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Media and Ethics

No less than 104 intercepted phone conversations, carefully selected out of 5,000, tapped by the Income Tax Department, has left India’s media in turmoil. Surprisingly, though, the decade’s most notorious scandal could not charm the Indian media which is always sniffing for “breaking news” and exclusive stories. Reason: it exposed two top pro-establishment Indian journalists – Ms. Barkha Dutt, NDTV diva of Kargil fame, and Mr. Vir Sanghvi, columnist and Editorial Director of the Hindustan Times– who were caught working as couriers or go-betweens Congress leaders and Ms Nira Radia, a corporate lobbyist and PR agent.
The revelations came against the backdrop of a recent 2G spectrum telecom scam which demonstrated how the then Telecommunications Minister, Mr. A. Raja, bent the rules to favour many top companies, especially those of tycoons Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata. Now we know why both Ambani and Tata lobbied for Raja to become the Telecommunication Minister after the last general elections. Radia has huge stakes in this ballgame because both Ambani and Tata are among her top clients.
When talks between the Congress and DMK broke down over a possible alliance in Government in May 2009, Radia got actively involved in opening channels between the two parties for reconciliation. It turns out that one of Radia’s interests was to get a certain gentleman by the name of A. Raja to become the telecommunications minister. This is the same Mr. Raja who, as the minister-in-charge, has recently been at the centre of the multibillion corruption scam. The taped phone conversations have now put the heat on the top dogs of the media who are said to have had a hand in helping make him a minister in the first place.
Another highlight of the tapes was the dispute over fixing the price of natural gas between Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries and his brother Anil Ambani’s Reliance Natural Resources (RNRL). Mukesh Ambani has cleverly used Radia’s PR in the media to win the legal battle against his brother and Sanghvi’s column in the Hindustan Times on the gas issue is proof of the latest media trend of “selling space”.
Mr. Sanghvi, it now turns out, was cajoled by Radia to write that column in the Hindustan Times supporting Mukesh. It emerges that both Barkha and Sanghvi agreed to convey “appropriate” messages to the Congress high-command to influence their decisions. After the backlash, Barkha immediately turned towards social media and defended herself through her tweets. One of her tweets says, “Barkha Dutt – Amazed angered and saddened at inability of some to distinguish between gathering info and ridiculous labels like lobbying/powerbroking”.
The irony here is that the Indian media is always in a frenzy about “sting operations” to expose corruption in the greasy world of Politics, Bollywood and Business. But this is the first time that the media has been trapped in a similar situation. The bigger irony is that the mainstream media has closed ranks and almost killed the news, confirming its close links with Corporate India.
N Ram, the editor of “The Hindu”, defended such accountability of media-persons as well. He said the media needs to be on the spot light. “It is embarrassing and unprofessional of them. Hats off to those who brought it to the public”, said Ram bluntly. S. Nihal Singh, a senior journalist, wrote that “a singular feature of the tape is how some journalists think of themselves as kingmakers…and revel in high-level political drama”.
In the plethora of news channels which compromise quality and now objectivity in pursuit of “sensational and juicy” news, such media gimmicks still shock audiences. The “breaking news syndrome” has led the media to violate ethics and professional integrity. Should journalists “lead-on” sources, as Barkha and Sanghvi have claimed in defense, or should there be clear red lines when something like this becomes an act for lobbying on behalf of sources?
These are serious issues. If they had broken the news that the DMK was using a top professional lobbyist, who was also working for the Mukesh Ambani and Tata groups, to influence congress, that would have been a true and sensational story. But they did the opposite. They connived in Radia’s efforts, with Sanghvi even publishing a scripted column in his paper in favour of Mukesh Ambani.
Feeble voices in support of both journalists are progressively being drowned out even more. Barkha Dutt’s “tweets” in defense show anger and frustration but are not terribly credible. Not so long ago, a Pakistani journalist, Hamid Mir, was also caught in a similarly embarrassing situation after his incriminating conversation with an unnamed terrorist was tapped. Now the decade’s worst media scandal has thrown a new challenge: how to hold the media accountable for its forays in politics and corrupt practices.
The Indian media has gone far in pursuit of fame and commercialism, in the process forgetting, for instance, the real issues that journalists in the north and north-east are facing where insurgencies are raging and human rights abuses by security forces are legion. Indeed, a powerful corporate culture has almost isolated and blacked-out those real heroes who are still facing censorship and death threats by state and non state actors.
This division of the Indian media into those who brazenly uphold corporate or government interests and those who stand for the public good and human rights is threatening the very fabric of media professionalism and ethics and codes of conduct. If the Barkha-Sanghvi scandal is a wake up call, then it is still not too late to reverse the trend. But if it is going to be swept under the carpet by owners and editors, then it is a sad day for India’s media and India’s democracy.

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About the author

Sadaf Arshad

Sadaf Arshad works as the Executive Editor of South Asian Media Monitor at South Asian free Media Association (SAFMA). She has been writing for The Friday Times & The Post. Currently she is Columnist with English Daily Pakistan Today. She holds a Masters degree in Mass Communication and has a deep-rooted interest in subjects like peace and development, security, poverty eradication, economic, gender equality and minority issues.

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