Good grief, how time flies. It seems only yesterday that everyone was chattering about one woman’s phone chats but it’s almost a year away. In 2008, the Indian Income Tax Department had apparently tapped one Niira Radia’s phone. Why? Who knows? Radia worked in corporate communication and was, allegedly, a political lobbyist. For 300 days her conversations were recorded. The Income Tax department ended up with tapes of Radia talking to journalists, editors and industrialists; convincing them to support and help politician and former minister A. Raja.

Last year, the transcripts were mysteriously leaked to the media. Some did nothing with them but publications like Indian Express and The Deccan Herald (newspapers) as well as Outlook and Open (magazines) printed the transcripts. There followed a flurry of denials (from journalists whose integrity was questioned), righteous anger (from those who printed the transcripts) and arrests (for those accused of corruption). A. Raja fell, and how.

At present, the government denies having leaked the tapes. I think they’ve even denied tapping Radia’s phone.

Yesterday, one of the journalists who was accused of being too friendly with Radia, Vir Sanghvi put up this article on his website. (Incidentally, Radia “announced her exit from the business of communication consultancy” today.) He’s got proof that the tapes of him and Radia were doctored to make it seem as though he was writing according to Radia’s specifications and thus effectively lobbying for Radia’s client. Sanghvi doesn’t know who has done it but he has thrown out a possibility.

Off the record, government sources told me last year that corrupt officials had made the tapes at the behest of corporate interests and that genuine and false tapes may have been mingled in the IT department’s archives. The tapes were leaked as a diversion, they suggested, to throw the media off the scent while those actually involved in 2G used the time to clean up their money trails before the CBI eventually charge-sheeted them.

On the other hand, corporate sources told me that this was too major an operation for any business house. They said that the leaks were a symptom of a war within the Cabinet, where ministers were even bugging each other’s offices. I laughed dismissively then. I am not laughing now.

If, as Sanghvi and many others believe, the Radia tapes were political chess, then they were pretty darn effective.

Me, I’m more gut-twisted about the fact that mainstream media published the tapes without verifying whether they were doctored. Ok, as Sanghvi shows, verification is difficult but how are any of the newspapers or magazines going to justify the fact that they published something that was false? Shouldn’t someone have explored the kind of sources that Sanghvi mentions above to get some sort of hazy confirmation that the tapes and transcripts were legitimate? Someone, some people, conned the media and used them as pawns to push through an agenda that had nothing to do with real news. And the media fell for it.

The fact of the matter is that from the time you’re the babiest potato in the chip shop of Indian journalism, you know a large bulk of our press is corrupt. Reviewers take money and favours; reporters present partial facts; newspapers watch out for sponsors’ backs. Apparently the average reader believes everything they read in The Times of India whereas the newspaper is regarded as the evil empire by most journalists because it is a fact that paid news carries no stigma in The Times of India. There’s actually an official rate card. They’re not the only ones who do it by any means, but The Times is more open to it and systematic than most others. The Radia transcripts being published was supposed to show at least some of Indian journalism stood by its ethics, even if this meant attacking its own tribe. Now it looks like those who were the champions of honesty are the ones who were serving an agenda. Either that or we’re a dangerous combination of desperation (for deadlines) and sloth. I’m going with the latter option.

Sanghvi ends his article with this thought:

I have no right to get self-righteous about Outlook because, in my career as an editor, I have also carried tapes without verification. Besides, how reliable is verification, anyway? … As journalists, we lack the expertise to tell what is genuine and what is a fake.

So then, in these times and in this country, what is a journalist’s expertise, if it is not to find and put forth the truth, the facts? Who are we and what are we doing?

I recently came across a tv series titled “The Hour”. It’s set in 1950s’ Britain, in the BBC. A group of journalists start a program called The Hour, which is like a curated digest of the most important news stories. It’s got some crackling performances in there, particularly by Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai, Dominic West and Anton Lesser. I’m often amused by how much of the social dynamics and tensions of Britain and America from 1950s- 1960s feels applicable to contemporary India. “The Hour” is a good example. You’d think it would seem foreign and retro but the journalists fighting censorship and political machinations to bring out real news is searingly relevant to India today. Feeling stifled by fluffy feelgood pieces about socialites, struggling to make sense of reports and rumours that come to your office from a faraway place that you can’t access directly, finding the strength of convictions to not tow the official line, knowing when a story is ready to released to a viewership and when it needs more work — these are just some of the riddles and issues that make “The Hour” unexpectedly real to an Indian journalist.

