I’ve been writing Counterpoint for close to two decades now. The column began in Sunday magazine in the 90s and it travelled with me to the Hindustan Times. During this century, it has benefitted vastly from the HT’s massive readership. With 34 lakh readers, it is among the country’s best-read political columns.
And while I do many other things (other columns, articles, books, a website, TV shows etc.) Counterpoint is probably the one I enjoy the most. As the column’s popularity and influence have grown, I have begun to regard it almost as a separate entity, a trusted friend perhaps, who has to be treated with respect and reverence.
I mention all this to give you some idea of how important Counterpoint is to me — for reasons which will soon be clear.
Over the last week, some of you may have noticed that my name has been dragged into a controversy over tape-recordings. These tapes relate to phone calls made by Niira Radia, owner of India’s largest PR company, last year.
I first heard of these tapes this April when it was reported that the income-tax department had tapped Radia’s phone. Papers purporting to be official documents were anonymously delivered to media outlets. These documents named a host of people Radia had spoken to and included the astonishing claim that several journalists – including me – had lobbied for A. Raja, the then telecom minister. I was startled. Not only have I never met or spoken to Raja I have actually attacked him in print for his corruption on a regular basis.
So, how could I have lobbied for him?
I asked around. I was told that yes, some tapes did exist. Perhaps some officer had sold them to interested parties but certainly, no investigative agency believed that I had anything to do with Raja. I was relieved.
I shouldn’t have been.
A week ago, these tapes surfaced again. There are, apparently, over 5,000 conversations on the tapes. Somebody has leaked only 110 of them, most of them involving journalists. Few politicians appear on the leaked tapes. Who leaked the tapes? Why? And who decided which ones to leak? No one will say.
The tapes include conversations with some of India’s leading journalists and editors. This is not particularly surprising. Radia represents India’s biggest industrialists (among them Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani) so naturally, she will have conversations with journalists. But what’s interesting is this: though there are at least 25 well-known and important journalists on the leaked tapes, the stories have focused on three or four, and two in particular. One of them is me.
When the story first broke, I read the transcripts. They seemed to me to have been doctored. I then listened to the actual tapes. There were gaps, words had been deleted, whole chunks of conversation had been removed and there was an obvious malafide attempt to cause mischief.
I checked the publications that carried the tapes. They were clear. They did not vouch for the authenticity of the tapes.
The doctoring and selectivity of the leaks aside, the tapes have raised several questions. In my case, it amounts to this: the relationship of a journalist with his sources.
My view is that to figure out what is actually going on behind the scenes, a journalist sometimes has to appear sympathetic and even, to string along his sources so that they reveal their ultimate motivation. (Why are they really talking to you? What kind of article do they want?).
What you say to the source is less important than what you do with the information that emerges from the conversation. The piece you do must be fair and accurate.
Ultimately, journalists must be judged by their journalism. Not by tactical conversations with sources that are secretly recorded and then relayed to the public in a doctored form.
One conversation relates to a call Radia made to me (she called several journos) when there was a crisis in government formation: the DMK was threatening to pull out of the UPA. I knew she had access to DMK leaders so I listened closely as she said that the DMK wanted to compromise but the problem was that nobody was speaking to Karunanidhi directly. Could I pass this on to Congress leaders?
I had no intention of conveying the message but I strung her along because the conversation gave me an insight: the DMK would not back out after all, despite its public hard line.
Of course, no message was ever conveyed. And Congress leaders have confirmed that now.
The second case annoys me more because it relates to Counterpoint. This column is rarely about business but on two occasions I touched on the subject. One column was about how oligarchs were cornering India’s natural resources such as gas, minerals and spectrum. “Anybody who knows how to pay off the DMK has no difficulty in cornering spectrum...” I wrote.
Because the High Court had just ruled on the Ambani gas dispute, I referred to it. I spoke to both sides. The Mukesh side (Radia) went on and on but two points seemed to have merit. One was that the gas belonged to the country. Two: Anil had benefitted from a deal struck by Amar Singh on his behalf.
I put both claims to Anil’s side. I was not convinced by their position on gas (neither was the Supreme Court, which also agreed that the gas belonged to the country, not the Ambanis) but I thought they were right on the so-called Amar Singh deal and put it in print (“I am happy to accept their denials...”).
The second piece was on how the Ambanis should not drag the whole country into their battle (famous last words, eh?). And once again, I spoke to both sides. I also recorded in the piece that I had done so: “My friend Tony Jesudasan, who represents Anil, took me out to lunch and made out a case for Anil...My friend Niira Radia, who represents Mukesh, gave me the other side.”
So, what’s the fuss about? Well, because my conversations with Anil’s side (though noted in the column) were not taped it is possible to claim that I represented only one side. Moreover, that tape has clearly been doctored to remove context and create trouble.
The only response possible to such claims is to let the work speak for itself. Read both articles in their entirety on my website (www.virsanghvi.com) and judge for yourself. I think you will find that they are completely fair.
Which brings us back to Counterpoint. The whole episode has left me feeling battered. Perhaps it will drag on. Perhaps more muck will fly around. I have no desire to subject Counterpoint to this filth. It deserves better. So, Counterpoint will be taking a break. When life returns to normal, so will Counterpoint.
As for me, I must say, in all humility, that the uproar has dismayed me enough to want to use the break to do some thinking. I’ll still be around of course — both here at the HT, in Brunch etc. and in all other places you normally find me (TV, books, live events, etc.). And Counterpoint has taken a break before (six months in 2000). It returned rested and refreshed. This time around, perhaps a rest will lead to renewal.
*The views expressed by the author are personal.