Media just ducked the muck

L K Advani once said that when Indira Gandhi wanted the media to bend, it chose to crawl. Last fortnight, when the Niira Radia tapes showed the dirt within the media and it was expected to stand up to the high moral standards it sets for the rest of society, the conventional media buried its head in the sand. A pitiful attempt to cover up one of the biggest media scandals. Thank god for the new media which forced the old to mend its ways, just a wee bit.


BV Rao | December 4, 2010

Sanghvi, Sanghvi/Yes, Papa...
Fixing columns?/No, Papa…
Telling lies?/No, Papa…
Show me proof/How Dare You?

That twisted nursery rhyme sums up some of what top editors of India did and most of what media organisations failed to do (or did not care to do) in the last fortnight.

This was a fortnight in which the national media exposed itself by deciding not to expose itself. It demonstrated that it interprets “free press” as freedom to ignore serious questions about their own conduct and credibility.

For a long time, newsroom wisdom had it that if a dog bites a man, it is news. That definition turned on its head in the early 90s, possibly coinciding with the onset of the MTV generation. A dog biting a man was no longer newsworthy. Now, we were told, it’s news only if a man bites a dog.

Then came 24x7 news, relentless and unceasing. Everything became so passé so quickly that the definition of news underwent another rewrite. Man biting a dog became news only if the dog died of rabies as a consequence!

And then, on November 19, the Indian media’s man-bites-dog-and-dog-dies-of-rabies moment came. Busy as it was exposing scam after scam involving every strata of society, the media itself landed in the middle of an embarrassing scandal.

Damning audio tapes of many editors, notably two icons, Vir Sanghvi and Barkha Dutt, were put out by Open and Outlook magazines.  In the tapes, both the editors are talking to a corporate lobbyist Niira Radia who is desperately seeking to fix a key appointment in the Manmohan Singh cabinet in May 2009.

Radia is trying to block DMK’s Dayanidhi Maran from becoming the telecommunications minister because Maran had rubbed the Tata Group, one of Radia’s principal clients, on the wrong side earlier. In his place, Radia is pushing for A Raja, who was the telecommunications minister in the earlier government (during which time he gave the country its biggest financial scam ever).

Radia is asking Vir and Barkha to carry messages to the Congress Party that the DMK, which had withdrawn from the cabinet, was actually dying for a rapprochement, in complete contrast with their grandstanding in public.  By clearly agreeing (as it seems from the tapes and as both of them have since admitted) to carry that message to the Congress, the two editors opened themselves up for serious charges of professional impropriety.

Did they cross the “Lakshman rekha” of journalism and become complicit in a dirty corporate game to fix even the appointments to the country’s cabinet?

That was a question that needed to be taken by the scruff of its collar and debated vigorously if only to show that the media is as unsparing of itself as it is of others.

Instead, NDTV put out a cursory, indignant, dismissive and, why, even a condescending clarification on their website (and once on air) as did Vir Sanghvi on his personal website. Then the media collectively buried its head in the sand, hoping that its most embarrassing moment would pass quickly. If there were some rotten eggs in its midst, nobody needed to know. Least of all their readers/viewers.

They say awareness of a problem is 50% of the solution. The Indian media obviously thinks ignoring a problem is a complete solution.

So, all we got instead was deathly silence. No breaking news, no screaming headlines. As I write this on November 30, 12 days after the expose, the scandal is yet to make it to the front page of any daily in the capital (though Mail Today followed it up extensively on the inside pages, a happy exception).
An enquiry might yet find Vir, Barkha and other editors such as Prabhu Chawla and MK Venu not guilty of gross professional misconduct, but we need no enquiry to pronounce the Indian media guilty of a clumsy, attempted cover-up.

First, the two organisations that Vir and Barkha work and report/write for, Hindustan Times and NDTV (tagline: Experience  Truth First). Vir is advisory editorial director of the paper and writes a “most-most read” Sunday column called Counterpoint. In addition to agreeing to carry messages for Radia, two of Vir’s past columns (June 21, 2009 and August 15, 2009) concerning the Ambani Brothers’ gas wars came to be suspected  as plugs for Mukesh Ambani, written to Radia’s specifications.

