Posts Tagged ‘Niira Radia’

Five reasons why Manmohan Singh is ‘guilty’

6 June 2012

After tearing down every one of Manmohan Singh‘s ministers, “Team Anna” has trained its guns on the prime minister himself, calling him “shikhandi“, accusing him of turning a blind eye while his colleagues were making merry, and charging him of presiding over the coal scam.

In a piece in The Hindu, Singh’s former media advisor Harish Khare offers a backhanded defence of his ex-boss:

“Manmohan Singh is not corrupt, but he is definitely guilty. He can be easily charged — along with his political partner, Sonia Gandhi — of pursing a politics of decency and of elevating reconciliation to a matter of state policy to the extent of avoiding confrontation; a luxury, statecraft does not permit a prime minister.

“Manmohan Singh is guilty of making the grievously erroneous assessment that Mob Anna was just a bunch of well-meaning civil society busybodies; he is guilty of not seeing through their incurable political agenda.

“Manmohan Singh is guilty of not being ruthless enough to crack open the Nira Radia tape case, a rogue operation carried by unscrupulous corporate elements.

“Manmohan Singh is guilty of not marshalling the intellectual and policy arguments to tell the nation that Vinod Rai‘s maximalist interpretation of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG)’s mandate has dangerously undermined the constitutional structure of equilibrium.

“Above all, Manmohan Singh is guilty of pursuing the noble quest for reconciliation at the expense of another maxim of statecraft: those who spurn the public authority’s hand of reconciliation must be made to learn the cost of confrontation. He is guilty of not learning the lesson from the mid-1970s and early 1990s when mobs were allowed to overwhelm the democratic institutions and their liberal ethos.”

Read the full article: Guilty on many counts, not corrupt

When Mukesh Ambani writes the media’s cheques

15 January 2012

The fears over what happens when a big business house with deep pockets and political influence across parties funds a big media house to legitimise its hitherto-hidden media interests are coming true even before the controversial Reliance Industries -Network18/TV18-Eenadu Television deal can be inked.

Obviously, the political class is silent. Obviously, TV18′s competitors won’t touch the story for reasons not difficult to imagine. Obviously, The Hindu won’t even publish a media column for reasons not difficult to fantasise.

But there has been no serious discussion of the implications of the deal on the media or on democracy in the mainstream media. Not on any of Network18′s usually high-decibel shows since the tie-up was announced on 3 January 2012. Not even on Karan Thapar‘s media show on CNN-IBNThe Last Word.

Print media coverage too has at best been sketchy. Even the newspapers and newsmagazines which have attempted to probe the complexities of the menage-a-troisThe Economic Times and The Indian ExpressOutlookand India Today, have barely managed to go beyond the numbers into the nuance.

Rajya Sabha TV, the newly launched television channel of the upper house of Parliament, has filled the breach somewhat with a no-holds barred discussion on the subject.

Anchored by Girish Nikam, a former Eenadu reporter who wrote five years ago on Ramoji Rao‘s travails, the RSTV debate flags all the important issues raised by the deal and underlines the role public service television can play in the service of the public when the corporate media gives up—or gives in.

Some of the comments made by three of the four participants on The Big Picture:

S. Nihal Singh, former editor of The Statesman: “My first reaction [on reading of the deal] was that it was time for India to have a really good anti-monopoly law for media, which is the norm in all democratic countries in the world, including the most advanced….

“The press council of India is totally dysfunctional because of the new chairman Justice Markandey Katju, who is baiting the media, who doesn’t believe in conversing with the media, or exchanging views with the media.”

***

Madhu Trehan, founder-editor of India Today and director, content, of the soon-to-be-launched media site, News Laundry: “It need not have happened if the government and corporates were more alert. One person owns much too much….

“Already every policy is decided by corporates as the 2G tapes (of Niira Radia) show. Not only is it dangerous that Mukesh Ambani will be deciding what policy will be decided, as you know has happened in the past, but he will also decide whether we can talk about it, or criticise it or expose it….

“Why is Reliance interested in media? It is not for money; it is obviously for influence. Rupert Murdoch was endorsing PMs and Presidents in three continents. Now we have the richest man in the country owning the largest network. Yes, there is an independent trust, but I don’t believe that. The purpose is to control the media. You are influencing policy, you are influencing how the government decides, and now you are going to decide how the people will hear about about you and the government….

“When a politician or a government spokesman speaks, we don’t believe them, but when somebody like Rajdeep Sardesai or Sagarika Ghose speaks, or anyone at IBN7 or TV18 comes on, we presume we should believe them. Now there is a big question mark [when RIL has indirect control over CNN-IBN]….

“In a deal of this size we are looking at very subtle plants of stories, subtle angles, subtly putting things in a certain way so that people think along in a certain way for a particular way. I don’t know if anyone can shut the door. It’s too late.”

***

Dilip Cherian, former editor Business India, head Perfect Relations: “Globally we have seen when big capital enters media, that is exactly what we are about to replicate for ourselves.

“Oligopolistic tendencies are visible in global media today, whether it is Silvio Berlusconi or Rupert Murdoch, the fact is they exercise humongous influence not on media but politics. Are we headed down the same road? At this time, the answer seems to be yes. Is it good? The universal answer from the question is that it isn’t,  not just because it affects the quality of news but because it affects the quality of politics….

“The entry of big capital is not new or news. What has happened in this case is a big distinction between foreign investment and domestic. Because of 4G, because the same business house owns the pipe, owns the content, there could also be another issue of monopoly. If I were the owner, I would say there needs to be a publicly visible ombudsmanship [to dispel the doubts]….

“There is room for concern, there is room for elements of self-rgulation. As a country we are not able to legislate for two reasons. One because of the influence business houses have on policy making. And two, when you bring in legislation (on regulation) up, the other group that is affected are politicians who own media houses of their own. You are talking about now a coalition of forces which the public is incapable of handling. You won’t see Parliament doing the kind of regulation they should, in an open manner, because there are interests on all sides.”

* Disclosures apply

Also readWill RIL-TV18-ETV deal win SEBI, CCI approval?

CHURUMURI POLL: Is BJP casteist on corruption?

6 January 2012

Nothing underlines hypocrisy better than when the shoe is on the other foot. When an anti-corruption campaigner who is waving the national flag for the Lok Pal bill (Kiran Bedi) is found to have fudged travel bills, or her compatriot (Shanti Bhushan) is charged of evading stamp duty of over a crore of rupees, it convinces even the most optimistic cynic in the Republic that hamaam mein sab nange hain.

And so it is with the BJP.

For months, actually for well over a year and a half, the so-called main opposition “party with a difference” at the Centre has feasted on the torrent of corruption scandals raining in on the Congress-led UPA government; its spokespersons sitting on the high moral pedestal offered by nightly television and holding forth self-righteously, like angels in the augean stables.

The  “former future prime minister of IndiaL.K. Advani, even went on a self-serving yatra, with the Hudco-scam tainted H.N. Ananth Kumar (whose links with Niira Radia is now legend) as his navigator. That the BJP was doing all this grandstanding even while B.S. Yediyurappa and other members of his outstanding cabinet were burning the candle of corruption at both ends was pure irony.

Now, the shoe is on the other foot once again, with a fullblown crisis having erupted in Uttar Pradesh over the BJP’s induction of scam-tainted former BSP minister, Babu Singh Khushwaha, into its ranks. This, even while the party boycotts Union home minister P. Chidambaram in Parliament on the 2G scam issueThe point here is not the BJP’s selective  blindness to corruption—that is every party’s weakness—rather, it is the BJP’s response to it.

Uma Bharati has raised a banner of revolt against Khushwaha’s inclusion threatening to stop campaigning for the party in UP; her close friend Yogi Adityanath has said he will quit the party; party luminaries like Maneka Gandhi and Kirti Azad have spoken out; and the party’s central leadership is said to be vertically split over Khushwaha’s inclusion reportedly engineered by party chief Nitin Gadkari, Ananth Kumar, et al.

The RSS is reported to have stepped into the picture and warned against accommodating the corrupt, and all indications are that Khushwaha will be dropped like a hot potato.

So, here is the question, notwithstanding the fact that Uma Bharati too is an OBC leader. How is it that vocal sections of the BJP and RSS find a voice against corruption only when Dalits (like Bangaru Laxman) or backward class leaders (like Khushwaha) are caught in a scam? Why was it absent when Yediyurappa (a Lingayat) was bringing such ignominy to the party, or when other upper caste members like Pramod Mahajan (a Brahmin) were not exactly smelling of roses?

Is the BJP casteist on a secular issue such as corruption?

Should ‘media corruption’ come under Lok Pal?

25 August 2011

The more-than-just-a-neutral-observer position taken by sections of the media on the Anna Hazare agitation has clearly begun to rile politicians, and at least two of them cutting across party lines have argued in the last couple of days that the media too must be brought under the purview of the proposed anti-corruption legislation.

Exhibit A: Union minister for law and social justice, Salman Khurshid.

According to a report in The Hindu, Khurshid asked Headlines Today executive editor Rahul Kanwal as to why media corruption should not be investigated under the Team Anna version of the Lok Pal bill.

“Do I need to go back to the Niira Radia tapes? Now you are asking why the government has not investigated. If we go ahead with the investigation, we would be accused of being insensitive. If we do, there would be a mass moment for the media.”

Exhibit B: Samajwadi Party president Mulayam Singh Yadav.

Again, according to a report in The Hindu, Mulayam’s demand that the media also be brought under the Lok Pal was met with thumping of desks by his colleagues.

“We [Samajwadi Party] suffered in the hands of media [during the polls],” he said during a debate on corruption. Even as a section of the treasury and opposition benche demanding that “media corruption” be also inquired into by Lokpal, Mulayam went on to state that it had become a practice for electronic channels to collect money during polls and air views in support of one party.”

Photograph: Television reporters deliver their piece to camera at the Ramlila grounds in New Delhi on Tuesday, against the backdrop of the stage on which Anna Hazare is fasting for the Lokpal bill

Also read: The ex-Zee News journo on Anna Hazare team

Ex-Star News, ToI journos on Anna Hazare team

Is the media manufacturing middle-class dissent?

CHURUMURI POLL: Who is next in 2G arrest list?

20 May 2011

Make no mistake, 20 May 2011, is a red-letter day in contemporary Indian politics.

A serving politician, the daughter of a mighty regional satrap who is a partner in the ruling alliance, has been arrested and sent to jail for her involvement in the country’s largest scam. While we may quibble over whether the CBI would have been given the freedom to do this by the government of the day if it weren’t for the fact that the Supreme Court is directing it, there is no denying that this is not a everyday occurrence.

Kanimozhi‘s arrest is not the end of the 2G investigation and hers is certainly not the last arrest. She represents only one side of a hydra-headed scam that involves bigger corporate and political fish. Already Sharad Pawar‘s name has been mentioned in the Swan-DB Realty linkup; even bigger political names are being hissed about. Tata Teleservices and Reliance Telecommunications, the construction company Unitech, the corporate titans Ratan Tata, Anil Ambani, Venugopal Dhoot, Prashant and Shashi Ruia have all been mentioned in some form or the other. Etc.

Questions: Did you think you would see this day? Will Kanimozhi sing in concert with A. Raja? Will more politicians go behind bars? Will Niira Radia be next? Will the arrest of corporate chiefs shake the “confidence” of investors in the “India Story”? Was telecom really the “success story” it was made out to be? Will such arrests put the fear of god in politicians and businessmen? Or will it be business as usual after a few days?

How Ananth Kumar danced to Niira Radia’s tunes

12 May 2011

A 2003 Lankesh Patrike picture showing then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee calling on Pejawar Swami (seated), with Niira Radia in tow

Every good scandal deserves to be immortalised between covers, and Niira Radia, the star of the 2G spectrum allocation scam, gets her due through a new book, “Close encounters with Niira Radia“, by the controversial lawyer and former parliamentarian, R.K. Anand.

Anand, who was stung by NDTV in the BMW hit-and-run case while trying to influence witnesses, gets his revenge through Radia, who coincidentally counted NDTV Imagine among her clients.

Edited by former India Today executive editor Inderjit Badhwar and published by Har-Anand publications, Close encounters with Niira Radia promises to be a “dramatic tell-all account by India’s top criminal lawyer of the character and con games of the corporate lobbyist whose activities have shaken India’s power class”.

