the politician, fed on heady tales of his invincibility and listening only to courtiers and attendants, the moment of discovery can be shattering.

The Niira Radia tapes have come as a similar, awakening moment for journalists. At one level, the tapes are about a nation in deep crisis, with a corporate lobbyist shown as being able effortlessly to penetrate and influence decision-making at multiple levels. If this is a mere teaser-trailer, as reports of 5000 more tapes suggest, what more damning, frightening things are we going to learn?

At another level, l`affaire Radia is a stunning indictment of the media, or at least sections of it. Indeed, for journalists caught on the tape, and tried by members of their own tribe for the lapse, the troubling question is about their credibility. Did they go too far in placing themselves at the disposal of Ms Radia knowing she was a lobbyist for two powerful corporate groups, the Tatas and Mukesh Ambani? Forget the people at large, why did their explanations not carry conviction with the rest of the media? And more critically, did stardom and public adulation cause them to lose their way so badly that they could not judge between right and wrong?

That illusions of grandeur and infallibility can affect journalists in exactly the same way they do politicians and film stars has been evident in the discussions held so far. Barkha Dutt chose to face a firing squad of senior media professionals on her role in the Radia tapes and yet missed the opportunity to show remorse and recover the fund of goodwill that had made her an icon. Her point: She would not apologise for a wrong she had not committed and it was entirely valid to talk to a corporate lobbyist and trade information for information. Ms Dutt threw counter questions at her interrogators, suggesting at times that they did not know the first thing about modern-day journalism.

The verdict was that Ms Dutt did herself no favour by acting so self-important. There were the inevitable comparisons between TV journalists and the politicians they attacked; it seemed that both could be brought down by hubris. Also revealed last week was the yawning gap between rank and file journalism and club class journalism, placed on opposite ends during a discussion on media ethics held at the lawns of the Delhi Press Club. Editor-in-Chief of CNN-IBN Rajdeep Sardesai, who was among the panellists, wrongly assumed that he was lecturing to a captive audience. Pitching in strongly for the dramatis personae on the Radia tapes, he argued that sourcing stories from lobbyists, even if not desirable, had become a requirement of fast moving journalism. It was excessive and unacceptable therefore to treat this as a serious misconduct. And then, Mr. Sardesai made a fatal error: He said he detected professional envy in the orchestrated outrage against Ms Dutt.

This was more than what the assembly of journalists could take. They were being portrayed as dull, and plodding in comparison to the savvy new media. The floodgates opened and for the next hour or so, it was the popular TV editor's turn to listen as reporters tore to shreds the thesis that competitive compulsions had allowed for a variety of liberties in reporting, including tapping corporate lobbyists for information, and even allowing opinions to be formed by this information. Incensed mediapersons related their own experience of being able to break stories without compromising on journalistic sources. A senior print journalist with a stupendous track record in political journalism spoke of resisting alluring baits and finding access to important sources solely on the strength of her hard-earned credibility. Another shouted that not all journalists were in the profession for fame. However, unlike Ms Dutt, the amiable Mr. Sardesai quickly conceded the point, accepting that the lines separating journalism, politics and lobbying had indeed blurred to unfortunate portents for the health and future of journalism. The debate wound up with someone good humouredly remarking that the grassroots media had finally taken their revenge.

With the Radia debate into its third week, it has become more than apparent that a new kind of journalism has completely rewritten the rules of engagement in the profession. For those working with television, the glamour and fame can be overpowering, with the high visibility translating into throbbing, pulsating fan clubs, enormous following on social media networks and celebrity status on the party circuit. For the likes of Ms Radia, the “celeb journo” is a sitting duck, a vulnerable target both for passing on and acquiring information. News gathered this way slowly and inevitably acquires a legitimacy that eventually allows all lines to be crossed. From this to concluding that news cannot be got any other way is a small step. The trappings of power work similarly for politicians and journalists. Cut off from the rude realities of the normal world, both begin to live in a bubble of their own making. But whereas the politician, used to voter mood swings, will quickly learn his lesson when the truth hits home, the journalist, not tutored in this art, will react in anger and shock and go into spasms of denial.

