Posted by: John Elliott | December 3, 2010

‘Radia tapes’ highlight media flaws that fit with modern India

There’s been an awful lot of sanctimonious talk on Indian tv and in the media in the past week or so about the shock horror of discovering that Niira Radia, a prominent business lobbyist (who I last mentioned here), has used well known journalists and editors as messengers and influence peddlers on key issues such as coalition government ministerial jobs and allocation of telecom licences.

One leading editor said on television how shocking it was that the lobbyist was working for a big family controlled corporation to try to arrange that friendly politicians were given useful cabinet posts – and said this had never happened before.

That is rubbish – Dhirubhai Ambani, founder of the Reliance group, was doing it decades ago, long before his son, Mukesh Ambani, and Ratan Tata of the Tata group hired Ms Radia. As Hamish McDonald has recorded in his Reliance-Ambani’s history (with different wording in some editions) , in 1979 “Dhirubhai put his resources behind Indira Gandhi’s efforts to split the Janata coalition”, and did a similar exercise in 1990 (financing a campaign with other industrialists). In the late 1980’s he “swung the appointment” of a Reserve Bank of India deputy governor. Mukesh Ambani is reputed, on one of the Radia tapes, to have referred to the Congress Party as “apni dukaan” (our shop).

Another editor claimed Radia’s attempts at cabinet-fixing was the biggest story for a decade, which was just silly. He was using that argument to pillory Barkha Dutt, a leading NDTV anchor, whose excitable nature energises her chat shows and reporting, but sometimes interferes with her judgements. She is one of the journalists being attacked and was being criticised by Manu Joseph, editor of Open Magazine, which (along with Outlook magazine) has been running leaked audio tapes of Ms Radia’s conversations with influential contacts. Mr Joseph criticised Ms Dutt for not reporting on Ms Radia’s manoeuvrings. She agreed she maybe should have done so, but said – and I agree – that this was scarcely a serious professional misdeed.

Nor is it new or amazing that journalists get involved, either naively and innocently, or for financial or other gain, in listening to lobbyists and sometimes carrying out their wishes – though that has increased as the growth of tv news channels has turned journalists like Ms Dutt into celebrities. Another editor in the firing line, Vir Sanghvi, who has had a series of top jobs in the Hindustan Times group, was caught up in this – and he did seem to be taking dictation from Ms Radia on issues to do with the Ambanis. His explanation was that he also listened to what opponents of Radia’s client had to say.

India’s media not ‘free’

This sad tale surely casts doubt on the widely held assumption that India’s media is one of the most free in the world. Tina Brown, a British-born US magazine editor, who now runs the Daily Beast news website and edits Newsweek, believes (according to a blog on the Daily Beast) that Indian journalism is “vibrant, rich, and healthy”, in contrast with journalism in the West, which “is believed to be in the grip of an existential and financial crisis”.

The financial crisis point in the west is of course true. It is also correct that print media in India is expanding fast, but much of it is not very profitable for a variety of reasons that include domineering tactics used by market leaders such as the Times of India group.

It is also far from “vibrant rich and healthy” in terms of ethics – so much so in fact that I would argue that it is far from free because many editors and journalists are fed, in one way or another, by powerful businessmen and politicians. This influence means that editors are not free of outside influence, and it stops the Indian media being a watch dog curbing errant politicians and businessmen. The most interesting first question to ask, when a politician’s or businessman’s alleged misdeeds are exposed, is not whether the allegations are correct but who fed and encouraged the journalist or editor to write and run the story.

That is especially relevant in the current spate of corruption scandals and exposure of media links. Attacks on someone like Ms Radia do not run and run unless they are being encouraged by, for example, an opponent of one of her clients. In such cases, fingers usually point to one of Dhirubhai Ambani’s two estranged sons, Mukesh and Anil, though there are of course many others in the game.

None of this is new

But none of this is new. Nine years ago, in an article in the British Journalism Review, I wrote:

“A large proportion of what appears in the print media is ‘planted’ by vested interests – notably national and local politicians (who are becoming more arrogant in their use of power), bureaucrats (who are underpaid and becoming more avaricious), businessmen (who cash in on the above), and police (underpaid and greedy).

“Working in a highly status conscious society, editors and reporters are not so irreverent towards authority as their counterparts in many other countries – and they are far more flattered by the attention of people in important positions. They are thus more vulnerable to accepting ‘plants’ and to being persuaded not to run controversial stories. Most journalists ……welcome the bribes that are offered by politicians and businessmen with “brown paper envelopes” and other gifts…… One company, which is known to be the most adept at managing political and public opinion, is widely believed to even have journalists (as well as politicians and civil servants) on its payroll”

I also told this story: “When I was first in India for the Financial Times in the 1980s, S.P.Hinduja, the elder of the infamous Hinduja brothers, failed to persuade me to ghost-write articles for him, hinting at fat fees. When I returned in 1995, he and his brothers tried, again unsuccessfully, to get me to ghost-write a book on governments that they had dealt with around the world. Together with other journalists, I was later given a small tv set after a press conference [held in Mumbai’s Taj Hotel where I was staying] by the Hindujas’ cable tv company. I returned the set so fast [once I had got back to my room and saw what I had been given] that I forgot to note down what model it was, so could not put a value on the implied bribe.”