In reality, it is little but a collation of reports and analyses on a “sprightly, bubbly and vivacious woman who at the age of 35 burst on to India’s political and business centre stage in the form of a whirling diva and whose every fervid gyration spun a web of cunning, duplicity and intrigue, ensnaring a veritable who’s who of those who run this nation’s business, political and journalistic empires.”

But the book does have its moments, and one of them is Niira Radia’s alleged proximity to the Karnataka BJP leader and former Union civil aviation minister, Ananth Kumar, which reportedly had his wife Tejaswini Ananth Kumar running to the doorstep of prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

***

By R.K. ANAND

“During 1996-97, I used to get medicines for my wife from the United States and Niira Radia was always a great help making arrangement for the safe transport of these life-enhancing drugs through her client, KLM. Niira had become a sister to me and I began treating her as one.

“The links between us grew stronger when she shifted her residence to a farm house near mine. As a neighbour, her visits became even more frequent.

“We chatted on just about every subject. But underlining all our bonversations was Niira’s emphasis on becoming the most successful businesswoman in India. She was driven by this motivation.

“It became obvious to me that she was going in for a big kill. What exactly that would be, I could not fathom. But it would be big or nothing at all. At that time I had no idea that she would spread her wings into the political arena to satisfy her craving for business and power.

“So it came as a shock to me when I discovered, one day, when visiting her farmhouse, dancing closely with NDA minister Ananth Kumar to western ballroom music….

***

“Niira always thought big. She was not satisfied with piddling assignments. Her ultimate ambition was to start her own airline. To achieve this target she needed the help of the new aviation minister, Ananth Kumar, who was a member of Parliament from Karnataka.

“No longer a stranger to the ways of Delhi and the art of cosying up to the high and mighty through a liberal use of contacts, name dropping, and invitations and parties, Niira had wasted no time in getting on the inside track with Ananth Kumar from his early days as minister.

“The BJP’s return to power in 1999 as well as Ananth Kumar’s regaining his former portfolio allowed her to continue to fly loftily in the aviation skies.

“She also had an added advantage. She knew more about the aviation industry than half of Ananth Kumar’s own top bureaucrats. Ananth Kumar, himself a neophyte, a rookie minister in the NDA government, found in Niira a good teacher about the intricacies, pitfalls and vicissitudes of the powerful aviation sector.

“Needless to say, he was also smitten by the femme fatale who was now so sure of her magic with men.

“She did not hide her closeness to him. Friends often saw them together at Sudesh Farm, Asola, in Delhi, where Niira was still living with Rao Dheeraj Singh – a former Sahara executive.

***

“Niira had her sights set. At whatever the cost, she wanted to sell helicopters to the governments of Maharashtra and Karnataka, Ananth Kumar’s home-state. With his help, she managed to clinch the deal for the two state governments.

“The hefty commissions she received went into Niira’s London and Channel Island accounts, recalls her partner Singh.

“The next window of opportunity for Niira as she continued to pursue her dream of conquering the skies by becoming an airline magnate was the air show in Bangalore….

“Niira like a female version of Icarus, had already begun spreading her wings. She was determined to influence the Indian government to buy aircraft from Airbus. She knew from her deep knowledge of governmental decision-making in this area that a new acquisition policy for fleet enhancement and acquisition for Indian Airlines and Air India was in the offing.

“From Ananth Kumar she learned that the process would be fast-tracked for both the flagship domestic and international carriers…. So persistent was her interference in the affairs of Indian Airlines, that the manging director P.C. Sen objected to her meddling. Niira’s benefactor, Ananth Kuamr, responded by removing Sen from that post.

“During the time that the aircraft acquisition policy was being changed Niira was a frequent visitor to Ananth Kumar’s official rsidence at 10, Prithviraj Road. According to intelligence reports, Niira and Ananth Kumar frequently travelled abroad.

“Ananth Kumar was actually a country bumpkin—a hayseed as the Americans put it—who learnt sophistication and speech and social graces from Niira. If the roles in Pygmalion had been reversed Ananth Kumar would have been Eliza Doolittle and Niira Henry Higgins.

“The upshot of this courtship was that as aviation minister Ananth Kumar changed the acquisition policy to favour Airbus on the specious ground that Indian Airlines and Air India no longer needed large capacity long-range airplanes but rather only short capacity long-range ones—which the Boeing company was not manufacturing.

“The deal roughtly worth Rs 22,000 crore at a 10 per cent commission would work out to a windfall of Rs 220 crore for Niira.

***

“But the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. The BJP government headed by Atal Behari Vajpayee fell short of acquiring a confidence vote in Parliament and came tumbling down. New elections were called.

“Niira and her accomplices worked round the clock to ensure BJP’s return to power—especially return of Kumar to this portfolio as aviation minister. There was too much work to be done, pending contracts to be signed.

“Apart from the Airbus deal, one other pending project during this corresponding period was the construction of an up-to-date flying school. Singh was in charge of this project. The deal had been finalised between Radia and Ananth Kumar.

“Ananth Kumar’s role as minister was to ensure that the Airport Authority would provide the entire Mysore airfield at a nominal lease amount and obtain the mandatory clearance from the government of Karnataka… Ananth Kumar deputed no less a person than his own private secretary, Krishna Kumar, to help break the ice with local officialdom.

“Meanwhile, elections were in full swing and, according to Rao Dheeraj Singh, sacks of money were delivered in Bombay, Bangalore and Delhi by Niira to finance the re-election and comeback of Ananth Kumar to his former portfolio.

“The money was collected mostly by Ananth Kumar’s confidant and officer on special duty, one Diwakar.

***

“Kumar made a comeback to his portfolio when the BJP returned to power after the election in a coalition called the NDA. But his tenure was short-lived and he could not deliver on the deals he had made with Niira.

“The problem was that his association with Niira had taken the colour of a scandal, and Ananth Kumar’s wife Tejaswini made a personal complaint to prime minister Vajpayee. The PM promptly re-assigned Ananth Kumar to the culture and youth affairs and sports ministry.”

(Excerpted from Close encounters with Niira Radia, by R.K. Anand, editor Inderjit Badhwar, Har-Anand publications, pp 326, Rs 595)

***

Photograph: courtesy Gauri Lankesh

How does a ‘journalist’ offer a Rs 2 crore bribe?

3 May 2011

The stereotypical image of the Indian journalist is of a lean, mean, hungry-looking, bespectacled jholawala, with a bag slung around his scrawny neck. But that’s just for public consumption. In reality, journalists and media houses are clearly rolling in cash, not always procured in the business of peddling words.

In the 2G spectrum allocation scam, that has already seen a Union minister and several corporate honchos go behind bars, several famous scribes have found themselves on the infamous Niira Radia tapes, at least one journalist’s house has been raided, and a TV channel has been named as the recipient of the bribe money.

In other words, the lean, mean, hungry-looking, bespectacled jholawala with a bag slung around his scrawny neck, has arrived in the post-liberalised India—as an influence-peddler, monetising his access and business card.

Despite the strongarm tactics adopted by Ratan Tata‘s Tata Sons against The Times of India group with obvious commercial implications, The Economic Times continues to lead the way in its coverage of the scam. This time, Rohini Singh shines the light on the burgeoning breed of middlemen-journalists, for whom the accreditation card is, well, a gift that continues to give.

Newspaper image: courtesy The Economic Times

***

Also read: What Niira Radia told PAC on Barkha Dutt chat

Have the Tatas blacklisted The Times of India again?

Four lessons in journalism from the Tatas’ chief PRO

Tamil journalist’s house raided in 2G spectrum scam

Nakkheeran journo denies wife worked for Radia firm

2G scam bribe was diverted to Tamil TV channel

Has media credibility suffered a body blow in 2G scam?

Is Indian Express now a pro-establishment paper?

21 April 2011


PRITAM SENGUPTA writes from New Delhi: The Indian Express of Ramnath Goenka is an unputdownable chapter in the book of Indian journalism. Unlike many of its English counterparts—whose grammar was constricted by Wren & Martin, and the Raj—Express was the archetypal desi bully.

“Anti-establishment,” was the Express‘ calling card.

Its reputation was built on stones pelted at the power elite: taking on dictatorial prime ministers (Indira Gandhi for the Emergency, Rajiv Gandhi for the anti-defamation Bill), slimy corporate chiefs (Dhirubhai Ambani of Reliance industries) and corrupt chief ministers (A.R. Antulay of Maharashtra, R. Gundu Rao of Karnataka).

“Pro-people,” was the Express‘ middlename.

Unlike its servile peers who crawled when asked to bend, Express‘ founder himself took part in Gandhi‘s march from Champaran and led the protest against the anti-defamation Bill. The paper backed Jayaprakash Narayan‘s Bihar movement, and battled for civil liberties and human rights, some times at the risk of closure of the company.

Whatever its other motives and motivations (and there were a few), the Indian Express sent the unambiguous signal to Indians that the Express was theirs; a paper that would speak truth to power, a paper they could bank on in taking on the bold-faced names of the establishment.

An Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on Goenka accurately calls him a “crusader against government corruption”.

On his birth centenary seven years ago, Express launched a website on the “man who had the courage to stand up for truth.”

So, how would Ramnath Goenka look at his baby today, as its editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta leads an extraordinary ad hominem attack on the Anna Hazare-led “people’s movement” against corruption, pillorying NGOs, the middle-class and “civil society”—and allowing itself to be become the weapon of first choice in what Express columnist Soli J. Sorabjee calls the “crude and disgusting character assassination” of its lead players, the lawyers Shanti Bhushan and Prashant Bhushan?

***

Since the day Anna Hazare sat on the fast-unto-death at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on April 5, demanding the constitution of a joint government-civil society committee for the drafting of the Lokpal bill—and especially after he succeeded in his mission—The Indian Express has bared its fangs in a manner that few would expect any independent newspaper to do.

At least, few would have expected an “anti-establishment”, “pro-people” paper whose tagline is “Journalism of Courage” to do.

Over a 16-day period (April 6 to 21), through 21 news reports, seven editorials, 15 opinion articles, three cartoons and one illustration, almost all of them variations of the same theme, the northern and western editions of the Express (the southern editions are under a different editorial management after the Goenka family split) has left no one in doubt on whose side—and which—side of the debate it is.

Against the sentiment on the street and in the homes and offices of its readers—and with the political-business-bureacuratic-fixer-operator cabal in whose interest it is to spike the bill in whatever form it may emerge, by tarnishing its movers and shakers.

The only place there has been any space for the other side in the Express since the protest began and ended, has been in its letters’ column, with one letter (from a former Express staffer) getting pride of place on the op-ed page as an article.

Otherwise, it has been a relentless torrent of scepticism, cynicism, criticism, distortion, inneundo, insinuation and plain abuse in The Indian Express. Words like “illiberal”, “fascist”, “dangerous”, “self-righteous”, “self-appointed”, “authoritarian”, “dictators”, “Maoist” and—pinch yourself—”missing foreskins” have spewed forth from the paper’s news and views pages to convince the world why the movement is the worst thing to have happened for Indian democracy.

Here’s a sampling of the headlines, introductions and blurbs over the 16-day period:

***

# April 6, news report, by Maneesh Chibber, headline “Activists’ Bill calls for Lokpal as supercop, superjudge”, text “The Jan Lokpal Bill…. includes a set of highly unusual provisions….”

# April 7, news report, by Maneesh Chibber and Seema Chisti, headline “Cracks appear in Anna’s team”, intro “Justice Santosh Hegde objects to ‘certain’ clauses’, Aruna Roy warns: can’t bypass democratic principles”

# April 7, news feature, by Vandita Mishra, headline “Anna’s fast, main course: feed politicians to vultures & dogs”

# April 7, editorial headline “They, the people”, intro “Illiberal, self-righteous sound and fury isn’t quite the weapon against corruption.”

# April 7, opinion, by Pratap Bhanu Mehta, headline “Of the few, by the few”, intro “Lokpal Bill agitation has a contempt for politics and democracy”, blurb “The claim that people are not represented by elected representatives, but are represented by their self-appointed guardians is disturbing. Anyone who claims to be the ‘authentic’ voice of the people is treading on very thin ice indeed”

# April 8, news report, headline “First political voices speak: cause just, method fascist”, intro “Self-selected can’t dictate terms, says SP; who will choose 50% civil society, asks Raghuvansh [Prasad]“

# April 8, news report, by D.K. Singh, headline “UPA problem: NAC shoe is on the other (NGO) foot”, text: “…the anti-corruption legislation looks set to land in the turf war between competing gorups of civil rights activists.”

