Media, politics, business and a lobbyist - India’s own WikiLeaks

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

NEW DELHI - Where does brokering begin and lobbying end, who draws the line between journalistic ethics and peddling corporate interests, and just how does one separate the overlapping worlds of industry and politics that directly impact on our day-to-day lives and governance?

These and other questions have seized the public discourse for the last fortnight since India’s very own WikiLeaks broke with two magazines - Open and Outlook - publishing transcripts of conversations between corporate lobbyist Niira Radia and high profile journalists, industrialists, politicians and other influential people.

The transcripts involving conversations between Radia, who heads Vaishnavi Communications and whose clients include industrialists Mukesh Ambani as well as Ratan Tata, came into the public domain just a few days after the resignation of DMK leader A. Raja as communications and IT minister for his suspected involvement in the allotment of 2G spectrum in 2008 that is estimated to have cost up to $39 million.

The dramatis personae include NDTV editor Barkha Dutt, Hindustan Times editorial director and TV host Vir Sanghvi, Tata Sons Chairman Ratan Tata, DMK MP Kanimozhi and former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s foster son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya.

The recordings, part of more than 5,800 intercepts by the income tax department of Radia’s conversations between May 11, 2009 and July 11, 2009, give a peek into the goings on in the highest echelons of power.

Is this how governments are formed, asked some bewildered readers while others lapped up the details.

The tapes were submitted as evidence in a litigation on the 2G spectrum row in the Supreme Court.

The conversations that have been published cover two essential strands - jockeying for cabinet berths in the days after the Manmohan Singh government came back to power and the dispute over gas between the Ambani brothers.

The intercepts show how Radia made a bid to manoeuvre DMK MPs into the cabinet through discussions with Barkha Dutt, Kanimozhi, Sanghvi and Tata.

The conversations with Sanghvi, who has since stopped his popular Counterpoint column in Hindustan Times, also revolve around Mukesh Ambani.

“What kind of story do you want? Because this will go as Counterpoint, so it will be like most-most read, but it can’t seem too slanted, yet it is an ideal opportunity to get all the points across,” he is quoted a saying

And Raja is heard as telling Radia: “”Hmm tell Sunil Mittal (Airtel chief), you have to work along with Raja for another five years”

As one controversy dovetailed into another, the ramifications were felt far and wide. Cyber wires burnt up with people expressing their dismay and revulsion on Twitter and Facebook, people called up people who knew people who might know what was happening to find out whether any action could be taken against Barkha Dutt, an inspirational figure for an entire generation of young women.

Media analyst Sevanti Ninan told IANS: “People see the media as primarily players, observers and analysts in the local and national affairs. What we need to focus on perhaps is how the journalists see themselves. I feel that some journalists think themselves to act as players or advisors to the powerful. Assuming such contrasting roles hampers, in my opinion, their main task of reporting.”

Tata has gone to the Supreme Court, contending that the publication of the intercepts violated his right to privacy.

And, almost two weeks after the sensational disclosures, Barkha Dutt answered four editors - Dileep Padgaonkar, Sanjaya Baru, Swapan Dasgupta and Open editor Manu Joseph - on NDTV Tuesday night.

As they grilled her on her talks with Radia, who is also being questioned by the Enforcement Directorate, Dutt said that all she could be accused of was error of judgment and that there was no malintent on her part. Radia was a source she was stringing along for information on the jostling for cabinet posts, she said.

Whether she was convincing or not is a matter of dispute.

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