The Radia legacy

I want to share with you a question that's troubling me. Do the Radia revelations suggest an alarming degree of media manipulation, possibly to the point where you could have doubts about what you read or see? Or does the fact that there's no overwhelming proof of the media being manipulated — the odd example apart — suggest that our newspapers and TV channels have handled a tricky situation admirably?

This is not a rhetorical question. The answer could affect your attitude to journalism and, specifically, news and commentary.

Let's start with the downside. We already know the Radia tapes suggest that some of our most high profile journalists could have behaved inappropriately. Put like that, even they would agree. But, this week, the discoveries have gone considerably further. We now have reason to believe attempts were made to plant interviews and stories in top-ranking papers and magazines, the blacklisting of a news agency, Press Trust of India, was considered, and staff payment for an entire news channel, NewsX, was controlled. Worst of all, perhaps a score of journalists, many at the top of the profession, feature in the tapes.

This creates the impression that there are only a few papers or news channels and just some senior journalists who weren't spoken to or spoken of in the tapes. The net seems to have been spread wide and pretty comprehensively. Radia appears to be influential, effective and ruthlessly thorough.

But, mercifully, there is an upside too. With the odd exception, we don't have evidence to prove the media were actually manipulated. We know a strenuous attempt was made but we cannot, with equal conviction, claim it succeeded. There are very few newspaper stories or TV reports that attest to manipulation. We know Radia tried but we don't have proof that most, even many, journalists succumbed.

So is that it? Is it as simple as that? Sadly, not. Manipulation of the media is not just a case of what papers and TV write and report. That, in a sense, is the easy-to-detect part. It's often how they write or report, the facts they rely on or the tone they use. After all, journalism, for all its claims of objectivity, is dependent on an interpretive use of material, language and style. A clever journalist can disguise his motive. And it's only the clever ones lobbyists or fixers seek to influence.

Unfortunately, there is also a deeper level of manipulation. Not what's written and how but what's forgotten or deliberately ignored. You, the reader or viewer, rarely miss what you cannot read or see. Not unless you're looking for it. Therefore a great way of manipulating the news is to simply leave something out i.e. not make the audience aware it happened or that it's worth deliberating upon.

So did any of this happen? I simply don't know. We'd have to examine newspaper coverage and TV reportage, not just on a day-to-day basis, but almost microscopically. And when it comes to suppression, we'd have to first know what was blanked out. Unless it smacks you in the face, I'd say this is almost impossible to detect.

Alas, this leaves a lingering doubt that's hard to resolve. The sort you can't prove — one way or the other — but will, inexorably, dent the image of the media. This, I suspect, could be the legacy of the Radia tapes — doubts we cannot cast aside but will always be uncomfortable with.

The views expressed by the author are personal.


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