# April 8, gossip item, headline “Lady in hiding?”, text “When the fiesty retired IPS officer (Kiran Bedi) was not seen, it naturally set off talk, with people wondering whether she had quietly withdrawn from the campaign.”

# April 8, editorial, headline “Carnival society”, intro “There is nothing representative about the ‘civil society’ gathering at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar”

#April 9, news report, by Seema Chisti, headline “Jantar Mantar core group lost out last year, struck back with Anna”

# April 9, editorial, headline “Make it better”, intro “This anti-politics juggernaut is both contentless and dangerous”

# April 9, opinion, by BaijayantJayPanda MP, headline “Cynicism vs hope”, intro “How odd that we should undermine democracy in this year of pro-democracy movements”, blurb “The Jantar Mantar movement is now poised at a crucial juncture. It could get irretrievably hijacked by those of Hazare’s supporters who have scant respect for politics. If wiser heads prevail—those who respect the institutions of democracy like parliament and the courts—then we could well be at the cusp of a magical moment.”

# April 10, news report, headline “[Baba] Ramdev attacks ‘nepotism’ in bill drafting committee: pita mukhiya, beta sadasya?”

# April 10, news report pointer, headline “Ally NCP speaks out: joint committee will be joint pain for constitution and democracy”

# April 11, opinion, by Mihir S. Sharma, headline “Not a very civil coup”, intro “Snuff out those candles: democratic society should trump civil society, every time”,  blurb “Let us not glorify middle-class anger when it is expressed as an antipathy to where democracy’s gotten us, as fury at not having more power than is gifted by the vote you share with a villager. That way lies the pain and disillusionment of a dozen cuddly dictators”

# April 12, editorial, headline “Rs 100, a sari, a bottle”, intro “That’s all Hazare says a vote means. Who gains from such disdain for democracy?”

# April 12, opinion, by Neera Chandhoke, headline “The seeds of authoritarianism”, intro “Democracy needs civil society. But not Anna Hazare’s version, contemputous of ordinary voters”

# April 12, opinion, by Madhu Purnima Kishwar, headline “Why tar all politicians with the same brush?”, intro “We need to reboot corrupt systems, instead of demonising our political class”, blurb “Politicians can be removed through elections, whereas we self-appointed representatives cannot be voted out when we exceed our brief”

# April 13, news clipping quoting New Age, view from the left, “Anna Hazare afterthought”

# April 13, opinion, by Seema Chisti, headline “We the bullied”, intro “Can our basic democratic procedures be so easily dispensed with?”, blurb “The quick and easy path in this case is also the more dangerous road, and it is one on which we have already embarked—all because there are some people around who talk loud enough to make claims about representing ‘the people’. We, the electors and those we elected, have just given them a walkover.”

# April 13, opinion, by Ashwini Kulkarni, “Governance comes before a Lokpal”, intro “For a Lokpal bill to work, you would need systems that create the paper trails necessary for prosecution”

# April 13, opinion, by Nityanand Jayaraman, headline “The halfway revolution”, intro “Am I wrong in suggesting that the candle-holding middle-class Indian is not very different from the Maoist in ideology?”

# April 14, editorial, headline “Over to the MPs”, intro “On the Lokpal bill, Veerappa Moily is falling all over himself—and could trip Parliament too”

# April 14, opinion, by Javed Anand, headline “Why I didn’t join Anna Hazare,” intro “In his post-corrupt utopia, we should look forward to leaders like Narendra Modi“, blurb “I do not wish to spoil the show for those celebrating the ‘second movement for Independence’ that Anna has won for us. But I cannot hide the fact that I, with my missing foreskin, continue to feel uneasy about the Anna revolution—for more reasons than one.”

# April 15, news report, headline “CEOs, banks, firms in list of donors put up on website of Hazare movement”

# April 15, news report, “Doubt your role as good lawmaker: SP leader to Shanti Bhushan”

# April 15, opinion, by Farah Baria, headline “See the spirit of Anna’s movement”, intro “Don’t nip our fledgling civic consciousness in the bud”

# April 16, news report, headline “Lokpal talks off to CD start”

# April 16, news report, headline “My view is keep judges out, says Anna, colleagues disagree”

# April 16, news report, headline “The other society: CIC, Aruna Roy, Justice Verma to hold parallel meet”

# April 17, news report, by Swaraj Thapa and Amitabh Sinha, headline “Lokpal should have powers to tap phones, prosecute: non govt reps”

# April 17, news report, by Seema Chisti, headline “Why the hurry, and do we really need more laws, ask legal luminaries, activists”

# April 17, opinion, by Meghnad Desai, headline “Which Hazare?’

# April 17, opinion, by Sudheendra Kulkarni, headline “MODI-fy the Lokpal debate”

# April 17, opinion, by Tavleen Singh, headline “Our sainted NGOs?”

# April 19, editorial, headline “law and lawgivers”, intro “So will Anna Hazare respect Parliament’s supremacy after all?”

# April 20, news report, by Pragya Kaushika and Ritu Sarin, headline “Bhushans get two prime farmhouse plots from Mayawati govt for a song”, intro “No lottery, no auction in allotment of two 10,000 sq m plots to Shanti Bhushan and son Jayant

# April 20, editorial, headline “Case must go on”, intro “The judicial process must remain disconnected from the Bhushans-Amar Singh spat”

# April 20, opinion, by A.P. Shah and Venkatesh Nayak, “A gigantic institution that draws powers from a statute based on questionable principles”, blurb “Clauses 8 and 17 turn the Lokpal into a civil court that will reverse the decisions of the executive such as grant of licences, permits, authorisations and even blacklist companies and contractors. This is not the job of an Ombudsman-type institution.”

# April 21, news report, headline “Mess spreading, Sonia washes her NAC hands of Lokpal Bill”, intro “Reminds Anna Hazare that he knew NAC was at work on Bill until fast forced the issue”

# April 21, news report, by Krishnadas Rajagopal and Tanu Sharma, headline “On plots allotted by govt, the Bhushans have high standards—for others”

# April 21, news report, by Tanu Sharma, headline “Shanti Bhushan may not have been in panel if plot known: Santosh Hegde”

# April 21, opinion, by Sandeep Dikshit, MP, headline “Whose bill is it anyway?”, intro “The fight against corruption cannot be appropriated by a clique”, blurb “The very reason why this committee was formed was because it was argued that we need more opinions and contributions to the Lokpal Bill. Having accepted this, can the protagonists then state that every opinion, every fear expressed by those outside this group is an attempt to sabotage this bill?

# April 21, opinion, by Dilip Bobb, headline “In search of civil society”, intro “Anna Hazare has given ‘civil society’ an identity card, but who qualifies for membership?”, blurb “Is civil society the preserve of groups predefined as democratic, modern and ‘civil’, or is it home to all sorts of associations, including ‘uncivil society’?”

# April 21, news clippings quoting Organiser, view from the right, headlines “Whose Hazare?”, “Check that bill”

***

It is no one’s case that the campaign for the Lokpal bill, or the clauses contained in the draft Jan Lokpal bill, is without its flaws. It is also no one’s case that those behind the movement are angels, who cannot be questioned or scrutinised.

But when viewed through a journalistic prism, the Express campaign raises two questions.

One, can a newspaper—notwithstanding its right to take a stand it likes on any issue—can a newspaper shut out the other side completely as if doesn’t exist? And is such a newspaper a newspaper or a pamphlet?

Example: on April 19, “civil society” representatives led by NAC members Aruna Roy and Harsh Mander, condemned the campaign to malign Shanti Bhushan and Prashant Bhushan. The Indian Express ignored the news item that found place in most newspapers.

And two, whose cause is the Express championing in indulging in such a hit job on a campaign that has struck a chord with millions?

Express fires from the safe shoulders of “democracy”—a word that invokes titters among many ex-Express staffers. But is the Express really speaking for the people, or has it become a plaything of the “establishment” which was shamed into acting on a piece of legislation that had been languishing for 43 years?

***

None of this is to downplay the first-rate journalism that the Indian Express still delivers on most days of the week.  Even in as messy a story as the Amar Singh-Shanti Bhushan CD in the current anti-Hazare campaign, Express demonstrated far greater rigour than its compatriots Hindustan Times and Times of India, which fell hook, line and sinker for the “establishment” story.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that Express has begun to play a meeker role in exposing corruption in high places.

In the last three years, Express has been wrongfooted by its compatriots on all the big corruption stories that have gripped the nation’s attention and spurred the campaign for the Lokpal bill: the 2G spectrum allocation (The Pioneer) and S-band (The Hindu) scams; the CWG, IPL and Adarsh housing scams (The Times of India); the black money and Swiss bank accounts story (Tehelka); Wikileaks (The Hindu); and the Niira Radia tapes (Outlook and Open).

Simultaneously, Express, which increasingly shares a strange symbiosis with Indian and American thinktanks, has veered disturbingly closer to the government, be it in reflecting the UPA government’s thrust for the Indo-US nuclear bill; its muscular approach to tackling the Maoist threat in mine-rich tribal areas; in demonising the Chinese, or in plumping for road, airport, dams, infrastructure and nuclear projects, overriding environmental and social concerns.

Indeed, from being a paper deeply suspicious of big business, it has become the go-to newspaper for corporate honchos seeking to put out their story. Ratan Tata‘s first interview after the Radia tapes hit the ceiling was with Shekhar Gupta for NDTV‘s Walk the Talk show.

And for a paper deeply suspicious of power, the paper now publishes arbitrary “power lists”, without ever revealing the jury or the methodology behind the rankings. (Shekhar Gupta was decorated with the nation’s third highest civilian honour, the Padma Bhushan, by the UPA government in 2009.)

The question that arises is: are all these concentric circles somehow linked in the Express‘ astonishingly one-sided campaign against the anti-corruption movement and the people behind it?

***

Historically, in India, large publications (think Times of India and The Hindu), have tended to play along with the establishment because of the kind of business and other interests involved. But a small-circulation paper bending backwards to stroke the crooked and the corrupt doesn’t present a pleasant sight.

It doesn’t sound civil, but it is a question that must be courageously asked: has Ramnath Goenka’s bulldog of a paper become a lapdog of the power elite, luxuriating among the rich and famous, while peeing at the feet of the people it was supposed to defend?

In other words, has The Indian Express become a pro-establishment newspaper?

Illustration: courtesy C.R. Sasikumar/ The Indian Express, April 20

***

Also read: Arnab edges out Barkha on Express power list

The curious case of Zakir Naik and Shekhar Gupta

A columnist more powerful than all media pros

‘Editors and senior journos must declare assets’

‘Media standards not keeping pace with growth’

18 April 2011

Sanjaya Baru, editor of Business Standard and former media advisor to prime minister Manmohan Singh, delivered the second H.Y. Sharada Prasad memorial lecture on media, business and government at the India International Centre on Sunday, 17 April. This is the full text of his address:

***

By SANJAYA BARU

I first met H.Y. Sharada Prasad in 1982 in the very room in which I later sat in the Prime Minister’s Office. He knew me only as Rama’s husband!  I was in Delhi on a visit from Hyderabad where I was a University lecturer and went to call on him because Rama had asked me to.

I would meet him occasionally during my days at the Economic Times and Times of India and tried hard to get him to write for the editorial page of the TOI, when I was in charge of it in 1994-96. He always declined the invitation with a smile. Finally, when he chose to write a column I had already left TOI and it was M.J. Akbar who managed to get him to do so for The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle.

Perhaps as a consolation he called me one day and told me that he had informed Encyclopedia Britannica that he would stop writing the chapter on India that he had written every year for close to fifty years, and henceforth they should approach me for the chapter.

I was flabbergasted, flattered and honoured.

The editor of Britannica wrote me a warm letter saying that I must be someone very special because after a “life long” association with EB, “Mr Prasad has chosen you to inherit his annual contribution to the Britannica.” I have written that chapter since, every year.”

On 2 June 2004 I joined the PMO in the morning and called on “Shouri mama” (as Sharada Prasad was called by his friends and family) the same evening to seek his blessings and take his advice. He spoke to me at length about the office itself, and the significance of every nook and corner.

