I am beginning to get quite amused by the stream of ‘pieces’ in the mainstream media and in certain blogs which, while acknowledging the media-power broker-politician-businesspersons links indirectly, try to assure the reader that no impropriety has been committed and no quid-pro-quo has been established.
This, after mainstream Indian media ganged up and shut out the ‘news’ about some of its high-profile personalities playing around with notorious lobbyists & power-brokers, politicians and businesspersons initially and then was forced to backtrack when the news spread on the net and several international publications and their online editions [ Indian journalists accused of secretly helping politicians, businesses (washingtonpost.com) ] started carrying them [ Link to TOI article on the topic ].
Aren’t these early days to even talk about whether any impropriety has been established or any quid-pro-quo was there? There have been unconfirmed news reports about big payoffs to two journalists through Radia [ Link : The rise and rise of Niira Radia ] for services rendered (no names mentioned yet). Radia herself is said to have fled to London earlier this year when the news of her meddling around and batting for A. Raja broke. However, she apparently reached out to her vast network of powerful contacts, arranged that she won’t be unduly hassled or arrested on this account and returned to India about two months later. Apparently, recently she has been interrogated at length by the ED [ ED grills Niira Radia for 8 hours in 2G scam ] but it will be many months before any conclusions or follow-up action as a result of the info gleaned from these interrogations may happen, if at all.
After several days of silence, hoping that a collective blackout by the self-proclaimed mainstream media will ‘kill’ the story, Barkha Dutt first came out and tweeted a rebuttal. This singular fact alone should make many wonder about her level of maturity and her standing as a credible, balanced and ethical journalist, leave alone a News Editor. Subsequently, ND TV & Barkha Dutt have also threatened to initiate legal action against OPEN magazine [ Link ] for carrying the leaked ‘audio’ clips. One wonders why OUTLOOK, which also carried them, has not been threatened similarly. Would it be right to assume that taking on OUTLOOK would be rather beyond Barkha Dutt’s and NDTV‘s weight class whereas browbeating & silencing ‘OPEN’ magazine would be a lot easier?
During 26/11, Barkha Dutt and some of her colleagues were thought to have endangered the lives of some of the victims through their thoughtless, insensitive and unprofessional ways, all for the sake of sensationalism and a jump in TRPs apparently. When this was blogged about by an individual [ Link about Cheytanya Kunte’s blog piece after 26/11 ], he was threatened similarly with a defamation lawsuit, forcing him to issue an apology on his site and withdraw the ‘piece’ (naturally he must have felt that it was way beyond him to take on NDTV and its news editor Barkha Dutt singlehandedly). There were hardly any murmurs from the rest of the mainstream media about this episode.
Contrast this with the fact that Barkha Dutt and NDTV have, time and time again, mounted sting operations and let loose volleys of innuendoes and allegations against various personalities, based on hearsay and little tidbits of information, often without detailed corroboration and ratification, merely to spice up their news, sensationalize the item and as a result achieve consistently high TRP ratings. News Channels on Indian TV are generally packaged commercial products, surviving and thriving on ad revenues and attracting mass viewership nationally by playing to the lowest common denominators of political gossip, Bollywood and cricket.
Are instances like frantically asking a lobbyist and middleperson what she should convey to certain interested parties and running around to various Congress leaders, conveying messages on behalf of A. Raja & his lobbyist Niira Radia, mere acts of an intrepid journalist talking to various sources for information? Does this not sound like manufacturing news at the behest of certain people and helping middlepersons achieve certain desired outcomes for their clients? Check out the audio clips and the partial relevant transcripts below.
BARKHA: Oh God. So now what? What should I tell them? Tell me what should I tell them? (check out link 1 above for the clip & the full transcript)
RADIA: Barkha Dutt
RAJA: What does she say?
RADIA: She says… that she has been following up the story with Prime Minister’s Office tonight. In fact, she was the one who told me that Sonia Gandhi went there. She says that he [the PM, presumably] has no problem with you, but he has a problem with Baalu.