Journalists who enjoy the limelight must also be prepared for the backlash when it comes. It can be argued that the journalistic indiscretions revealed by the Radia tapes are small change compared to the scale of adventurism on the part of politicians. Yet journalists alone, among a host of players caught on the tapes, have been at the receiving end of public anger: Rapid-fire tweets, emotional, angry lashing out on facebook accounts, chain text messages, black humour forwards, the responses have fed on each other. Partly lynch-mobbish, the fury is in larger measure because of a feeling of being let down. The public face of the journalist is of a brave, feisty adversary to the rapacious establishment, not the party animal who will wilt before the charms of the corporate lobbyist.

Television has hugely expanded this mandate with journalism turning almost vigilantist in the studio; here the fearless, morally superior and much loved anchor is judge and jury to the condemned political class. What the tapes have done is to expose this virtuoso performance as a sham. The combative anchor who relentlessly interrogates and shames his guests on the 9 pm bulletin morphs into an altogether different character on the tapes, entirely at ease with dubious elements. From the perspective of the trusting outsider, the cosy compact between the interrogator, the interrogated and the go-between must surely seem like a rude joke pulled off at his expense.

It does not help that most of those caught out on the tapes have a wafer-thin defence. The one claim that they have all made is that they strung Ms Radia along — as if the hard-nosed lobbyist can be so easily taken for a ride. The question is: What gave Ms Radia the confidence that journalists can be commandeered to do her bidding? What explains the easy familiarity between the hacks and their corporate contact? How is she able to wake up lofty names from their slumber? If, for all her pain and perseverance, Ms Radia only got the journalistic heave-ho, then it is a serious comment on the wisdom of the corporate groups that employed her.

Nor does the privacy argument work, given journalism's increasingly ferocious appetite for news of any and every kind. Don't TV eager-beavers chase after their targets, ensnaring them in stings and so on, often without a thought to the damage the telecast might cause to personal reputations? Taped conversations between alleged terrorists are the staple of the medium. Two years ago, TV channels feverishly ran a “sex tape” that allegedly featured a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh functionary. The tape turned out to be a fake but the RSS man lost his job. TV channels on a moral trip on privacy have had no qualms about using salacious gossip involving some of the world's biggest names, provided by WikiLeaks.

A case has also been made out against Outlook and Open magazine for not following the due process involved in doing the stories, including checking back with the taped journalists. Due process? If the tapes establish anything, it is the attempted subversion of the due process. As the lobbyist of a telecom group, Ms Radia manoeuvres to place a favoured candidate in the Telecom Ministry. She tries to influence parliamentary debate. She makes veiled suggestions about fixing judgments, and she co-opts willing journalists. In one of the tapes, she skewers the news head of a leading financial daily for daring to miss a story; the quaking, quivering news head in turn apologises to her as if she were his boss. Columnists reproduce her lines verbatim, so much so, when the first of the columns appear, Ms Radia and a senior colleague chuckle at the poor journalist's vulnerability.

Some of the implicated journalists have since been suspended by their organisations. The media must introspect more seriously, following it up with a clear understanding of the red lines, if lobbyists are not to make a habit of bossing us, if people are not to treat every story and every journalist with suspicion.

The article has summarized the issues in a manner that a reader can judge the rights and wrongs of sensational journalism. TV anchors have become larger than life and as easily corruptible as politicians. Indian media stars are new at the game, unlike stalwarts in the print media, who have operated with high standards. It is wonderful that the Press Club subjects jounalists to such introspection. The Hindu should continue to uphold its high standards and air views expressed so eloquently by Vidya Subrahmanyam
from: Sidney Sridhar
Posted on: Dec 9, 2010 at 00:24 IST

Publishing the tapes was the RIGHT course of action. I have no doubt that the magazines would have been slapped with some form of legal proceedings (or other forms of pressure?) had they called the 'principals' involved. Further, had they removed portions of the recordings that were 'personal' in nature, they would be accused of manipulating the tapes. That they didn't do that, has not stopped one journalist, Mr. Vir Sanghvi (HT), from claiming in his website that the tapes released are heavily edited. He clearly appears to have gone the Ms. Burkha Dutt (NDTV) route of complete denial and counter attack. The editor of the Buisiness Standard credited them with a 'great track record in journalism' in an early TV interview. In a later encounter on NDTV, he seemed to suggest that all people wanted was a 'sorry, I made an error of judgment' from Ms. Dutt. Of course, not something conceded by the pugnacious Ms. Dutt. Even so, would such an apology really make up for the loss of credibility? * Exactly why I find your article, appropriate in articulating the matter at hand is much more serious than one a mere apology will now remedy.
from: Roy
Posted on: Dec 9, 2010 at 01:31 IST

