The great media blackout on the Radia tapes is finally ending. Maybe editors and others who said that they could not use the tapes or transcripts for lack of authentication are waking up to the the fact that there have been no statements of denial from the principals, except for Barkha Dutt saying the conversation was misrepresented. She does not say it did not take place. Neera Radia has now issued a belligerent statement, but she is not denying the conversations either.
CNN IBN had a rather self-conscious edition of Face the Nation by Sagarika Ghose on November 22, designed to rebut the charge that TV channels have ignored a development which involves the operational head of a rival channel. And indeed several other leading media figures. It raised the issue, discussed corporates and lobbyists for much of the airtime it had, and named no names while flashing the Outlook cover with photographs of some of those involved. It talked about proximity to those in power, delusions of grandeur that journalists have, points were made about the legitimacy of the information exchange between lobbyists and politicians, but they but did not actually pinpoint the crux of the issue: Should journalists let lobbyists use them to extract information from politicians, or pass on messages to them? Should they let themselves be conduits for lobbyists, or corporates, or for that matter politicians? One of the few sharp points made on the show was that the journalists being asked to help Kanimozhi get a portfolio for Raja should instead have been filing stories on the lobbying going on.
But lets look at how a story involving editors, anchors, and editorial advisors becomes a rather big story for a few, and a non story for the many. The tapes surfaced on the Open and Outlook websites on Thursday-Friday, the Hoot was able to begin using the material the first day, but no news agency put it out. No newspaper had it Friday morning, though both Open and Outlook magazines came out with cover stories on the media angle to the Radia Tapes. The only exception over the weekend was Mail Today which ran the story on three consecutive days, interviewing people for their reactions to the conversations the journalist had with Ms Radia. It was careful about who it named, stepping around the fact that a current and a former editor from the India Today stable which publishes Mail Today featured in the tapes. Sunday came and went, with fat weekend editions, special weekend shows, and guess what, nobody thought this was a story.
Not a story that three prominent journalists were trying to help a lobbyist get A Raja a ministerial berth in the second UPA government? The same A Raja currently at the centre of the 2G scam that all these papers have been covering every day? Not even news by association with the most newsworthy person of the week?
The list of those who took no note is long and illustrious: The Indian Express, always quick off the mark on sensational disclosures. The Hindu, till Monday, though some heard that the paper was working on a story. The Times of India and the Hindustan Times. India Today magazine, which had a cover story on the 2G scam. All those Hindi news channels forever reconstructing sensational events. Times Now! No pained sermons on the subject from dear Arnab!
The Hindustan Times had a clarification on its website which pointed readers to Vir Sanghvi's blog. 'Transcripts have been carried in some Indian publications of what are purportedly telephone conversations between, among others, Hindustan Times Advisory Editorial Director Vir Sanghvi, and a lobbyist, Niira Radia. While the authenticity of these transcripts cannot be ascertained, Hindustan Times would like to reiterate its steadfast adherence to a code of ethics of the highest levels and values that involve integrity, credibility and transparency in our constant endeavour to bring news and analysis that is unbiased, balanced and authentic to its readers.
As for the alleged involvement of Mr Sanghvi with matters concerning Ms Radia, as the transcripts may imply, we would like to cite Mr Sanghvi's own clarifications on this as posted by him on his personal website, www.virsanghvi.com. Mr Sanghvi writes a weekly column, titled Counterpoint, in which the views.'
The Hindustan Times would like to reiterate its steadfast adherence to a code of ethics of the highest levels... Nice touch.
The first day the only news channel to carry something was NDTV, whose group editor Barkha Dutt figured prominently in the tapes. She went on air to assert that what was being carried on the Open website was defamatory, and a misrepresentation of the conversation she had had with Nira Radia, a lobbyist for both the Tatas and Reliance. Thereafter fellow news channels decided that they had seen and heard nothing.
How does a media outlet do such a story? Well, start by asking the principals what they have to say. A bit rich to pretend that journalists shown trying to help lobbyists who in turn are trying to influence cabinet formation, is not a story. Then there are the delicious bits where Vir Sanghvi is offering to script an interview for Mukesh Ambani, and where he repeatedly refers to the Congress Party as 'we.' Ok, no story. How about an analysis on media and corporate relations as demonstrated by the tapes?
The list of those who did take note is heartening. The New Indian Express did, on Saturday, as did other Southern newspapers: Deccan Herald had a straight story the same day. It also carried an editorial ('Anchored in mire') which said, 'The content and tenor of the conversations go beyond the normal relationship between journalists and their sources and contacts. There was also an indication of tailoring news to suit the interests represented by the lobbyist.' It also put its finger on the nub of the issue. 'If they become players in the events the credibility of the profession will be lost.' Deccan Chronicle had references to the story. Some newspapers took note in blogs on their websites, as in the case of DNA and Mint, where the latter's editor explained why they were not carrying the story. (They could not authenticate the transcripts.)
Why does the media not write matter-of-factly about news involving media houses, or personalities? Partly because of years of imbibing a particular ethic. Whatever else makes news, we've been taught, incidents involving other media houses do not. After all, tomorrow it could be our turn. A newspaper I write for has, over the years, offered the following explanations for why something cannot be carried about another newspaper. But how can you praise them? They are our competition! But you can't criticise them??"they are our competition!
Then a few years ago Raju Narisetti who came from the Wall Street Journal to start Mint for HT Media began a tradition of routine coverage of developments concerning the media. Among other stories his paper carried an internal memo sent out by the Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta. Eyebrows rose. You did not do things like that in India. Now, as Mail Today has demonstrated, the self censorship is easing, somewhat.
Until a gorilla of a story comes along and floors those who can see their own in it.