“You are sitting in the same room in which Jawaharlal Nehru first sat as Prime Minister,” he told me, referring to the corner room next to the cabinet room. Nehru had to wait for a month to move into what is now the PM’s room, since that room’s earlier occupant, Girija Shankar Bajpai, would not vacate it till the room assigned to him was ready, that being the present principal secretary’s room.

I too had occupied that very room briefly till I moved into the much larger adjacent room, the one Shouri had occupied with great distinction for almost two decades. After letting me know that I was sitting in Nehru’s first room in the PMO, he added with a mischievous smile, “of course Natwar (Singh) also sat there!”

He regaled me with stories about the various occupants of the PMO during his decade and a half there, about their egos and their foibles. He gave me valuable advice on how I should discharge my duties both as media advisor and speech writer that stood me in good stead throughout my four-and-a-half years in the job.

On a couple of occasions when I had difficulty convincing the PM and his senior aides about my media strategy in dealing with an issue, I would called Shouri and having received his endorsement of my plan inform the PM that Mr Sharada Prasad has approved my idea. The PM would instantly fall in line and allow me to go ahead, over ruling the dissenters. Securing Shourie’s imprimatur was enough.

For a man who wielded a powerful and elegant pen for the Prime Minister of India, who had the unquestioned trust and confidence of a powerful Prime Minister like Indira Gandhi, who had travelled around the world with her, hearing her read out his prose, whom generations of Indians had seen in Films Division documentaries and front page photographs sitting next to Mrs Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, here I was with him on my first day in the PMO in his two-room, Punjabi Bagh DDA flat.

Every day of my four-and-a-half years in the PMO, I would recall that first evening that I spent with Shouri.

Don’t fool yourself, I would tell myself, you may be here today, but one day you too will have a modest apartment to retire to. Shouri was among the very few who worked with Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi who had no Vasant Vihar or New friends Colony or Maharani Bagh house to leave for his children. It is the combination of his wisdom and simplicity, his prose and wit, his deep knowledge of both India and the world that makes him a truly unique occupant of that all powerful corner of Raisina Hill. This memorial lecture is dedicated as much to Shourie as to the values he embodied.

***

One of the things that Shouri said to me when I met him the evening of my first day at the PMO was that during his long tenure at the PMO he kept in regular, almost daily contact, with key interlocutors in just five newspapers – Hindustan Times, Indian Express, The Statesman, The Hindu and Times of India. That was a different world.

While India reported less than 500 newspapers in the years Shouri first came to deal with them, and only one television channel, by 1991 there were 923 newspapers and still only one TV channel. But Shouri regarded dealing with just the top five English dailies adequate to influence the rest of the media. These five, he presumably believed, set the tone and the agenda for all others to follow. It is also possible he believed having these five on one’s side is what mattered as far as the PM was concerned.

In 2008, the year I left PMO, the Registrar of Newspapers reported that 2,337 newspapers were in circulation in India. In 2004 there were already several news TV channels, but by 2008 the number had more than tripled. By the time I left my position in mid-2008 I would normally be dealing with at least a couple of dozen newspapers and TV channels every day.  The era when one could happily say that the PM’s media advisor kept in touch with just five top English newspapers was long gone. Not only had Indian language TV and print become more important, but even English language TV and print had burgeoned and the internet had arrived.

It was during my last days in office that I acquired a Facebook account and Outlook magazine put me on their cover, along with some celebrities, for being the first PMO official with a Facebook account. Twitter had not arrived by the time I left office. Today Shouri would not be able to recognise, much less relate, to the media scene in India. My 84-year-old parents take pride in letting me know that they neither watch TV news, nor spend more than a few minutes reading a newspaper. They have opted out of daily news.

But, the rest of India has not. Nowhere has there been a bigger boom in media than in India.

At the last World Association of Newspapers convention in Hyderabad in 2009, India was hailed as the great global hope for media, especially print. The WAN invitation to the Hyderabad convention said:

“Developing literacy and wealth are part of but far from all the story: Great credit needs also to be given to Indian newspaper professionals, who are re-inventing the newspaper to keep it vibrant and compelling in the digital age……. Although broadband and mobile are booming in India, print newspapers are growing right along with them. The country has more daily newspapers than any other nation and leads in paid-for daily circulation, surpassing China for the first time in 2008. Twenty of the world’s 100 largest newspapers are Indian. Newspaper circulation rose a further 8 percent last year.”

Salivating at the India numbers, News Corp top executive James Murdoch told a FICCI–Frames conference in Mumbai last month that “India’s media industry is a ‘sleeping tiger’  waiting to be awakened.” He described global media firms as “grey and tired”. “The impressive achievements of the last two decades have not even begun to fulfill the potential of this great land,” said the son of media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

This boom is witnessed in every language, with Hindi’s Dainik Jagran emerging as the great success story in print media. But with growth have come its wages. The quantitative expansion of Indian media continues to outpace its qualitative development. Extreme inequality in compensation structures means there are some journalists who get world class compensation that would be the envy of even developed economy media, and there is a mass of under-paid staff, many of whom with low skills and lower motivation.

Speaking at the Silver Jubilee of the Chandigarh Press Club in September 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said:

“With the rapid growth of media in recent times, qualitative development has not kept step with quantitative growth. In the race for capturing markets, journalists have been encouraged to cut corners, to take chances, to hit and run. I believe the time has come for journalists to take stock of how competition has impacted upon quality. Consider the fact that even one mistake, and a resultant accident, can debar an airline pilot from ever pursuing his career. Consider the case that one wrong operation leading to a life lost, and a doctor can no longer inspire the confidence of his patients. One night of sleeping on the job at a railway crossing, an avoidable train accident, and a railway man gets suspended. How many mistakes must a journalist make, how many wrong stories, and how many motivated columns before professional clamps are placed? How do the financial media deal with market moving stories that have no basis in fact? Investors gain and lose, markets rise and fall, but what happens to those reporters, analysts, editors who move and make markets? Are there professional codes of conduct that address these challenges? Is the Press Council the right organization to address these challenges? Can professional organizations of journalists play a role?”

Apart from the problem of quantitative growth outpacing qualitative development, there is also the challenge of conflicting objectives and a clash of cultures. News media has become subsumed into the larger business of information and entertainment. This is in large part a consequence of the growing dependence of media, especially news media, on advertisement revenues, though India still has a substantial segment of the market that is still willing to pay for news.

One of the consequences of this growing dependence on advertising revenues, as opposed to subscription revenue, and the competition from competing media is that news media has become increasingly a mish-mash of news, views and plain entertainment.

A recent  FICCI- KPMG report, Hitting the High Notes on the Indian media and Entertainment Industry in 2011 not only unabashedly refers to ‘media and entertainment’ as one industry, but also points to the growing inter-linkages between the two sides of business. News is entertainment and entertainment is news! And, the stakes are high.

According to KPMG, the Indian Media and Entertainment (M&E) industry stood at US$ 12.9 billion in 2009. Over the next five years the industry is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 13 per cent to reach the size of US$ 24.04 billion by 2014.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report titled ‘Indian Entertainment & Media Outlook 2010’ predicts that the industry is poised to return to double digit growth to touch US$ 22.28 billion growing cumulatively at a 12.4 per cent CAGR to 2014.

Apart from the phenomenal growth prospects, which have become the envy of media companies around the world, and therefore attracting many of them to India, it is important to also note that there has been a vertical and horizontal integration, along the technological spectrum, of news, entertainment and communication. Print, TV, radio, film, music, gaming, mobile telephony, internet and banking and finance are all getting integrated. New technologies will integrate the businesses and the markets even more.

The KPMG report adds, “While television and print continue to dominate the Indian M&E industry, sectors such as gaming, digital advertising, and animation VFX also show tremendous potential in the coming years. By 2015, television is expected to account for almost half of the Indian M&E industry revenues, and more than twice the size of print, the second largest media sector.  The contribution of advertising revenue to overall industry pie is expected to increase from 38 percent in 2007 to 42 percent in 2012.”

When news and entertainment become two sides of the same coin, indeed some would say the same side of one coin, with advertising revenue being the other side of the coin, and when the distinction between news and views gets blurred, journalism enters an uncharted territory where there are as yet no professional yardsticks to judge either purpose or performance. But it is not just the integration of businesses that is having an impact on media. It is the integration of business with politics and politics with business that is now shaping news media, and not just at the national level.

***

Tamil Nadu is a particularly good example of the complete backward and forward integration of media business and politics. The ruling political party dominates print, TV and film production and distribution. In Andhra Pradesh the Y.S. Rajashekhar Reddy family was well on its way to achieving this kind of integration of business interests in media and politics.

The relative ease with which the Karunanidhi-Maran families in Tamil Nadu and the YSR family in Andhra Pradesh, to a lesser extent the Pawar family in Maharashtra have acquired substantial stakes in media, entertainment and politics is a pointer to trends at the national level. There have been reports that the Congress Party plans to start its own TV and print media businesses. The Left walked down this path in Kerala but was unable to achieve the kind of dominance that DMK has succeeded in acquiring in Tamil Nadu.

The FICCI-KPMG Report shows that while there has been a phenomenal expansion of the media business, in almost every major language segment and in most states 3 dominant players together control between 65 per cent and 75 per cent of the market. In other words, the media pyramid in India is highly skewed. A few newspapers/ channels at the top of the pyramid, controlling close to three-quarters of the readership and/or viewership and a large number of small players below sharing the rest of the cake.

Part of the problem in regulating the media business arises because of the growing links between politicians, political parties and the media and entertainment business.

In Andhra Pradesh, for example, the top two media companies, with print and television business, are Eenadu and Sakshi – the former owned by the pro-TDP Ramoji Rao, and the latter owned by YSR Rajashekhar Reddy’s son Jagan.

In Tamil Nadu the power and influence of Kalanithi Maran’s Sun TV is even more brazen. Indeed, the DMK as a party has acquired enormous control over the entire media business including circulation, cable network and film distribution.

In Maharashtra, every media company has its own political interests. Across the country in almost every State, including the North-East, the nexus between politics, business and media is very close and pervasive.

With such visible and known links between political parties and media companies, what is the kind of regulation that government qua government can impose? Indeed, in a democracy the question does arise whether government or even a quasi-official body should have any powers at all to regulate media.

This market structure is ripe for oligopolistic practices and it has been alleged for a long time that such practices have become all too common in India. Very often the intense rivalry and competition between professional journalists in rival media firms masks the implicit collaboration and non-compete clauses – including deals on advertising, circulation and hiring of journalists – between the firms themselves.

Indian media needs a framework of reference to define what constitutes a competitive structure, what policies amount to being restrictive trade practices, how can such practices be curbed and who curbs them? Has the time come for the Competition Commission of India to consider a framework for regulation of cross-media ownership, predatory pricing and other restrictive and unethical business practices, including the phenomenon of ‘paid news’, in the media and entertainment industry?

A few years ago when the former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Board of India, G.N. Bajpai, convened a meeting of all editors and suggested that the media accept a SEBI code for journalists reporting on markets and companies, a majority of the editors gathered there opposed any SEBI imposed code and instead offered to come forward with a code of their own that media companies could adhere to. Nothing has been heard on the subject since.

Institutions like the Press Council of India have lost their élan, and the Editors Guild of India has become a club of former and future editors with little influence on those presently occupying the hot seat! The inability of the Editors Guild to reverse the phenomenon of ‘paid news’, which it campaigned against, even though many members of the Guild were in fact guilty of the crime, illustrates this better than any other example.

A related issue of internal governance that has profound implications for freedom of press is the nature of editorial control in media. Just as politicians have become media barons and media barons have become politicians, establishing a continuum between media, politics and government, there is a parallel continuum between media, business and editorial leadership, with publishers and CEOs becoming editors and editors becoming publishers and CEOs.

Time was when many professional journalists worried that the post of editor was being devalued with print and TV companies not naming editors and dividing up the editor’s work among several persons, both journalists and managers. As a consequence, today several print and TV media have no single editor and, therefore, weak editorial control and leadership.

As some of the conversations recorded in the famous Nira Radia Tapes reveal, senior journalists not only worry about the fate of politicians in power, but they also worry about their company’s bottom and top line. Given the unabashed blurring of roles, an increasing number of business persons and politicians are now quite blasé about using carrots and sticks to influence and brow beat the media.