One cannot help but notice the marked difference in approach by media organizations towards this episode. Firstly, in suddenly discovering the notion of "privacy" - hereto unheard of in our ferocious news cycle. Secondly, in applying less scrutiny towards the conduct of fellow journalists as they would to other individuals. However, I must point out that the signs were evident earlier. Just a few days before the tapes were leaked, in a televised discussion about the CAG report on CNN-IBN, when one member of the discussion panel suggested to the moderator, that Radia has a case to answer- Rajdeep Sardesai's response? - "Ms. Radia is not here to defend herself". How charitable! Right there- with no idea of the tapes existence- I wondered to myself how unusual for a little known PR lady to receive such 'fair' treatment on national television. Needless say, Radia was soon the focus of attention. It was also not surprising to hear Sardesai soon accusing fellow journalists of 'envy' towards Burkha Dutt and Vir Sangvi. Outlook and Open did us a service by bringing the matter into the public domain. Hindu does us a service today by administering the 'disinfecting sunlight' ( to use Mr. Arun Shourie's term'!) that we have come to expect from our free Press.
from: Arti
Posted on: Dec 9, 2010 at 02:01 IST

Frankly, the intercepts have only confirmed a lingering suspicion in the minds of many. When Burkha Dutt was given a Padma award by the President of India, some time back, the only viable explanation doing the rounds was 'she's got to be connected'. Fairly or unfairly, truth or untruth- today some will see this as confirmation of where that clout came from. i.e proximity to senior Congress leaders. For all the other distinguished awardees- what unpleasant company they find themselves in.
from: Aakash
Posted on: Dec 9, 2010 at 02:11 IST

If news reports are to be believed, Ms. Radia told her interrogators she was earning sums to the tune of 30 core per annum from both the Tata Group and Reliance Industries. I would only hazard a guess here folks but a lady landing a paycheck in that ballpark, does not get 'strung along' or 'pumped for information' by 'little leaguers' like Barkha and Vir. There can be no doubt that, at the very least, they are intoxicated by their presence to power. Worst of all, their continued denials will feed into a general cynicism that India hardly needs. Do we really want to become another Middle East, where people often do not believe news stories unless it's served as a conspiracy theory?? e.g Today evening Egypt blamed Isreal for "orchestrating" the multiple shark attacks on international tourists at a Red Sea resort! Dead serious. Now don't laugh, we keep treating the public of India with such contempt and that is the type of nonsense we're heading to.
from: P.B
Posted on: Dec 9, 2010 at 03:22 IST

The journalists claim of stringing along the PR person is nothing but a bad excuse at the least and a blatant lie at the most. Who are they kidding? Both the journalist and the PR are intelligent enough to figure out what's going on. Most of all, viewers and readers are intelligent too. They can discern lies from honest admissions. The former is what we got when the latter was forthcoming. Like me, I'm sure several are disappointed and shocked to know about the involvement of iconic journalists in this murky affair. But some of them continue on brazenly hosting shows that claim to speak for us, the people. Its unbearable to watch. I for one have stopped watching NDTV.
from: Namita Waikar
Posted on: Dec 9, 2010 at 08:00 IST

Good article. I agree that Ms Dutt lost an opportunity to show some remorse. I was totally taken aback by her attitude. She says "not choosing her sources properly was the error of judgement on her part" What an excuse. every mistake, every wrong..every an error of judgement.Her biggest error of judgement is believing that people of India will buy her story. I believe she has done irreparable damage to her credibility.And the firing squad show on TV did more damage than help her in winning some credit back.
from: prashob
Posted on: Dec 9, 2010 at 08:36 IST

