Dangerous liaisons

Radiagate is forcing Indian journalism to ask of itself questions it prefers to ignore. It needs to ask many more. Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: May 21, 2011 17:02 IST
Samar Halarnkar
Samar Halarnkar
Hindustan Times

Journalism, a former editor-in-chief of Time magazine once said, can never be silent. That is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. "It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air."

At a time when the Indian media are shining a light on some of the darkened crevices of our society, we are accused of having fallen unconscionably silent, as we suddenly find our own dealings forced out of the shadows, as we become the story, as our faults are revealed and virtues reduced.

The chances are you have either read the transcripts or heard the audio of the phone taps involving about 30 journalists, including NDTV group editor Barkha Dutt; my colleague, former boss and HT's advisory editorial director Vir Sanghvi; another former boss, editor (languages) of the India Today group Prabhu Chawla; former colleague and former managing editor of India Today, Shankkar Aiyar; Managing Editor of the Financial Express MK Venu and Economic Times assistant editor Ganapathy Subramaniam. There are indirect references to my own boss, Sanjoy Narayan.

Income-tax authorities probing possible tax evasions recorded these conversations over six months in 2008 and 2009 from the phone of powerful Mumbai corporate lobbyist Niira Radia, whose clients include India's biggest corporate names, the Tata group and Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Industries.

The backdrop is the so-called '2G scam', a much larger - and widening - scandal involving the dubious sale of telecommunications airwaves, or spectrum, for second-generation (2G) mobile-phone networks. The sale, engineered by former telecom minister A Raja - whose appointment Radia lobbied for - led to notional losses of more than Rs 1 lakh crore to the Indian exchequer.

I see two immediate positives from Radiagate. One, there appears to be more moral wrongdoing and silly talk than outright corruption; there is no evidence of payments. Two, the media have not stayed completely silent. The magazines Open and Outlook first published the raw transcripts and tapes, obtained they say from a petition filed before the Supreme Court by lawyer Prashant Bhushan, who asked for an investigation into Radia's role in the 2G scandal.

The government has now ordered investigators to find out who leaked the Radia tapes, some of which were first delivered earlier this year as anonymous envelopes to many editors. Tata Group chairman Ratan Tata, whose conversations with Radia also feature in the tapes, has moved the Supreme Court, calling the tapes an invasion of his privacy. These tapes, all high-quality recordings, are not fakes. Were the phone taps legal? Yes. They were authorised by the home secretary of India after a request from the income-tax authorities.

Phones are routinely tapped in India, perhaps more than in any serious democracy. A range of government authorities listens, legally and illegally, to phone conversations, as do corporate spies, illegally. I doubt my phone is significant enough to be tapped, but my local station house officer could do it - with or without permission.

It is rare, though, for transcripts to become public. Legal phone taps fall under the Indian Telegraph Rules 1951, and any leak is a serious violation of the law and of privacy, as Tata rightly argues. These are leaks motivated not by a noble purpose but to push as-yet unclear corporate or political agendas.

Yet, I am glad these conversations came to light.

The liaisons between journalism, business and politics are not new, but the extent of these connections, the blurring of lines and the violation of public trust were certainly unknown to the public at large and unclear even to many of us who have chosen to steer clear of this cozy, make-believe world.

I say make-believe because journalists delude themselves in thinking they can influence political choices, as they appear to be trying in some of the recordings. No minister has ever been picked or dropped on a journalist's recommendation. Many journalists had no qualms discussing a range of other murky business with Radia - from story placements to 'managing' a high court judge.

Many of us entered the profession believing journalism had the power to change our world. We soon realised it also had the power to corrupt us. Tough, old editors hammered on about credibility. Get to know politicians, businessmen and lobbyists, I was told, but don't befriend them. This is not easy, and many will disagree with this contention. I believe there is no other road to credibility.

I learned this the hard way early in my career, but it is a lesson I learned well. Keep your distance, and you may lose some stories. That's better than running the risk of becoming the story.

It is always hardest to look within and acknowledge one's failings. That process has begun. This does not mean journalism will clean itself up tomorrow. The era of what we call the "gifted journalist" - who accepts gifts of silver, gold, land, preference shares and more from politicians and businessmen - has been evident for years but still remains hidden from public view.

More of us are now writing about Radiagate, confronting our compromises and the larger question of our compromised profession. On Wednesday night NDTV's Dutt - a role model for many young people - subjected herself to a grilling by her peers but did not acknowledge faults beyond "an error of judgement". We flinch now, as we should, from the taunts over Radiagate.

I only hope it will push us to cleanse, correct - at the very least, never stay silent again.

First Published: Dec 01, 2010 22:24 IST