Hindustan Times ignored it, issued a wishy-washy clarification only on its website and allowed Vir’s next column (Nov 21) to appear unhindered and without explanation. Only the following week (Nov 28) Vir decided to give himself a break from  Counterpoint so he could come back “refreshed”.
NDTV first put out an on-the-go kind of clarification questioning Open more than answering questions. A few days later, Barkha wrote out a longer defence and finally on November 30 she did her “I was gullible, I was innocent, I made an error of judgment, but I’m not corrupt” number on prime time. That was brave of her, but bravado was not under doubt here, an editor’s wisdom was.

At least, Vir and Barkha tried to say their bit. But their organisations were nowhere in the picture. Hindustan Times star columnist’s integrity was under cloud but it neither defended him nor suspended him. By giving her an entire show to defend herself, NDTV showed it stood by Barkha, but did not seem to care for its viewers.

Prannoy Roy, once the most trusted face on Indian TV, found no reason to square up with his viewers when their trust in the channel may have been shaken. Junior reporters are routinely taken off air for lesser transgressions . Will Barkha be able to do that now as editor?

Vir and Barkha defended their reputations. What did HT and NDTV do? They took Vir and Barkha’s word and left it at that. Much like prime minister Manmohan Singh six months ago. He said everything was above board in the 2G telecom licences case. Who told him? A Raja!

But the greater shock is how the so-called national press handled the issue. The Hindu’s editor, N Ram, unlike other editors was unequivocal. “They have certainly crossed the line,” he said on CNN-IBN. “They would not have lasted five minutes in a foreign news organisation.”

His newspaper though put the story, incredibly, on the edit page!

The Indian Express ignored it till November 30 when it put out a full page with a very telling headline: “Government has ordered a probe, Tata has gone to court, the Radia tapes have forced the media to ask questions: about itself.” Yeah, 12 days of behaving like nothing happened.

Same with the Times of India. Not a word on the biggest media scandal of recent times. Santosh Desai’s column appears every Monday in the Delhi edition of the paper. On Monday, November 20, he wrote in his column: “There is a Soviet silence on television these days. Beneath the noise of the 2G scam…lurks a deeper silence that haunts every minute of every channel. The decision to blank out the murky goings-on involving some of India’s top names in journalism is a staggeringly significant one.”

That column appeared on the paper’s website, but was yanked out of the paper itself!

Arnab Goswami’s Times Now, who never tires of asking questions,  wrote an internal note warning his journalists but evaded asking questions of his profession even as the “whole nation was watching tonight”  busying himself with every scam other than the media scam.

The only news show of consequence happened on CNN-IBN. Karan Thapar’s Last Word took up the issue squarely, named Vir and Barkha, and asked all the uncomfortable questions. But that was not before his editor and president of the Editor’s Guild, Rajdeep Sardesai had brushed it aside: “If you can prove quid pro quo, do it. Else don’t tarnish hard-earned reputations.” (Mail Today).

Meanwhile, cyberspace was on fire. On Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites there was a tsunami of protest (though they singled out Barkha calling it Barkhagate). And unlike the conventional print and TV, the Netizens was unafraid to ask tough questions.

It was the pressure from cyberspace that finally made the two organisations and the rest of the media take a little more notice of the sorry scandal than when it began.
Yet, the story still stays out of the news, relegated to edit pages and news analysis in obscure inside pages.

Alas, it took but one scandal to show up that the media is as bereft of all the values that it expects in every other profession. At least Sonia Gandhi gets her ministers to quit and order eye-wash enquiries.

When the dust settles on this scandal, it will be clear that even if conventional media wants to hide, the new media will not allow it to. Even to date, conventional media is seen as trustworthy, that what it prints or broadcasts is sacred. But that age of innocence of the reader is well nigh over. If that bond is strained more or broken again, conventional media might lose its relevance to the new media faster than we foresee.

From the shameful behaviour of the national media in trying to cover up its scandal, that might not be such a bad thing.

This first appeared in the Dec 1-15 issue of Governance Now magazine (Vol.01, Issue 21).



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