It is all very well to have meetings. Whatever little credibility Barkha Dutt had left, she squandered away by screaming at the panelists on her show. Sonia Singh as the unfortunate moderator in that circus often seemed close to stammering. As for NDTV, the very fact that they chose not to fire Barkha outright, speaks volumes about their priorities and has cost them greatly in terms of their own credibility.
from: AVH
Posted on: Dec 9, 2010 at 09:10 IST

This is the first well written and balanced article on this sensational aftermath of the Radia tapes. The Hindu has always kept itself far from sensationalism and its editors only write what is positive and well researched or proven. The ego-hit Barkha Dutt who always clamours for fame(?) and attention, has at least been exposed but yet refuses to concede that she was wrong and it was not just ' an error of judgment'. I am glad you also mentioned the meeting presided by Rajdeep Sardesai who is equally guilty of carrying out 'sting' operations like he did on the 'Cash for Votes' scam. I have known several instances where his channel has given wrong news but never apologised for doing so. It is true the electronic media being obliged to give news round the clock y try to make news ratherthan give news. I respect the print media and esp a few papers like the HINDU who eschew any sensationalism and give only verified news.
from: S.N.Iyer
Posted on: Dec 9, 2010 at 10:21 IST

A very incisive column. But a couple of points. One, Open magazine cannot be let off so easily. The mgazine nowhere said it had tried to verify the authenticity of the tapes before publishing their content. That isn't journalism either. Lucky for them that the voices were of the persons they said they were. Otherwise, it would have met the same fate similar as the RSS leader's tape. The larger issue is that has been overlooked is the media's passive acceptance of content sourced by knowns. Who recorded the conversations? Who authorised them? Who leaked them to the media? Why? I dont think anyone in the media has botherd to ask these questions, let alone find the answers. This is a very dangerous trend, worse than even being active pals with lobbyists. If the media stops asking questions and takes everything as a given, that is the last day for journalism. What it implies for democracy is another matter. I do not think there is a point in trying to convince Barkha that she is in the wrong. Her journalism, according to me, at least most of it, has been suspicious and questionable, flavoured more for currying emotions and probably make a dumb prime prinister or a president weep enough to part with a Sri. But what she and her ilk are doing is threatening journalism in another manner. She belongs to an elite group, including some senior journalists, current and former bureaucrats and, of course, politicians. Whatever be the issue, it is this same group that eats into news television time on NDTV. And it is the journalists of this group that trot over to Rashtrapati Bhavan regularly to receive the Sris. What such groups create is an aspirational space among the lesser journalists who would willingly throw away their pen and honour to be part of such a group. Of course, there do exist a notable number of journalists -- some of whom are within the elite group as well -- whose self-respect cannot be bought.
from: VVP Sharma
Posted on: Dec 9, 2010 at 13:33 IST

I used to be a fan of Barkha Dutt. However, after the Radii episode I switch channels whenever I see her online. She has let the viewers of NDTV down. N Ram was categorical that Barkha's actions were ethically definitely unacceptable.
from: Narendra
Posted on: Dec 9, 2010 at 14:57 IST

Journalists like Barkha Dutt are an insult to the very ethics of journalism. As predicted Ms.Dutt got swept away by the corrupt power and misused the post. When the veil thinned on Dutt she proved more corrupt than politicians and worse than a mercenary. Shame to see a person in a field of journalism.
from: Syed Kabeer
Posted on: Dec 9, 2010 at 17:30 IST

The denials by 'reputed' journalists make the sense of betrayal only burn deeper. What the extraordinary response to the scandal by the public represents, is not an unfair attack on selected individuals but our strong sense of necessity for a media that gives us impartial information. I don't give a hoot if Burkha/Vir or anyone else is on friendly terms with the Congress Party- I just expect them to do their job when they're on the news or writing columns. If riding the public ire against politicians has made them larger than life, they should have expected to fall with equally fast fall from our graces in the midst of this scandal.
from: Roopa
Posted on: Dec 9, 2010 at 18:14 IST

