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Media’s the message

Did the journalists really agree to be messengers/ lobbyists or were they pretending? It is not unheard of for people to ‘agree’ to do something… but not intending to deliver. Karan Thapar writes.

columns Updated: May 21, 2011 17:01 IST

Do we have a crisis in Indian journalism? Or is it just the way some journalists are perceived? Or is this a distinction without a difference? The unfortunate truth is if — because of a few — you can’t trust what you read or see, then you’re perilously close to dismissing journalism itself.

So let me share with you how I view the conversations revealed by Outlook and Open magazine. That might help you assess the transcripts and interpret what they suggest. For this purpose I shall assume they’re accurate.

It seems some (but not all) of the journalists on the Niira Radia transcripts willingly agreed to carry messages or speak on her behalf (or that of her clients) to the Congress party. It’s also clear this was about the inclusion or exclusion of specific DMK MPs in the Cabinet, the level of ministership they would get and the portfolio to go with it.

The first issue is what does this amount to? At the least it is carrying of messages. The journalists agreed to be ‘couriers’ or ‘go-betweens’. But is that lobbying? It sounds and feels like it. But this could be debatable. However, if in addition to conveying messages, they sought to persuade that might clinch the issue.

The second issue flows from the first: is this suitable behaviour for a journalist? It all depends on the message. There can’t be a principle against delivering messages. But if the content is to make A a minister or keep B out of the Cabinet or plead for a special portfolio for C, it would seem inappropriate.

The reason is simple. Trying to find out who will be a minister and what portfolio he or she will get — which is a legitimate function of journalism — is markedly different to playing a role in ensuring a ministership or a special portfolio for a particular individual. One is an inquiry. The other is taking sides.

The third issue is more complicated but also more critical to whatever conclusion you come to. Can we accept at face value what the tapes suggest was happening? In other words, did the journalists really agree to be messengers/lobbyists or were they pretending? After all, it’s not unheard of for people to ‘agree’ to do something as a way of advancing a conversation or obtaining information but not intending to deliver.

I don’t know the answer and nor can you. Each of us will have our suspicions and hunches. In part it depends on how much we want to keep faith with the journalists involved. So let’s leave it at that.

But if you believe they did deliver then two further issues arise. Did they do so simply as a favour to Radia and her clients? Or did they benefit from doing so?

Again, we don’t know and all we can do is suspect or guess. But I’d add that if you’ve come this far you are, sadly, close to questioning their integrity.

There is, however, another point to be made. Whether they did it as a favour or for payment they were, in either case, using the access and influence of their profession and/or their employers for purposes above and beyond what it is intended for. Is this misuse? Frankly, it’s hard to say no.

Finally, how damaged is the image of the Indian media? That is, of course, a far bigger concern. It all depends on the response of the newspapers and television channels involved.

*The views expressed by the author are personal