But a far more insidious development has been under way – namely the integration of the positions of publisher/ CEO with that of Chief Editor/ Editor. The job of Editor has been under threat in Indian media for a long time, but today professional editors – who have no ownership stake in the media company – are becoming an endangered species.

Owners or CEOs are editors and editors have become shareholders or CEOs. Those who worry about content also worry about revenue. It is not difficult to see what this means for editorial freedom. It is also not difficult to see that the famed separation of powers between “Church and State” in the media no longer exists.

Owner/ CEO/ Manager/ shareholder- editors either impose corporate objectives or their personal whims. Editors who speak eloquently about the freedom of the press and autonomy of media are often the first to impose their dictatorial and arbitrary style on their own colleagues.

Editors, who demand accountability from elected representatives of the people, are often quite happy to censor dissent and straitjacket diverse opinion within their own organizations. When such tyrannical editors are also owners or CEOs of their media establishments there is no internal court of appeal for a journalist.

***

The burden of my song has been to draw attention to the fact that the impressive growth of Indian media in recent years has not been matched by a similar rise in professional standards, both on the editorial side and in business ethics and practices of media firms, and media accountability.

As a consequence, despite the phenomenal growth of the media and the high visibility of media personalities, the public regard for journalists has not in fact risen. A recent poll in the US and UK rated ‘nursing’ as the most ethical profession and ‘journalism’ as among the least ethical ones!

I have not been able to find a similar poll in India, but the result is unlikely to be very different.  Concerns about corruption in the media are just beginning to surface. When a couple of cases get exposed their impact on the credibility of our profession would be hugely destructive.

Because of all these trends, Indian journalism is presently facing a crisis of both credibility and competence. In the past few years we have witnessed increased public scrutiny of the executive, the legislature and even the judiciary. More recently we have witnessed some early signs of a similar scrutiny of the media.

The cynicism and anger that have come to characterize public criticism of the other three ‘estates’ will sooner rather than later be seen in the criticism of the media. Each of the ‘four estates’ have from time to time drawn public attention to the short-comings of others. Sometimes three of the four have combined to bring the fourth to heel.

So far we have not seen in India a coming together of the executive, legislature and the judiciary in a joint bid to discipline or rein in the media. During the emergency, when media was under attack, the judiciary was in fact an ally of the media. When the Rajiv Gandhi government proposed an anti-defamation law, the entire media stood as one and with support from other political parties resisted the move.

Today, the media will find it more difficult to defend itself against such scrutiny and regulation. The day may not be far when public opinion will demand more accountability and transparency on the part of media organizations. With public opinion on its side, the executive and/ or the judiciary may well begin to demand such accountability from the business and editorial heads of media organizations, and from prominent TV anchors and columnists, not to mention the regular reporters.

What is worrying, however, is that in response to such public anger and cynicism the media may be turning populist – a standard response of a politician – in an attempt to ingratiate itself to its critics. This too is a dangerous trend. Media populism is in part a response to public anger and, paradoxically, a response to public disdain and indifference.

To an extent this is the logical culmination of the phenomenon of qualitative development not keeping pace with quantitative growth. The ‘dumbing down’ of the media brings in its train disregard for it, disrespect for it, disenchantment with it. This makes the media ripe for greater regulation.

If Indian media wish to avert this threat, then it must look within, introspect and rediscover professional values. This is easier said than done. It is not because of a lack of will that this has not happened. There is often no incentive for such introspection and no reward for mending ways.

The good thing, however, is that we live in a society and a nation in which we have the freedom to debate these issues. In paying tribute to the memory of Sharada Prasad, my generation must pay tribute to his for the freedom they secured for us and for posterity.

Shouri was a freedom fighter, like Kamalamma [Sharada Prasad's wife], like my father and my grandfather and grandmother. Their generation was the architect of a unique experiment in human history – building a vibrant and liberal democracy in a diverse and stratified society, a backward and poor economy. Shouri epitomized by the best instincts of that generation, symbolizing the liberalism and pluralism of a generation that was inspired by Gandhiji to value High Thinking and Simple Living.

These values are under threat and the media is not doing enough to protect them. By encouraging those with contending view points to argue with each other, we are not doing enough to create greater consensus between conflicting views.

The greatness of the Indian people is not that we are argumentative, as Amartya Sen has celebrated with an eye to a global audience. The real greatness of the Indian people is that we are in fact consensual.  Merely because we invented the ‘Zero’ and made possible the binary 1:0 system, the foundation of the current information era, does not mean that the Indian mind sees the world in black and white. Thinkers like Sharada Prasad have always reminded us of the range of gray possibilities in comprehending the reality around us.

The day the Indian media moves away from its binary world view, its argumentative ‘me and you’ divides, and moves closer to the consensual frameworks of reference of a people who have always valued the idea of Sarva Dharma Sambhava – of Unity in Diversity – it will have created a new paradigm, a very Indian paradigm, in the world of communication.

That would be the best tribute we can pay to a great Indian, a truly renaissance man, a liberal scholar, a non-argumentative Indian like Sharada Prasad!

Also read: When editor makes way for editor, gracefully

‘Go to bed knowing you haven’t succumbed’

‘Indians trust magazines* more than newspapers’

11 February 2011

Trust in the Indian media is down sharply by 15 percentage points over the last two years. One out of every two Indians distrusts what they read, see, and listen but—surprise, surprise, OK, no surprise, no surprise!—trust in magazines* is higher than for newspapers, TV news or radio.

These, in short, are the major highlights of the 2011 survey by Edelman, the world’s largest public relations firm. The 11th such survey conducted, the media is the biggest loser in India among the four sectors surveyed, other three sectors being business, government and NGOs.

There were 5,075 respondents in 23 countries for the annual Edelman Trust Barometer. The India section of the survey was conducted between October 11 and November 24, 2010 before the Niira Radia tapes altered the perception of media personnel even more in the eyes of news consumers.

Trust in Indian magazines is at 95% against 93% for newspapers, 90% for TV news, and 81% for radio. The barometer reported a 25% dip in trust in business magazines and TV news, and a 21% dip in trust in newspapers, in 2009, in the wake of paid news, private treaties, medianet and other infirmities.

Online search engines like Google command 93% trust, indicating that most people prefer to search for the facts themselves and trust search engines to help them. Corporate communications such as press releases, reports, and emails show trust levels of 86%.

Interesting if true.

Two years ago, the national election survey 2009 by the Lokniti team of the centre for study of developing societies (CSDS) found that 45% Indians greatly trusted what they read in newspapers, and a similar number somewhat trusted newspaper reports.

* Disclosures apply

Also read: If you trust polls, trust in India dips

Montek Singh Ahluwalia gets a Padma for what?

29 January 2011

PRITAM SENGUPTA writes from New Delhi: Unlike the Padma awards last year which had the media doing cartwheels over the inclusion of the controversial New York hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal for the Padma Bhushan, the 2011 roll of honour has barely created any bubbles in the champagne glasses.

The silence of even a committed partypooper like P. Sainath might make it seem as if the scam and scandal-tainted Manmohan Singh government has finally got something right. But has it?

Au contraire, we present item No.7 on the list of the 13 awardees chosen for the nation’s second highest civilian honour, the Padma Vibhushan.

No. 7: Montek Singh Ahluwalia.

Discipline: public affairs.

Stranger things have happened in India id est Bharat, of course, but it’s strange that the inclusion of a serving bureaucrat who is the serving deputy chairman of the planning commission should go uncommented upon in the business press that is currently lying in the lap of neo-liberal luxury in Davos.

Question #1: Is it a good idea for a serving babu to be elevated to the exalted status of a Padma Vibhushan?

A diligent user of Wikipedia will be able to see if pen-pushers have been similarly provided a “service lift” before sadda Montek, but that is not our beef with the career-bureaucrat”s selection. It is more primal. It’s like WTF is his contribution to humankind to deserve the Padma Vibhushan?

WTF, as in What’s The Funda, yaar.

Generally but not always, the preferred method of picking up a Padma Vibhushan is to carefully pick up a Padma Sri first and then even more carefully pick up a Padma Bhushan.

Take Azim Premji. The Wipro boss, who has provided employment to a few thousand people, got a Padma Bhushan in 2005 and had to wait till 2011 for get his Padma Vibhushan. Or take the actor Akkineni Nageshwara Rao (ANR), who has provided pleasure to a few million people, who went through the long route.

But our brilliant babu gets fast-tracked to Padma Vibhushan just like that—sans a Padma Sri, sans a Padma Bhushan—in fact his name preceding Premji’s, who’s ninth on the list? WTF.

WTF, as in Who’s The Fu Manchu, yaar.

Question #2: Are Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s qualifications so immense, his achievements so mammoth, and his contributions to his countrymen and women so extraordinary that he deserves nothing but the second best award the nation can give straightaway?

Even a cursory glance at Montek’s Wikipedia page tells you that there is nothing particularly out-of-this-world in the man.

Words and letters like DPS, Bishop Cotton’s, St. Stephen’s, Oxford, BA, MA, MPhil are littered all over. He apparently picked up one half of his strange accent as the youngest “division chief” in the much-abhorred World Bank; and the other half as a director in the even more abhorred international monetary fund (IMF).

But that’s typically the trajectory of most high-achieving climbers—creepers as some call them—and for that we decorate him with a Padma Vibhushan?

WTF, as in Wisconsin Tourism Federation, yaar.

Question #3: Is Montek Singh Ahluwalia the only officer among the 5,159 IAS officers in the country doing yeoman service in the year of the lord 2011?

However, it is the timing of Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s choice, given his record past and present, that is most baffling.

Montek’s role in the Enron scandal in fixing sky-high anti-consumer electricity charges that ultimately turned the Dabhol Power Company belly-up is much documented to be retold again.

As the advocate Prashant Bhushan wrote in 2004:

Jyoti Basu called him a “World Bank man”…. As revenue secretary and then finance secretary through most of the 1990s, Ahluwalia spearheaded the neo-liberal economic policies in India, exactly according to the prescriptions of the WB/IMF. But his enthusiasm for privatisation went beyond the most basic financial prudence that even the World Bank observed.”

In suddenly awarding the Padma Vibhushan at this juncture it is as if Manmohan Singh—the father of LPG: liberalisation, privatisation, globalisation—is fobbing off his blue-eyed boy with a piece of chikki having failed in accommodating him in the reshuffled ministry a couple of weeks ago.

(Montek recently figured in the Niira Radia tapes, courtesy his kinsman N.K. Singh, as eyeing a ministerial portfolio.)

And then there is the ultimate irony of it all.

When food inflation and fuel inflation are screwing the aam admi, when Maoist violence is shining a light on planning in the tribal areas, when farmer suicides are going on unabated, when bureaucratic redtape has made India the worst business destination in Asia, the nation decides to decorate the deputy chairman of the planning commission with a Padma Vibhushan!

For what, pursuing growth at all costs?

Question #4: By rewarding a fellow-traveller, has Manmohan Singh sent the clearest signal yet that he may not be around as prime minister this time next year to do the needful?

History might not give a rat’s posterior to the Padma Vibhushan, but it will surely remember neo-liberal Montek’s neo-conservative George W. Bush moment last week.

Just like the US former president blamed the global food crisis in 2007 on hungry Indians eating more, Montek observed that “the high inflation number points towards people eating healthier food, better lifestyles“.

As the food expert, Devinder Sharma writes:

“Montek Singh Ahluwalia has been at the helm of India’s planning process for quite some time now. It is during his tenure as the deputy chairman of the planning commission that India has been pushed deeper and deeper into the quagmire of poverty. With the largest population of hungry in the world, the Global Hunger Index 2010 has placed India in the pit.

“I wasn’t therefore shocked when I read Ahluwalia blame the hungry for the rise in food inflation. From someone who literally lives in the ivory tower of the Yojana Bhawan, anything can be expected. But what, of course, surprised me was the audacity with which he blamed the poor and hungry in the rural countryside for the rising inflation.”

And for this Marie Antoinette-esque moment, we decorate the deputy chairman of the planning commission with a Padma Vibhushan? WTF.

WTF, as in Who The Fuck is Alice, yaar.