I happened to view the last portions of the discussion of the Barkha Dutt with the senior journalists. I did not find any remorse or sense of wrong doing in the demeanor of Barkha Dutt. Its definitely that we are supposed to draw a line somewhere in engaging the sources. It again depends on the kind of information that we would get out of the source. If that is something of national importance and for the public good, then, that's fine. But in this case the engagement with Ms. Radia did not result in any kind of warning about the kind of tea the telecom ministry was making. Despite so many stalwarts of the media industry being engaged in the information loop of Ms. Radia, no one reported about the kind of deals done in 2G Spectrum allotment. Even NDTV which conducts discussions on issues of National importance never gave any hint of "King's" overtures. We are definitely against the media becoming a mediator! Hope the light we are all seeing is disinfected!
from: Karteek M
Posted on: Dec 9, 2010 at 21:33 IST

I used to read Vir Sanghvi's columns in the HT and the Mint. However, the recent revelations have brought be great dilemma. The world seems to be quite contradictory to the 'ideal' one the society projects. It might be quite a coincidence that the Wikileaks and the Radia tapes reveal this bitter side of the truth to a broader audience than any body could ever in the history.
from: Aneesh PA
Posted on: Dec 9, 2010 at 22:24 IST

We Indians worship false gods and false heroes. So, it is no surprise that mediocre people such as Barkha Dutt with no special talent are put on pedestal and acquire cult status.
from: Prasad Boddupalli
Posted on: Dec 9, 2010 at 23:31 IST

It was most amusing to find out in a New York Times article, concerning the spectrum saga, that Burkha Dutt from NDTV is considered the Opra Winfrey of India! Our boardroom was awash with laughter. Seriously though, when I witness the strange on screen antics of some TV anchors (judge, jury, executioner- film entertainer, BCCI sidekicks...) I've often considered it the lesser evil to having a Government regulated media. In other words, we give them a long rope in their sometimes tasteless coverage, in exchange for a free and independent voice on our state of affairs. Alas, even that seems too much to ask for.
from: Amit
Posted on: Dec 10, 2010 at 01:24 IST

Discipline speaks well in all spheres of human activity by its players. There is a lakshman rekha for all - the politicians, the journalists, the lobbyists, the students, teachers and even the seers. They should not cross or over step their limit or else they have pay a heavy price for it.
from: N R Ramachandran
Posted on: Dec 10, 2010 at 08:35 IST

I watched the programme of 4 editors talking to Barkha Dutt on NDTV programme. All I could see is that Barkha Dutt being offensive to the Open magazine editor who published the tapes. I can sense a clear wrong on Barkha's part, yet trying to hide them as an 'error of judgement'. All I felt before and vindicated by recent events is that most of the print,electronic media are manipulated and the story that comes out as news is what is a resultant of the strongest forces that are at war. Some parties/personalities really get a very bad deal and make us feel that they are not good however not being such. This is purely due to media manipulation.
from: Aravind
Posted on: Dec 10, 2010 at 09:31 IST

Just a poser to the journalists in question- Radia decided the cabinet ministers, she could change fortunes of the telecom companies , she could influence judgements - and they are telling us that they strung her along for information. She is too sharp and canny and "successful" for us to believe any of this stringing along bull
from: omar farooq
Posted on: Dec 10, 2010 at 10:30 IST

Modern day journalists are willing to sacrifice integrity for access of information. The Indian news channels seem to learning the very worse practices from their US counterparts.
from: Kiran
Posted on: Dec 10, 2010 at 12:14 IST

No doubt, Readers have lost faith in the news that appears in TV/Print since the breaking news concept came in TV channels. We do not know who will become fools at the end...
from: Narrendiran
Posted on: Dec 10, 2010 at 12:15 IST

It might not be inaccurate to say, we're between a hard rock and the deep sea. Push to far down the path of investigating the Media and we risk damaging a much broader principle of freedom of the press....something which our "star" reporters figured out long ago as cover to pursue personal glory. Thus our precious freedom of expression finds itself in the hands of an ugly monster, ironically created by the same public so keen to see someone lash out at the political class. Moral of the story? Believe not false prophets who build their empires over the ashes of others.
from: R.P
Posted on: Dec 10, 2010 at 20:12 IST

NDTV is very shrewd in not firing Barkha and is waiting for time to pass and as usual people will forget everything like various Scams. If NDTV had fired her then Rajdeep would have welcomed her with open arms and red carpet. Only way to punish such people and media is to stop watching them and boycotting the companies that are giving commercials to these rotten media.
from: prasbad
Posted on: Dec 11, 2010 at 01:11 IST

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