When objective observers turn players in the game

When objective observers turn players in the game

The voices much of urban India heard last week do belong to the people to whom they were originally ascribed by Open and Outlook, and a few other publications.

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has, in an affidavit in the Supreme Court, indicated that the digital recordings of disembodied voices are authentic and also legitimate—they were obtained by tapping the phone of lobbyist Niira Radia so as to gather evidence against her for a tax case being pursued by the income-tax department. CBI has told the court that there are more tapes, which means that we are likely to see in print more conversations—some edifying, others not so, but all very interesting—between Radia and others, CEOs, journalists, and even her fellow lobbyists.

A senior government official who is in a position where he is likely to be aware of such things, says he too has reason to believe the recordings are real, although he won’t explain what this is or be named.

The two independent confirmations, as well as the absence of any denials from the individuals whose voices have been heard discussing gowns and cabinet positions and stories and where these can be planted, means that Mint can go ahead and write about the issue—which explains this column as well as another authored by Salil Tripathi that appeared on Thursday. Many journalists have been caught on tape with Radia, most saying things they probably wish they hadn’t said. Among them is Mint’s National M&A editor Baiju Kalesh whose conversation with Radia seems innocuous. In their desire to focus on tapes featuring Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times’ advisory editorial director, Barkha Dutt, NDTV’s group editor, and M.K. Venu, Financial Express’ editor, the media and the social media have overlooked recordings featuring other journalists. While the conversations aren’t, in most part, incriminating, they do show journalists, and journalism, in very poor light.

I do not remember ever speaking to Radia over the phone (but have met her thrice, including the one time at a Tata conference), but am referred to at least five times in the recordings that have been leaked so far (oh yes, they have been leaked; of that there is no doubt). In one instance, Radia mispronounces my name. In another, she suggests that I am the recipient of financial and, maybe, sexual favours from the Reliance-Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group, which has a case against me and Mint in a Mumbai court. Still, all this was said in a private conversation and I bear Radia no malice. I may have said worse things about her in private conversations (which are meant to stay private). And as subsequent events have shown, there clearly was a lot that I could have said. Now for the recordings themselves. Some of them have a senior journalist badmouthing other journalists, which isn’t really surprising in a profession where no one likes anyone else. Others have this person as well as other journalists discussing stories (and, in some cases, how these could be spun), government policy on spectrum and gas (in the context of the bitter fight between Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries and Anil Ambani’s Reliance Natural Resources over gas), and the formation of the government (in 2009).

None of the recordings I have heard suggests that any of the journalists named broke any laws, although it is evident to everyone who has heard the tapes that all of them crossed a line that few journalists do and became players in the great game they were meant to observe and cover. By doing this, all broke a journalistic code in terms of how information is to be gathered, and lobbyists be treated. This is a serious issue, but it is one that needs to be dealt with internally, by the media organizations involved. Some need a sharp rap on the knuckles; others, whose infractions are more serious, will need harsher punishment, but it’s for their organizations to decide on these, and mete them out. The harshest punishment will have to be reserved for those whose work indicates a bias arising from their interactions with Radia. And even as they do this, the media companies involved have to make their peace with the reading public.

Finally, this writer doesn’t believe in conspiracy theories, but it does seem convenient for the government that a controversy involving high-profile journalists has come to light at a time when the press has been giving it a hard time on charges of corruption in the organization of the Commonwealth Games, the allocation, in Mumbai, of flats meant for war heroes and war widows to others, and the issue of new telecom licences in 2008.

After all, the easiest way to obfuscate the issue of corruption in governance is to highlight corruption in other spheres, and journalists and bankers, the protagonists of this week’s scam, are soft targets.