Question #5: By goofing up with Sant Singh Chatwal one year and Montek Singh Ahluwalia the next, surely something is rotten in the Singh Parivar?

Of course, similar questions can be asked about some of the other business choices on the 2011 list: like, is there some rule that everybody on the Infosys board should get a Padma honour (as evidenced by the choice of “Kris Gopalakrishnan, for what?) Or, what really is ICICI bank chief Chanda Kochhar‘s stellar contribution?

It’s just that Montek Singh Ahluwalia gets our goat nicely, thank you.

Also read: A Padma Bhushan for K.V. Kamath?

A Padma Bhushan for the BGS swamiji?

Why Rajdeep Sardesai, Barkha Dutt must decline Padma Sri

An open application letter to Prannoy Roy, NDTV

19 December 2010

Respected Dr Roy,

I am writing to apply for the post of Group Editor, English News, NDTV.

I am a journalist with 26 years’ experience. Throughout my career I have made innocent mistakes. I have been silly, I have been gullible and I have been prone to making errors of judgement.

Frequently, when I am “desperate for khabar” I also fib to sources. I string them along so much that I have often tied myself up in knots.

In short, I’m just the right guy to lead the nation’s most reputed English news channel.

I am aware, Sir, that you already have a silly, innocent and gullible editor prone to making honest errors of judgement. Those credentials were so clearly established on national prime time news the other day. Only an extremely innocent, very silly and highly gullible editor can do it with such aplomb.

Admittedly, Dr Roy, that’s a tough record to beat. But the silly are never daunted by the odds…recall that stuff about fools rushing in where angels fear to tread.

I take heart from two facts: One, that you are perhaps the only editor-in-chief to value such sterling qualities in a group editor, and two, while you might be pretty happy with your in-house options, there are some good alternatives in the market you might want to look at.

It is your faith in and commitment to the cause of the ISGs (innocent, silly and gullible), Dr Roy, that has emboldened me to give the job a shot. I want to convince you that when it comes to these sterling qualities, I dig a lonely furrow… it’s actually a deep trench because I have been at it for 26 years.

Sir, I suspect you will be extremely upset at the completely unconventional way in which this application is being framed. So, let me quickly give you three examples of the work I have done so far.  Please judge me only by my work, not what I say about it on tape.

1. When I was just a few months into the profession,  Akali Dal leader Sant Longowal was assassinated. His assassination followed Indira Gandhi’s who was killed just a few months earlier. I had just subbed the copy when my chief sub asked me, “what’s the headline?”  “Longowal calls on Indira Gandhi,” I read out loud and proud.

The chief sub leaped out of her chair in horror and grabbed the copy. She called me silly and stupid. She even proclaimed me “dangerous” and banished me from the news desk.

You see, Dr Roy, I was editor material even then. Just that I was in wrong hands. Where were you, Dr Roy? I can’t help wondering, “why just Barkha, why is she so lucky”?

2. Once when I was editor of a small Delhi afternoon paper, we ran an expose on upcoming illegal structures in Connaught Place. We illustrated the story with a big picture of a multi-storey building shot stealthily. Next morning it turned out the building belonged to the newspaper’s proprietor.

Error of judgement is passé, Dr Roy, I have monumental blunders on my hand.

3. More recently, I was in the middle of writing Counterfeit, my most most-read weekly column on notional affairs. Two big corporate houses were warring over some goddamn national asset and I wanted to get to the bottom of things. Who better to get an insight from than the PR persons on both sides?

The first guy took me out to lunch and explained his client’s position. I was fully convinced he was right till the other PR took me out to lunch and explained her client’s position. I was convinced she was right too.

But I was two full, two convinced and too confused. So, I wrote about the food instead.

But then word got out. As you well know, our strict code of ethics lays down that a journalist can have only one free meal per topic. Fellow journalists were livid. But since nobody could prove quid pro quo, they pilloried me in public for being unethical and accused me in private of selling the profession cheap.

I am however convinced most of them were just jealous of the extra meal I managed…but that’s beside the point, the pillorying continued because they said “joh pakda gaya wahi chor”.

I had to take matters into my hand because the cat seemed to have gotten my channel’s tongue. I agreed to be grilled by my peers in full public glare. Four white haired gents turned up. For the first time the channel made a departure from the policy of not putting out any raw material on air and played the full unedited tape.

On air I made a clean breast of things.  “I may have been greedy, I may have been hungry, but nobody dare accuse me of corruption,” I said, clearly setting the contours of the debate. “But of course, it’s been a learning experience. Looking back now with all that one now knows about dirty lobbyists,  I have no hesitation in saying that it’s perhaps best to carry one’s own lunch box to work. I have since bought a Milton electric lunch box.”

“No journalist is lily white,” the oldest and gentlest of them all began, “I don’t know of many journalists who carry their tiffin to office….” but I cut him short.  ”Nobody is lily white but all that you will discuss is one spot on my kurta? Why only me,” I thundered. I wanted to punch all of them in their holier-than-thou faces but for form’s sake I just bit my dry lips and somehow held my temper and my hand.

Many close friends upbraided me for appearing on the show. They told me I looked angry, sounded pompous and arrogant. They advised me not to mention the incident in this application because it would look rather silly trying to get an important job on the evidence of this show.

But that is the point I’m trying to make, Dr Roy. I am silly. And I did not stumble on silliness, innocence and gullibility “inadvertently” after 16 years of blemish-less journalism.  I worked at it for 26 long years.

In other qualifications, I must point out that I am a damn good political reporter, even if I say so myself. In the thick of things such as the UPA’s cabinet formation, all kinds of people call me to carry messages to the Congress party. Sometimes there are problems of non-delivery such as that message I did not give Ghulam Nabi Azad but I believe, because I’m a good journalist, even if this were about the NDA forming its cabinet, I would still be a busy courier boy.

I would have loved to attach copies of my work as a political reporter but sadly, Dr Roy, I have none. That is because I have never reported politics.

I know, I know…that is not consistent with my claim to being a good political journalist. I was just stringing you along, Dr Roy.

When can I join?

Yours sincerely

B.V. Rao

***

B.V. Rao is the editor of Governance Now, where this piece originally appeared

***

Photograph: courtesy Governance Now

Now, Greenpeace has a question for Ratan Tata

16 December 2010

Grandstanding on ethics and principles is a perilous path to take for Indian businessmen—even for a corporate biggie with the kind of image as the House of Tatas.

Ratan Tata sanctimonious fears of India becoming a “banana republic” if his privacy is invaded any further in the Niira Radia tapes, has drawn an expected response from Greenpeace.

The environmental organisation has taken out this half-page advertisement in The Indian Express, Delhi, whose editor, Shekhar Gupta, interviewed Tata for NDTV’s Walk the Talk programme.

The subject: The threat to the Olive Ridley turtles due to the construction of the Dhamra port in Orissa in a joint venture with Larsen & Toubro (L&T).

The text of the ad begins with a file noting, dated 22 April 2010, by minister for environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh, on the forest violations by the Dhamra Port. Greenpeace says it has obtained the noting under the right to information (RTI).

“Meanwhile I understand the Port itself is nearing completion. Had construction not commenced, we could have taken a decision unequivocally not to let the project proceed at the site whose “forest” station is disputed.”

The advertisement then throws some tough questions at Tata:

“Senior officers in the ministry of environment have confirmed a violation of the Forest Conservation Act 1980 by the TATA Steel-L&T Dhamra port project. Yet this violation has been condoned by the government.

“Why?

“Is there more to this ‘cover-up’ than meets the eye? Are big corporate houses exempt from environmental laws? Are we a banana republic, where’s India’s big business houses do not have to abide by the rule of law?

“Corporations and politicians are accountable to the people. Greenpeace will continue to expose wrongdoings and cover-ups.”

Advertisement: courtesy The Indian Express

Also read: Ratan Tata‘s open letter to Rajeev Chandrasekhar

Rajeev Chandrasekhar‘s open letter to Ratan Tata

Has Ratan Tata ruined the Tatas’ brand image?

‘Go to bed knowing you haven’t succumbed’

Ratan Tata’s open letter to Rajeev Chandrasekhar

9 December 2010

Generally speaking, Indian business is a nice, cosy club of stuffed shirts and suspenders. There are a set of rules and everyone plays along happily. No one ever says anything new. No one speaks out of turn. No one ever throws a flame into someone else’s pants. There is a code of Omerta, and everybody better stick with it.

Rajya Sabha member Rajeev Chandrasekhar, the former BPL scion who owns the Suvarna network in Karnataka, stepped out of line with an open letter to Ratan Tata, the chairman of Tata Sons, who had propitiously chose the Niira Radia moment to warn of India slipping and becoming a banana republic.

Now, Tata has hit back at Chandrasekhar in a return letter, slamming the latter’s self-righteous sanctimony. A politically motivated Chandrasekhar, Tata implies, has been running with the telecom hares and hunting with the telecom hounds, and stops just short of calling him a lousy liar.

If nothing else, the two open letters provide a snapshot of how Indian business and politics is conducted (and how Indian media is managed), and underline the fact that nothing illuminating comes out when everything is hunky-dory. It is conflict between two stones that produces fire and light.

***

Dear Rajeev

I am currently overseas and have just seen a copy of the open letter you have addressed to me with copies to the entire media community. This is of course in keeping with the current trend of attempted character assassination through widespread media publicity couched in pain and concern for upholding ethics and values.

Your letter is based on untruths and distortion of facts and I feel compelled to place the real facts, as bluntly as possible before you. I hope this will also be broadly disseminated to the same audience as your letter.

I am, of course, well aware that some media house will choose not to publish or air my response in deference of their owners, who are the real gainers in the telecom sector, with whom you have unfortunately aligned to provide a massive diversion of attention away from the real culprits in the telecom space.

***

You will appreciate that the Government’s stated telecom policy of 1999 set out the principles of a technology neutral environment. When cellular mobile telephony was introduced, the first set of operators, including yourself, chose GSM, the broadly used European technology at that time.

The first set of cellular mobile operators received their licenses based on the auction process in circles for which some of them and their partners submitted very high bids. Later in July 1999, in a BJP-led NDA government, in accordance with the recommendation of a group of ministers headed by Jaswant Singh, the fixed license fee regime was changed to a revenue share regime (which exists even today).

If a hypothetical amount was to be calculated, similar to one which has been done in the CAG report, at that point of time, the loss to the exchequer would be about Rs 50,000 crore and the exchequer would have been deprived of this amount.

Realistically, however, the revenue share system would have recouped some amount over time and this important change most probably has been responsible for the greater growth of the industry as it enabled tariffs to be reduced.

***

CDMA technology (a newer and more spectrum-efficient technology), was utilised by some operators for fixed wireless operations such as PCOs and for last mile wireless connectivity for fixed line phones.

The first attempted deviation of stated policy was in January 2001 when the then telecom minister, Ram Vilas Paswan, in a BJP-led NDA government, sought to allow the fixed wireless application of CDMA for limited mobility on the grounds that it would be available to the public at a lower price.

The GSM operators led by you mounted a campaign lobbying against this on the grounds that it would be unfair to the incumbents who had made investments and who had enjoyed first mover advantage.

You will recall that you and Nusli Wadia [of Bombay Dyeing] approached me in the Chambers in Taj Mumbai in July 2002 to sign an appeal to the Prime Minister, A. B. Vajpayee, deputy prime minister, L.K. Advani and finance minister Jaswant Singh not to allow fixed mobile service providers to provide mobile services.

I enclose a copy of your fax dated July 12, 2002 requesting me to sign and the draft letter which I was supposed to sign. In para 2 of this letter your objective amongst other things was to reach 50 million subscriber base by 2006.

To refresh your memory, I enclose a copy of the letter dated August 16,2002, that I wrote to you expressing my inability to sign such letter as it would block the introduction of CDMA technology and I believed that the telecom industry needed to be technology-neutral but what I agreed with you was that any new operator should pay the same fee as the incumbents so that all operators were equalized and that no one was disadvantaged.

As a result of a technology-agnostic policy we achieved more than 100 million subscribers in 2006 and to 700 million. I am also enclosing a copy of my letter to Vajpayee dated January 12, 2001, which I advocated an open, transparent process giving all parties a chance to be head—a stance that I have not changed till date.

This had angered you and other operators who were not interested in a level playing field and lobbied aggressively through COAI to ensure that a technology-agnostic environment would not come to pass.

