Radiagate and WikiLeaks have made this winter the season of the leaking tap. Both were selective leaks chosen from a large body of material. But the selections were full frontal and disclosed more than was pertinent. Too little and, simultaneously, too much, and the parties stripped naked fear the worst.
The US worries that carefully nurtured diplomatic relationships will collapse, and therefore the end of the world is nigh. And Ratan Tata has moved the Supreme Court to stay dissemination of the Radia tapes, while expressing fears that India is becoming a banana republic where nothing is sacred.
Three competing rights are at play here: the individual's right to privacy, which Tata wants protected, the State's right to secrecy in the national interest, which the US government is backing, and the right to information of the public. Legally, the last should trump the others because the public owns a democracy, not the individual or the State.
Of the WikiLeaks exposes, one is decidedly of public interest: Hillary Clinton ordering diplomats to play amateur spook and collect personal and biometric data of key contacts. Shocking, because it applied even to diplomats serving at the UN, the only designated spook-free zone on earth. Tata has a case to the extent that disclosure of private matters like his distaste for black tie dinners, revealed in his conversations with Niira Radia, is not in the public interest. But his case is weakened because Radia is the publicist of his group, which has substantial interests in telecom. That Radia may have attempted to undermine the democratic process by influencing the choice of telecom minister makes their conversation a public interest matter.
The issue here is larger than a question of privacy or the crisis in journalistic ethics that is dominating the discourse. The controversy has highlighted the weakness of this coalition government, which couldn't eliminate a venal minister for years. Coalition politics has helped the Indian polity to mature because it reflects the aspirations of a multicultural country more truly than one-party rule. But if coalition government-formation is just an exercise in bargaining for who suckles at the teats of which ministry - and who suckles at their teats in turn - then we are breeding monsters.
As for the credibility of Indian journalism, which is at a rather low ebb, we must ask if the media critiquing themselves is good enough. Vir Sanghvi has done the right thing and suspended his column Counterpoint, whose independence was questioned. Elsewhere, we've seen faux courtroom dramas on prime time TV, where judge, jury, plaintiffs and defendants were all editors.
Had the media been a wing of the State, they would have been scrutinised by another wing, according to the doctrine of the separation of powers. But media are not really the Fourth Estate. They are supposed to distance themselves from the State. And State oversight of media is not an option. But perhaps in this unusual case, the State can clear the air by making public all the Radia recordings, so that we see the complete story rather than selective excerpts. For the democratic discourse, the more leaks the better, whether they expose Delhi or Washington. Sometimes, primary data makes more sense than mediated news.
(Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine. The views expressed by the author are personal)