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Mainstream, VOL XLVIII, No 50, December 4, 2010

Niira Radia Tapes and the Stench

Sunday 12 December 2010



[(In the wake of the Niira Radia tapes, now in circulation due to the publication of their operative parts in the Open Magazine and Outlook, a series of commentaries on the role of the media and today’s journalists have appeared in the print media. One of the sharpest critiques of that role has been published in the Pakistani publication, Dawn. In view of the importance of the subject being discussed we are reproducing it, with due acknowledgement, for the benefit of our readers. Jawed Naqvi is Dawn’s correspondent in New Delhi. We are also carrying a piece on the same subject by T.J.S. George, one of the country’s veteran and most respected journalists. —Editor)]

by Jawed Naqvi

It is foolhardy to think of journalists as folks who are ‘neutral’ in some obscure way, who don’t have an economic worldview or a political axe to grind. It used to be more honest in England, for example, when newspapers were described as liberal, conservative, labour, Left and so on.

Political exigencies have diluted the distinctions. In our patch, in South Asia, many Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan journalists are seen as more independent and less pro-establishment than their Indian counterparts. In India, the politics of collusion has largely erased the old fault-lines between the Nehruvian Congress and its many detractors from the Left and the Right of the spectrum.
It does not require any specialised analytical skills to see that there is a complete collusion between the Hindu revivalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the now barely secular Congress. The cement that glues that collusion together is hot corporate cash. Lots of it. That is also what lubricates the mainstream media’s completely overhauled new genre of journalism which, increasingly, is not much more than corporate PR.

A new, raging scandal involving taped telephone conversations cast Barkha Dutt, an iconic TV anchor, and Vir Sanghvi, the former editor of the Hindustan Times, now a senior columnist and TV interviewer, in the role of veritable political pimps. It has dealt a body-blow, maybe even sounded the death-knell for the old-fashioned, gritty journalism of integrity in India. (The conversations were among the several thousand phone conversations tapped of a professional corporate lobbyist, Niira Radia, who works for Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata. Among those Radia spoke to were her client Ratan Tata, Vajpayee’s foster son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya, corporate spokesperson Suhel Seth, who once described Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as “god”.)

THE old journalists were a darling of the masses and shunned as social misfits by the political and business class and its hangers-on. Time was when journalists earned little money, and yet had the demeanour of invincibility. They had fire in their bellies and the system had no levers to control them with.

During Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule, editors preferred to leave white spaces where news or editorials had been censored than to publish the false and twisted news and views that come so easily to them today. Of course, there were those too who crawled when they were asked to bend.

This was the period when Sukhi Lala was portrayed as the usurious moneylender of Mother India, an iconic silver screen magnum opus about the travails of rural India. While Sukhi Lala was regarded as a household villain, Majaz, Josh and Faiz among others wrote compellingly about the snare of capitalism. Way before his nephew, Javed Akhtar, was co-opted by Mumbai’s corporate world, Majaz, his uncle, was fuming thus:

‘Kaleja phunk raha hai aur zubaan kehne se aari hai Bataoo’n kya tumhe kya cheez ye sarmayadari hai.

(What can I tell you about capitalism, excerpt that it singes the soul, stifles the trapped anguish?)’

But today, far from being shunned as a social pariah, Sukhi Lala virtually rules India. According to the transcripts of official phone tapping published by Open magazine, India’s richest tycoon boasts that the ruling Congress party is his dukaan, his shop. The son-in-law of former BJP Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee is heard claiming that he could talk to a Congress Minister to fix a deal on behalf of a corporate broker.

A BJP man has high-level useful contacts in the Congress! The political collusion is complete. Sukhi Lala is no longer the villain. He is the king. And Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi, even though their embarrassing conversations offer to lobby for the appointment of one A. Raja who now turns out to be involved in a Rs 175,000-crore telecom scam, continue to hold forth as though nothing ever happened.

Barkha Dutt’s cosy conversation in which she offers extra-journalistic help to Niira Radia, a corporate lobbyist trying to get Raja into Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s new Cabinet, is being replayed in drawing rooms across the country. But her undisguised personal ambition is less disturbing to me than the hat she wears as a sanctimonious and ill-informed patriot. If Afzal Guru is eventually hanged, despite the fact that the Supreme Court in its judgment said that it had no evidence to prove he belonged to a terrorist group but was sentencing him to death in order to “satisfy the collective conscience of society”—people like Barkha Dutt would have played a role in confecting that collective conscience. For example, she ran Afzal Guru’s police confession on her channel after the Supreme Court rejected it as potentially tainted evidence. The clear and present danger right now is that the ruling classes are known to conjure up a crisis to get out of political trouble.

And they are in deep trouble now. They won’t mind waging a managed war or a bloody pogrom. I dread the idea of the New! Improved! Barkha Dutt salvaging her ruined reputation by once again filing patriotic reports from a battle-trench wearing a helmet.

Her fellow journalist, Vir Sanghvi, could never in his worst nightmare have guessed that the eavesdropping by Indian sleuths (the ethics of that is a separate matter) would expose him as a cheap, obsequious wheeler-dealer with no journalistic ethics at all. Just before the transcripts were published, Sanghvi was lecturing Indian audiences about how they were “within their rights” to dislike and isolate Arundhati Roy. There is no danger of course that either Vir Sanghvi or Barkha Dutt will be dethroned any time soon. They will continue to rule the airwaves. Even though nothing will ever be the same for them again.
The stench will not be easy to shrug off. People know the score.

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