Such cameos, I wrote, were not in themselves very dramatic; but they illustrated one aspect of the sharp decline that had taken place in the standards of Indian journalism over the previous ten to 20 years. Most newspapers had become more trivial; many reporters had stopped checking stories and putting them in context; very few editors monitored the quality of news reporting; sub-editors did little sub-editing; and proprietors asserted more control over consumer-oriented content, usually through their advertising directors.

Paid news

That has worsened dramatically in recent years with the advent of “paid news”, where politicians and businessmen pay papers to run favourable news in their columns. This surfaced as a scandal in 2008-09 with the same sort of breast-beating that is happening this week. In last year’s elections, there were many reports of politicians paying for news coverage – and of newspapers and tv stations offering favourable coverage in return for substantial negotiable payments. The chief minister of Haryana state even admitted it (see this Outlook report in December 2009 for the details).

The Bennett Coleman group started paid news five years ago in its Times of India and Economic Times titles, and was followed by others including the Hindustan Times and the Bhaskhar group, India’s largest local language newspaper publisher. This was taken a stage further with a system called Private Treaties, where Bennett Colman acquires smallish financial stakes in companies in return for running favourable editorial and advertising.

Just as the media is now self-flagellating over the conversations and motives of Ms Radia with Ms Dutt and others, so it agonised earlier over paid news. The Press Council produced a report earlier this year saying that “the phenomenon of paid news has acquired serious dimensions,” and that “it is undermining democracy in India.” Aroon Purie, who runs the India Today media group, said a few months ago that paid news was self-destructive and one day would mark the “death of journalism”. But nothing has been done because those involved did not want anything done.  

It is therefore surely outrageous for journalists and editors to be parading through the television studios on the Radia story, claiming sanctimoniously that journalism has sunk to a new low, when many of them have been deep in that process of decline for years and the others have done little to improve general standards.

People close to India’s media know  it is “insular” and “corrupt”, as the Daily Beast blog I mentioned above says. Rajdeep Sardesai, who runs India’s CNN-IBN news channel and is a leading programme anchor, said at a seminar in Delhi this morning that journalists are “carried away by the wish to be power brokers” in a society where politicians and “corporate India will do anything to suborn the system”.

You might therefore say that India has got the media, and the Radia-style lobbyists, that it deserves. If that is so, it is unlikely to change until the society in which it operates also changes - and there sadly seems to be little prospect of that happening any time soon.

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Responses

  1. John. Very good analytical article. I agree with comment by broadsword that when no one follows the rules on the road , park or railway station it starts pervading all sectors. I can see it in so called noble fields like doctors and teachers. They also seem to be giving up (if not already given up) their values. You hear of stories of it in the armed forces as well. I wonder if you are aware of any other country which has drifted this way and where they are now. Hope that will shock people to change.

  2. I don’t agree that THIS is the media India deserves. If such spoon-feeding by lobbyists, corporates and politicians is all that journalists depend on to do stories, one is aghast at the thought of how those stories on Nithari, Jessica Lal, Arushi, SPS Rathore etc were done. Gone are the days when journalists saw the profession as a “mission”. Now, it is mostly children of the affluent who practice journalism for some pin money and to parade their wardrodes. On the way, they fool themselves that they are opinion-makers. All along, they are doing someone else’s bidding. If journos ignore plugs and do straight stories, the editors do the needful “value-additions”, after chiding the field-reporters for not going beyond the news!

  3. A very nice read, and thanks Economist for the link!

    While the internet has clearly made it harder for the media to suppress stories (as was tried with this one), it’s disturbing to think about how influential external interests must be on journalism in the country. This issue only happened to come to light because the IT dept was bugging Radia, and someone leaked those tapes.

    Also, I fear that people are responding excessively to the “journalism in crisis” story and forgetting about the insane Raja corruption story, which has cost the Indian people some 1,000+ crores. Both issues deserve in-depth coverage (too much to hope for? People are probably jaded with the corruption thing after the Commonwealth Games…)

  4. Excellent commentary on the state of Indian business journalism today. I, being a business journalist in Delhi, personally know of a few journalists, who get ‘news’ (scanned copies of cabinet notes and other secret government documents) on their emails by afternoon. Lobbyists reward their friendly journalists in easily ‘earning’ their bread and butter without having to get out of their office. This is particularly true for those covering happening sectors like telecom and petroleum.
    When accuracy and credibility are not concerns for news selection, reporters who gather news by spending a lot of energy and time on the field do not get a level playing field. Often people justify the practice of getting ‘news’ on government’s policy decisions from industry sources and lobbyists saying that source is immaterial. But I remember the definition of news that The Economist carried some time ago. Whatever that comes to a reporter easily is not news, it is just PR.
    Sombody needs to drive this point into the heads of Indian journalists. Many of such emailed documents are doctored to suit the interests of the provider or his clients

  5. Back in the late 50′s, GD Birla boasted that he paid Rs. 5000 in income taxes one year.
    India, like many places, is more a collection of communities than a nation. Values of protecting and enhancing one’s family’s fortune are much higher than serving global or national values. As nations become more and more at the service of corporate fortunes and less and less willing to deal with social issues, we see a dramatic decline in moral character everywhere. India is much like the US in this regard, but perhaps this form of anti-Weberian corruption is more entrenched since universal bureaucratic values are less generally accepted or internalized by ordinary persons.