At the end of season 1 — damn the Brits for seasons comprising just six episodes — Ben Whishaw’s character, Freddie, is berated by a superior, Clarence. Clarence is furious that Freddie turned a story that could have been a shattering exposé into a personal, emotional campaign. Clarence seems right until you realise, had Freddie treated the story with what seems like objectivity, he may have brought certain facts to light but he would also have served an enemy’s agenda. Throughout the series, the twists in the tales constantly emphasise that no facts are straightforward, that nothing is as it seems. But it isn’t until the end that you realise just how difficult it is to report facts and how complicated the notion of a free press can be. When I look at the papers every morning — today’s Times of India headline yelled “All Set For The Lap Dance” because India’s first F1 nonsense was today — I wonder how many of us have realised what we were getting into when we set out to become journalists.

4 thoughts on “Vir Sanghvi, The Radia Tapes and The Hour

    • Thanks for posting that link. I hope they’re right. If not to hold on to a sliver of hope about the integrity of news media, then to justify Hartosh Singh Bal’s smug tone. But is Vir Sanghvi really as daft as they’re making him out to be? EDITED TO ADD: Essentially Open says Sanghvi’s tape “could have been doctored only if tens of hours of recording involving dozens of people was doctored.” That’s not a very convincing argument and it’s certainly not evidence to prove the tape wasn’t doctored.

      Whether or not the tapes are doctored, however, the problem of facts and how they are reported, if at all, is a very real issue for Indian media. For example, someone told me that most of the local news channels and even newspapers in Kolkata have next to nothing on the recent infant deaths. Of course, things aren’t as bad as they could have been in socialist India years, when news could be stifled for days — remember Operation Blue Star? Or even the news of Indira Gandhi’s death? — but not even the statistic of having the highest number of news channels is enough to guarantee all the news is reported.

  1. What makes me freak out, really, is the reaction of the internet crusaders, who used the whole Nira Radia controversy like a personal power trip and dished out the worst possible charges against the journalists in question. In other words, Vir and Barkha, because they are the most successful, and so, much more fun to bring down.

    What did Sanghvi say in those tapes anyway that is such a big deal? Excuse me, but as a journalist I sweet-talk sources every single day of my life. I am sure a sales executive or anybody else in any profession has to do that every day too. (Some respectable corporate houses even offer women to clients to keep them happy!!!)

    So, what is the big deal, EVEN IF THOSE TAPES WERE AUTHENTIC? The man writes an “opinion” column. He DOES NOT report news. So even if he chooses to support a corporate house, it is HIS BLOODY RIGHT. If you don’t like what he says, don’t read him.

    I cannot believe someone like Vir Sanghvi will ever write anything that goes against his image, in any case. He is one of the smartest journos we have, and he is very conscious of his intellectual superiority. He will never write something he does not believe, as well. I became a journalist because of Vir Sanghvi. He is my inspiration. And I hate to see how he has been maligned over such a non-issue.

    Very brave too, to rake up the Radia tape issue one year later when people had forgotten about the whole hoo-haa. A GUILTY person would never re-kindle a dead controversy. But Vir did, and that in itself is proof of his credibilty. If he did not fear the internet crusaders getting back on his case, and more media attention to that yucky incident, then that is because he knows he is right. God bless that man.

    • Too true about every journalist cajoling their sources. No matter whether the beat is crime or politics or Bollywood, everyone murmurs sweet nothings to get the stuff we need out of people.

      From the little I’ve read and heard, it seems few people in the media believe Sanghvi. So from the perspective of clearing his name, I don’t know how successful Sanghvi’s move has been. From the perspective of an average reader, it’s just plain old confusing.

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