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.
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.