  6. That was an excellent post. Ms. Dutt raises a range of issues on coverage by the media in the panel discussion on NDTV, which, ironically, can be equally said about a lot of coverage by NDTV too.

    The slant and the sensationalism displayed in coverage of anything – ranging from the Arushi murder case, IPL, new movie releases, the live relay of “raw material” during the 26/11 terror attack, the un-repenting defence of that coverage – the list is endless.

  7. John, that’s a very fair, balanced and objective assessment of the issues that have arisen from the Radia intercepts.

    None of us really know the nature of the relationship that Niira Radia had with the journalists she was talking to in those phone intercepts. I know most of them, being a journalist myself, and can bet my last paisa that they were not being paid by her.

    However, since I’m posting anonymously, I can reveal that I was invited for coffee by a senior Radia manager a couple of years back and invited (in veiled but unmistakable terms) to “work with” honest and well-intentioned private companies by “helping in the formulation of good policy”, etc.

    As for the journalists in the tapes, I think they proved one thing: just as Indians in general have stopped observing rules — on the roads, in government offices, in parks, almost anywhere — journalists too have stopped observing the basic rule that they must maintain some distance from the people they report on. The violation of this cardinal principle creates the objectivity-destroying chumminess that was evident in those taped conversations. And it also creates the giggly, buddy-buddy, oh-we’re-such-good-friends kind of anchor-guest relationships that you can see any evening that you tune in to NDTV or Times Now or CNN-IBN.

    Journalists, particularly TV reporters and anchors, have forgotten that they are not the story… and that they merely reporting them.

  8. @john
    Check out this piece – ‘Paid news would finish off journalism unless…’
    http://www.rediff.com/news/special/paid-news-would-finish-off-journalism-unless/20101203.htm

  9. John,
    Interestingly, the Radia tapes also reveal that MK Narayanan former National Security Adviser (NSA) and former Director of the Intelligence Bureau (DIB) and now Governor of West Bengal, was actively working as messenger between the DMK headquarters in Chennai and Congress party headquarters in New Delhi in the behind-the-scene goings on. This egregious activity was not part of his duties as NSA. But his readiness to do his bit for the ruling party in New Delhi from time to time was perhaps among the reasons for Narayanan’s selection for the post of NSA in the first place.
    KS Subramanian.

  10. Kudos John, the more voices with gravitas that say something the better, I only wish you had chosen to cover it earlier, when there was clear unspoken collusion in the domestic media to cover up the story. Frankly that shocked me more than any other part of the saga, because it suggested to me, that individual media groups were afraid of casting stones whilst living in their own glass houses and the rot is deep and pervasive. Having lived here less time than you and obviously not being a journalist, I was completely unaware of that and it has indeed been eye opening.

    I think the example you cite about your own personal experience with the Hinduja’s is telling on two levels, the first is obviously journalists can continue to be successful without breaching their ethics and undermining their credibility. Secondly I find the notion that agreeing to do a favour for a lobbyist and quid pro quo is necessary in order to continue receiving information laughable. I assume the Hinduja’s continued talking to you even after you refused their requests and returned their gifts.

    Access to journalist with large platforms and audiences by sources (particularly corporate PR) is far more important from the corporates perspective, than the journalists access to lobbyist’s. The number of journalists with significant influence is actually quite limited.

    Ms Dutt’s defence that she lied and was stringing a source along in order to obtain more information was inadequate. She had two real options available to her when the request was made to help broker a deal between the DMK and Congress. The first is when asked to help broker a deal between two political parties in the process of cabinet formation, she could have told the source, that was a role she could not fulfil because it would be an ethical breach and was not her job, or she could have agreed to do it and told the lobbyist there would have to be full disclosure on her part including revealing the source of the request to do so, anything short would be a conflict of interest.

    Hard to see her losing access to someone like Miss Radia had she opted for either one of those two options. The fact that she chose instead to “lie” and agree suggests to me a deluded sense of grandeur.

  11. potted plants seem to be a great hobby with businessmen and politicuians

  12. John–having read a lot of columns these past two weeks on this I was a bit disappointed because I figured you would focus on what can and needs to be done than join the lament.

  13. “it is unlikely to change until the society in which it operates also changes”

    So it is not in my lifetime.

  14. Media means ‘gossipping jokers’ and these jokers will have there share of ‘highs’ and ‘lows’. Its not disgusting but enjoyable ‘circus’. How can someone be serious with jokers like dutt, sangvi, etc. and including ‘you’ in media? Does media possess any qualification to be respected? It comes next to brothel .


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