It is obvious that an industry driven by technology cannot confine itself to a single technology only because that was the technology employed by a handful of operators who deprived early-mover advantage, enjoyed high ARPUs and in fact thwarted new admittedly more efficient technology like CDMA.

China, Korea and even the US have built their large subscriber numbers on the utilization of both CDMA and GSM technologies. Growth could have been far greater had incumbent operators like yourself risen above their self-interest of protesting their investment and allowing the existence of all technologies on an equal footing.

However, in pursuance of the spirit of NTP 1999, the Government did indeed implement the technology neutral policy in November 2003.  The minister involved was Arun Shourie in the same BJP-led NDA government under Vajpayee.

This was implemented through the creation of the UASL regime which enabled existing license holders to migrate to UASL license providing freedom of choice of technology and where a pan-India license could be obtained for a fee of about Rs. 1,650 crore, the same fee paid by the successful fourth cellular mobile operator.

Shourie needs to be commended in implementing this far sighted policy, which has enabled technology to be the driver of the industry, rather than technology protected growth.

***

I will now briefly touch on the points you raised regarding Tata Teleservices (TTSL) and the alleged advantage they gained. I have requested TTSL to address those issues in greater detail to you directly.

# On the issue of various allegations you have made on the so called benefits gained by TTSL, so called out-of-turn allotment that you claim have been given by DoT, you have chosen to misrepresent the facts as they suit you to justify the claims you have made.

The true position is that TTSL has not, I repeat not, been advantaged in any way by A. Raja or any earlier Minister.

The company has strictly followed the applicable policy and has been severely disadvantaged, as you are well aware, by certain powerful politically connected operators who have wilfully subverted policy under various telecom ministers which has subsequently been regularized to their advantage.

The same operators continue to subvert policy: have even paid fees for spectrum, even before the announcement of a policy, and have “de-facto ownership” in several new telecom enterprises. Licenses were granted to several ineligible applicants. Several licenses have spectrum in excess of their entitlement as per license conditions and not on the self-styled capacity spectrum efficiency that you have chosen to mention.

This is the smoke screen that I am referring to as these subverters of government policy continue to do so to their advantage and their acts are being ignored or condoned.

TTSL, on the other hand, an existing licensee, applied for spectrum under the dual technology policy after the policy was announced on October 19th , 2007 and is still awaiting allotment of spectrum in Delhi and 39 key districts for about three years whereas operators who applied, and paid the fee even before the policy announcement, were not only considered ahead in line but were allotted spectrum with amazing alacrity in January 2008 itself.

I am surprised that you have chosen to sidestep this very important aspect.

#  The investment by NTT DoCoMo in TTSL was not based on a zero-base valuation, like others, but was based on the performance of the company with 38 million subscribers, pan-India presence of network, offices, channel, turnover of Rs 6,000 crore, 60,000 km of fibre, and the potential growth of the company. The valuations are on the bases of a due diligence and service evaluation of the company’s service quality by DoCoMo.

#  On the question of hoarding of spectrum to which I have referred, you will no doubt remember that in 2005 I made an issue of the fact that spectrum was a scarce resource and needed to be paid for rather than given fee as was being proposed. The government policy entitled operators to no more than 6.2 MHz on the bases of their license conditions.

All additional spectrum should have been returned or paid for. Even TRAI has recommended this July 2010. I believed that TTSL was the only operator that returned spectrum when demanded by DoT. The CAG report clearly indicates which of the powerful GSM operators are holding spectrum beyond their entitlement free of cost to the detriment of the other operators.

# On the question of many disadvantaged new applicants who have supposedly been denied license in 2007, you are well aware that many of the applicants were proxy shareholders in high places, and were applying to enter the sector with a view of monetize the license once received.Even those that were granted license and spectrum have failed to effect any meaningful rollout of service.

Strangely, you have chosen to ignore this fact and singled out TTSL, who have, in fact, put in place a network supporting 82 million subscribers, despite the fact that they have been deprived of spectrum in Delhi and 39 key districts over the past 3 years as mentioned earlier.

How could you or anybody possibly consider this to be a beneficial situation of TTSL?

***

Let me address the question of the Tatas’ need for an external PR service provider. Ten years ago, Tatas found themselves under attack in a media campaign to defame the ethics and value systems of the group which held it apart from others in India.

The campaign was instituted and sustained through an unholy nexus between certain corporates and the media through selected journalists.

As Tatas did not enjoy any such “captive connections” in this environment, the Tata Group, had no option but to seek an external agency focused at projecting its point of view in the media and countering the misinformation and vested interest viewpoints which were being expressed.

Vaishnavi was commissioned for this purpose and has operated effectively since 2001. You yourself have interacted with Niira Radia on some occasions in the past and it is therefore amazing that you should now, after nearly nine years, seek to denounce Tatas’ appointment of Vaishnavi.

Also, the statement regarding Tatas employing [ex-TRAI chairman] Pradip Baijal is completely false.

Vaishnavi is neither owned by the Tata Group nor is the Tata Group Vaishnavi’s only client. Baijal, whom you apparently have a dislike for, is a part of Noesis, (an affiliate or Vaishnavi in which Tatas have no ownership) and, as facts will show, on various occasions has differed with the Tata Group during his period in office and has not advocated or influenced Telecom policy for the Tata Group in any way.

***

You and many others have focused your attention on Ms. Radia as a corporate lobbyist. I would like to draw your attention to the following

# You parked yourself at the Taj Mahal Hotel Delhi, for several months since 2002 which was the centre of operations for your to prevent entry of WLL Limited Mobility and CDMA as well as to interact with the polity and bureaucracy and with other operators to forge telecom policy of your choice. You did this in your own capacity as also as President of COAI.

# Your also constantly solicited support of Confederation of India Industry (CII).

Would you not consider this as an endeavour to influence or subvert policy? To influence politicians or solicit support from selected corporates? I take it that in your view this would not constitute lobbying.

Your affiliating with a particular political party is well known and it appears that their political aspirations and their endeavour to embarrass the Prime Minister and the ruling party may well have been the motivation behind your letter and the insinuations which you make.

We should all note that many of the flip flops in the telecom policy occurred during the BJP regime.

Whatever may be said, it must be recognised that the recent policy broke the powerful cartel which had been holding back competition and delaying implementation of policies not to their liking, such as growth of CDMA technologies, new GSM entrants, revision in subscriber based spectrum allocation norms, and now even number portability.

You yourself have publicly commended in November 2007 such initiatives and the minister for breaking the cartel and reducing the cost of service to the customer.

The 2G scam ostensibly revolved around Raja‘s alleged misdeeds and some parts of the CAG report were quoted as having indicted the minister.

Much has been made about the hypothetical loss to the exchequer in the grant of new licenses and the grant of spectrum on the basis of 3G auction prices, (which were not known or even foreseen at the time of granting such licenses and spectrum).

However, the media and even you have chosen to ignore the rest of the CAG report in which excess possession of spectrum, the disadvantages to TTSL by name, the irregularity in allotment of licenses to most players whose applications were ineligible to be considered in the first place have been clearly stated in detail.

You have also not noticed that the CAG has not ascribed value to 48 new GSM licenses issued to incumbents between 2004-08 and 65 MHz of additional spectrum allotted to incumbents during this period even though the CAG was supposed to cover the period from 2003. It would have been widely reported.

I support the ongoing investigations and believe that the period of investigation be extended to 2001 for the nation to know the real beneficiaries of the ad hoc policy-making and implementation.

***

Finally, you have chosen to lecture me on the responsibilities of upholding the ethics and values which the Tata Group has honoured and adhered to through the years.

I can say categorically that we have not wavered in upholding our values and ethical standards despite the erosion in the ethical fabric in the country and despite the efforts of others to draw us into controversy and endeavour to besmirch our record.

When the present sensational smokescreen dies down, as it will, and the true facts emerge, it will be for the people of India to determine who are the culprits that enjoy political patronage and protection and who actually subvert policy and who have dual standards.

I can hold my head high and say that neither the Tata Group or I have at any time been involved in any of these misdeeds.

The selective reporting and your own selective focus appear to be diversionary actions to deflect attention away from the real issue which plagues the telecom industry, in the interest of a few powerful politically connected operators.

Perhaps it is time that you and members of the media do some introspection and soul searching as to whether you have been serving your masters or serving the general public at large.

With warm regards

Yours sincerely

Ratan N. Tata

***

Also read: To: Ratan Tata. From Rajeev Chandrasekhar

Has Ratan Tata ruined the Tatas’ brand image?

‘Go to bed knowing you haven’t succumbed’

Rajeev Chandrasekhar’s open letter to Ratan Tata

7 December 2010

In the kerfuffle over the Niira Radia tapes in the 2g spectrum allocation scam, the sanctimonious outpourings of Ratan Tata have been little short of breathtaking: speaking of a bribe 15 years after it was “advised” to him; beating his chest over invasion of privacy; insisting the government had a right to intercept phone calls, etc.

In all these actions, Tata has banked on the superb reputation of the group and blanked out the Tata group’s actions, while taking the high moral ground: like his company’s role in the scam, Radia’s extremely damaging conversations with obvious hints of payoffs to politicians and their kin.

Rajeev Chandrasekhar, the former scion of BPL Mobile with interests in the Suvarna and Asianet groups in Karnataka and Kerala, addresses just those questions in an open letter to the chairman of Tata Sons.

***

Dear Mr. Tata

It is with considerable concern and some confusion that I have watched your recent television interviews and press statements following the 2G scam and the exposure of the infamous Nira Radia tapes.

I, as countless other Indians, have held the house of Tatas in great esteem and respect—have seen them as being different from so many other Indian corporates that play by a different set of rules and values.  I, along with many Indians, consider J.R.D. Tata as one of the true builders of modern India.

So, it is with considerable sadness and dismay that I am constrained to write this open letter to you. I trust you will not consider this as personal, since my letter has to do with issues of principle and conduct that are disturbing.

***

In your recent press interactions, you have made the point that the 2G scam needs to be investigated and have made several sub-points, including:

1.    Out-of-turn allocation of spectrum,
2.    Hoarding of spectrum by incumbent operators, and
3.    Flip-flop of policy

Let me wholeheartedly agree with you. Many in media and public life including me, have been saying this for several years now, so your belated realisation of these critical issues is very welcome.

I sympathize with your concern about public-policy making in our country sometimes resembling that of a Banana Republic. But the forces behind this are helped considerably by the fact that people with power and influence remain silent and passive spectators to this.

So many including me would have welcomed your intervention much earlier, as in the case of the alleged bribing offer 15 years ago, of Rs 15 crore that you referred to only recently. You will agree that speaking out against corruption is most effective when it is happening and not decades or years later. Because then it becomes an intellectual post mortem, and not active resistance.

***

Since I was previously a telecom entrepreneur, there will be a temptation for those that advise you, to attribute agenda and motivations to this letter of mine. But I assure you that there is none. I write because I believe that there is a need to join you in this debate and necessarily bring to your attention the contradictions between your stand and the position of the Tata Telecom companies, that you may be unaware of, given your senior position in your organization.

1.  Out-of-Turn Allocation of Spectrum

According to the CAG report, the potential loss to the exchequer on account of dual technology licenses at 3G rates is Rs. 37,154 crore. By virtue of dual technology, according to the CAG, your company has caused a loss to the exchequer to the tune of approximately Rs. 19074.8 crore.

But it is not just this. It is a fact that the Tata group is a beneficiary of out-of-turn spectrum.  In fact, one of the biggest of them all.

It is a fact admitted by the government on affidavit that 575 applications were received for 2G spectrum by 01 October 2007.  Using an illegal and arbitrary cutoff date, the then telecom minister A. Raja processed only 122 applications received till 25 September 2007. 110 were rejected and 343 applications were put in abeyance.

Given the fact that there is no 2G spectrum available, these applications received till 01 October 2007 (within the date represented by the government) have now been put in the dustbin. In fact, the TRAI had already recommended on 11 May 2010 that no more UASL license with bundled spectrum can be given.  This means that these 343 applications will never be processed and will never see spectrum.

In the meantime, 19 days after these 575 applications were received, the dual technology policy was announced through a press release by Raja.  The Tatas put in their dual technology applications around 22 October.  So, in effect, their application went in three weeks after the 575 2G applications were received.