RADIA: That’s right. That’s right. I told her to get Congress… (her here refers to Barkha Dutt)
RADIA: Okay, I’ll tell her. She is talking to Ahmed Patel, so I will talk to him. (her here again logically refers to Barkha Dutt) (check out link 2 above for the audio clip & full transcript)
Clearly, Barkha Dutt had, at the very least, official sanction for what she did and may even have been instructed by the management to work closely with Ms. Radia. As is evident from her threats and tweets, the boss of NDTV is firmly behind her, till the time of writing this. Neither she, nor her boss seem fazed in the least by the outcry by large numbers of netizens about her questionable conduct in this whole episode [ Facebook Group : Can you please take Barkha off air ].
As a logical next step, could one expect some investigative journalists to check out ND TV boss Prannoy Roy’s past business dealings, various known personal and professional links and associations and possible alignments? After all he does figure in several of the tapes – Radia refers to him as a ‘nice man’, the need to brief him on some issues and about a meeting planned in his office during the course of various conversations whose tapes have now been ‘leaked’. (the links and transcripts, for those who may be interested in checking out, are contained in the two blog pieces by Girish Nikam below)
Some last thoughts. As per a profile of Barkha Dutt, her mother used to be a veteran journalist for the Hindustan Times and her sister is currently a journalist with CNN-IBN. Vir Sanghvi, who has been squarely implicated in the leaked tapes [ Link to Vir Sanghvi – Niira Radia audio clip & transcript ] also and is clearly heard boasting about his ability to make things happen (acknowledged by Ms. Radia, who, at one stage, thanks him for making ‘it’ happen) is currently the Editorial Director of HT. Ms. Dutt herself writes a weekly column for the HT. There is of course nothing wrong with all this. The somewhat uncanny sequence of coincidences does make one wonder though. Taking into account the generally known alignment of the HT group and the profiles and backgrounds of quite a few of HT’s selected and appointed editors over the last couple of decades, one can’t help but wonder about likely linkages and alignments across the entire spectrum. Also, one is forced to wonder why journalism in India, like in the case of politics and Bollywood, turns out to have a strong dynastic streak?
Since I wrote this piece, soon after the news first broke on the internet and on blogs, there have been several attempts by Vir Sanghvi and particularly Barkha Dutt to ‘spin’ what is amply evident from the leaked tapes and offer various explanations about what they were up to during the conversations. All of these have tried to obfuscate facts and counter-attack at times. Particularly odious and obnoxious was a staged ‘discussion’ by NDTV to apparently give Barkha Dutt a chance to explain herself. It was shocking to watch Barkha Dutt on this programme. She was loud, evasive, aggressive, finger-pointing and had clearly decided that offence was the best form of defence, particularly directing her fire and her petty accusations and unbecoming digs at Manu Joseph of Open Magazine, which was one of the two publications which carried the tapes. If you watch Barkha Dutt’s body language during this discussion, she appeared tense and nervous and behaved much like a cat caught carrying the canary in its mouth and cornered, would behave. She projected herself as petty, vindictive, dishonest and falling far short of the standards of maturity and basic human courtesy that would at least be expected of a News Editor. She either evaded or chose not to answer the key questions put to her by some of the panellists. Watch the clip below to judge for yourself:
In another discussion, moderated by Karan Thapar, both Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi refused to turn up despite being invited to do so and present their side of the story. One of the most pertinent and telling points made during this discussion by N. Ram of the Hindu was that any major newspaper group in the Western hemisphere like the BBC, New York Times or Financial Times would not have even bothered to listen to the patently fabricated explanations by Barkha Dutt that she was ‘stringing the lobbyist along for news’ and both Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi would have been summarily terminated by their employers for revelations of this nature. He also pointed out that once the tapes were established to be authentic, there was no need for either Open Magazine or Outlook to get in touch with Barkha Dutt or Vir Sanghvi for corroboration before publishing the tapes. In the case of similar instances in the past, heads of state and powerful persons like Richard Nixon (Watergate) or Win Chaddha (Bofors) were not contacted or asked for corroboration before the media carried the leaked information.
It is a sad commentary on sections of the compromised, unethical and unprincipled Indian media that both Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi not only continue in their roles but are going around ‘spinning’ or screaming about what they were actually up to, in all likelihood with the support and sanction of their bosses and employers. It is now up to the viewers and advertisers to decide whether channels and publications like NDTV and HT remain widely viewed or read in the future.