Today, Tatas already have GSM spectrum allocated and GSM service launched in most of the circles. But the 343 applications submitted three weeks before the Tata group have neither been processed nor have any chance of ever being processed, so much for First Come, First Serve.

You will accept that this seems to be a case of arriving late, forming a new queue, jumping the priority and accusing others of getting priority on spectrum allocation and meets your point of out-of-turn allocation of spectrum.

I am sure the 373 applicants who were rejected for no fault of theirs, will agree while the Tata Group has sold its equity for billions of dollars to NTT Docomo based on its out-of-turn GSM allocation on dual technology policy.

In my humble opinion, evidence suggests that the Tatas have benefited from out-of-turn spectrum allocation. The dispute between Tatas and Reliance Communications inter se on the allocation sequence cannot dilute the primary fact of bypassing other early applicants to this spectrum.

2.    Hoarding of spectrum by incumbent operators

This is an important point you have raised. I concur with you that there is a need for telecommunications companies,  old or new, to pay market rates for spectrum. I also completely agree that the subscriber linked criteria allocation of spectrum is flawed and is encouraging fudging and false subscriber numbers.

But I bring to your attention, that this is existing government policy, flawed or unfortunate as it may be, and the only solution to this is to replace this with a new policy.

If by hoarding, you mean having more spectrum than number of subscribers that can be serviced, then please note that Tata holds spectrum both for GSM and CDMA.  Based on the spectrum that Tata has, its average efficiency is perhaps the lowest amongst the large operators.

Equally, that the CDMA spectrum that Tata holds is 3-4 times more efficient than the GSM operators, by its own admission, which I recall during the WLL scam. Moreover, Tata has received CDMA and GSM spectrum at 2001 rates.  So even if the hoarding charge was to apply, it would also apply to the Tatas for having maximum cumulative efficiency (CDMA and GSM) to serve the least number of subscribers amongst the incumbents.

Again, I fully support the need to price spectrum beyond 6.2 MHz with incumbent operators at market rates.  But the charge of hoarding that you make applies equally to Tata Teleservices, whether it is total spectrum held, or subscribers served based on that spectrum, or price paid to acquire such spectrum, vis-à-vis the cumulative efficiency of CDMA and GSM.

3.  Flip-flop of policy

In your interview, you have pointed out that a lot of the current dysfunctionality in Telecom has arisen from policy changes and flip-flops.

You would recall that one of the most horrific distortions of policy was the infamous WLL scam in 2001 where telecom companies with fixed service licenses managed to muscle their way into cellular with active support of policy makers of that time, and not to forget that it was all done in the name of benefit to the common man.

You will further recall that in 2003, a convenient set of recommendations by the TRAI and government allowed this illegality to be regularized through the UASL policy, opening the gates to unprecedented and unique (and unheard of) First Come, First Served form of licensing, bypassing tenders (a form of auction) that were the norm for obtaining cellular licenses till then.

Your company was the beneficiary of this ‘policy flip-flop’ and you chose to accept the benefits of this flip-flop at that time despite this blatant violation and distortion.

I am personally aware because I led the fight against it and remember being immensely disappointed at the Tata group’s remarkably self-serving position.

Further, in one of the most mysterious and indefensible acts, Tata group took on board as a consultant, the very individual, who as the chairman of TRAI was the architect of this UASL and other shames.

So, in summary and respectfully, your positions in the recent interviews seem to be in stark contrast with the actual conduct, performance and position of Tatas’ Telecom companies in each of the three points you have raised

***

There are several other questions that deserve answers, including why a group like Tata with its sterling character and reputation requires outside lobbyists to lobby on their behalf. That, in itself, is enough to shatter one’s confidence.

I reiterate that this letter is not meant to tarnish or disrespect or distract from the many achievements of the Tata group including the acquisition of international brands like Land Rover, Jaguar and its increasingly global footprint.

But I believe, on behalf of many erstwhile supporters of the Tata group, that it is my duty to seek and spotlight the truth. The Tata group has a responsibility, and indeed, owes it to its many admirers in India to actually live up to its image of ethical conduct, otherwise your statements and actions will seem to be hypocrisy—something that’s already available in plenty in our public and corporate life.

Respectfully,
RAJEEV CHANDRASEKHAR
Member of Parliament

***

Cartoon: courtesy Prasad Radhakrishnan/ Mail Today

***

Also read: Has Ratan Tata ruined the Tatas’ brand image?

‘What Henry Ford did then, Ratan Tata has done now

Which is India’s most credible media outlet?

2 December 2010

With a cloud of suspicion hovering over the credibility of the bold-faced names of Indian media following the Niira Radia tapes—and institutional disasters such as paid news, private treaties, medianet and the lot—it was just a matter of time before someone twisted the knife even further.

Offstumped, the right-of-centre blog that claims to offer “commentary on an impatient and aspirational India”, has been first off the block with a survey on India’s most credible media outlet. Pinch yourself, multiple voting ensures that the right-of-centre Pioneer is leading the list.

Poll: courtesy Offstumped

Is it time to think of a new kind of government?

1 December 2010

Ashok V. Desai in The Telegraph, Calcutta:

“The British invented, and gave to India, a bureaucracy that was selected on merit, paid well enough not to have to be corrupt, and financially secure for the entire lifetime so that it did not have to worry about old age. That did not suit her nefarious designs, so Indira Gandhi subverted the Indian civil service.

“The Americans invented a confrontational, powerful and intrusive parliament; but from time to time they run into corruption amongst members of their two Houses, and their procedures for keeping it in check are laborious. The French, after the revolution, created a powerful central government with a rigorously selected and trained bureaucracy, and severely limited the domain of the legislature.

“The Chinese execute anyone found corrupt, define the tasks of their bureaucrats, and reward performance. They have thereby created an efficient government and driven corruption underground, but the concept of government as a service to citizens is quite foreign to them. The European Union recognizes and registers lobbyists, and has drafted a handbook of rules for them.

Paul Romer has suggested that countries should create provinces consisting of major cities and their hinterland, and ask the world’s best governments to come and administer each province. We could experiment with these models, or we could adapt them and work out our own variant. It is not an entirely foreign thought. The Bharatiya Janata Party wanted to review and revise the Constitution; but because it came from the Hindutwits, the idea never had a chance. But the idea of junking our government and starting anew is an idea whose time has come.”

Read the full story: Business sans ethics

Also read: Scams, scams, scams. Has liberalisation worked?

One question I’m dying to ask Barkha Dutt

30 November 2010

Barkha Dutt, the “massively influential but ethically embattled TV news anchor” of  NDTV 24×7, is subjecting herself to a massively advertised, pre-recorded public inquisition with four carefully chosen peers to extricate her credibility out of the sludge that the Niira Radia tapes have thrown her and her channel in.

Cruel wags are calling it “We, the Peepli [Live]“, “The Buckwas Stops Here”, “The Buck Stops There”.

What is the one question that you are dying to ask Ms Dutt that the Delhi journalists are likely to have missed. Please keep your queries short, civil and journalistic.

Photograph: courtesy Eric Miller/ WEF via The Daily Beast

***

Also read: BARKHA DUTT on the allegations against her

‘Credibility is like virginity and it’s been lost’

86% feel let down by journalists’ “CD baat

Everybody loves a nice admiration club

Lessons for Vir and Barkha from Prem and Nikhilda

Has media credibility suffered a body-blow?

NDTV response on Barkha Dutt

Vir Sanghvi‘s response to the Radia tapes

Has Ratan Tata ruined the Tata brand image?

29 November 2010

Although it has a finger in every pie, the Tata group has enjoyed a sterling reputation as a cut above the rest. Unlike the Ambanis and Birlas and everybody else, the group boasts of a “clean and incorruptible” image. Unlike others, it has been known to do things differently, keeping the “community” at the core.

Is that well-earned image in danger, judging from a bunch of recent incidents? And as he prepares to step into the shadows, having turned a quiet Parsi outfit into a global conquistador, will Ratan Tata—under whose leadership the revenue of the Tata group has gone up 40 times—go down as the dikra who messed with the holy grail?

For starters, the Tata group is smack bang in the middle of the Rs 173,000 crore 2G spectrum allocation scam. The tapped conversations of Ratan Tata’s chief lobbyist, Niira Radia, reveal how a gang of politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, and journalists re-inserted the tainted A. Raja into Manmohan Singh‘s cabinet in 2009.

# One key conversation (on 13 June 2009) between Radia and DMK supremo M. Karunanidhi‘s third wife Rajathiammal matches with the contents of a set of documents that were doing the rounds earlier this year, that revealed that the Tatas (through their subsidiary Voltas) had agreed to build a building in Madras, apparently as a payoff to DMK for keeping Dayanidhi Maran out of the telecom ministry.

# And, for another, the Tatas come out poorly in a Radia conversation that reveals that former Jharkhand chief minister Madhu Koda had demanded Rs 180 crore for a Tatas’ mining lease to be extended. Radia gets the lease extended through the governor Syed Sibte Razi, and she is rewarded a “success fee” besides a Rs 1 crore reward to her team.

In conversations with Radia ranging from the cute to the colourful, Ratan Tata reveals more than just passing interest in the retention of A. Raja in the telecom portfolio. “I’m surprised that Raja after all that you supposedly did for him is playing this game,” he says in one conversation. “I guess the only concern I have is that Maran is going hammer and tongs for Raja. And I hope Raja doesn’t trip or slip or…”

These one-liners only add grist to a delicious rumour, twice repeated, that Ratan Tata actually wrote a hand-written letter to Karunanidhi on Raja’s “rational, fair and action-oriented leadership” in December 2007. To now see the same Ratan Tata say that if the government did not step in and uphold the rule of law, the environment of scandals could see India slide into becoming a “banana republic” and to see that he is thinking of invoking the right to privacy and moving the Supreme Court is revealing in a Freudian sort of way.

Obviously, doing business in India and growing at the kind of rate the Tatas have, is not a walk in the park. Equally obviously, the Radia conversations do not represent the full story. Still, have the tapes removed the halo from around the head of the Tatas? Is Ratan Tata right in seeking shelter under right to privacy, or is he trying to hide more dirt from coming out? And has Ratan Tata proved no different from his much-reviled peers?

The most noise usually comes from the people who have the most to hide.

Also read: Tatas, turtles and corporate social responsibility

External reading: The Niira Radia tapes and transcripts

BARKHA DUTT on the allegations against her

27 November 2010

After lying low for a week following the Outlook* and Open magazine cover stories on her conversations with the lobbyist Niira Radia, the NDTV anchor Barkha Dutt has provided her version of events, rebutting the key charge that she played any role in passing on any message to intercede on behalf of a particular minister or portfolio, or to lobby for the disgraced telecom minister A. Raja.

Below is the full text of her defence, carried on and courtesy of NDTV.com:

***

By BARKHA DUTT

As a journalist, whose work has been consistently hard-hitting and scathingly critical of the ongoing 2G scam and the former telecom minister, I am astonished, angered and hurt to see the baseless allegations against me in sections of the media this week.

While there is no doubt that journalists must be held to the same exacting standards of accountability that we seek from others, the allegations in this instance, as they relate to me, are entirely slanderous and not backed by a shred of evidence.

The edited conversations between PR representative Nira Radia and me have been headlined to suggest that I misused my role as a journalist to “lobby” for A. Raja, a man I have never met.

While this is completely untrue, I can understand the anger and anguish that such a misrepresentation can create, among viewers who rely on me to report honestly and impartially. And I would like to address some of the questions raised by these edited transcripts.

The tapes seem to add up to hundreds of hours of conversations between Nira Radia and people from different backgrounds, including scores of well-known journalists and editors from all the major media organisations (TV and print) in India.

Despite this, much of the commentary has been strangely selective in its focus. And quite often, vindictively personal. Consider, for example, that online it is being dubbed “BarkhaGate.”

I cannot speak on behalf of any other journalist on the tapes. Framed in the backdrop of a larger media debate, every journalist’s conversation on these tapes must, of course, be evaluated on its own merit. So, speaking only for myself, the insinuation made by the magazines are preposterous.

By definition, the insinuation of “lobbying” implies either a quid-pro-quo of some kind or a compromise in how I have reported the story. As anyone who has watched my coverage of the ongoing 2G scam over the past year would know – to suggest either is entirely absurd. (Attached below are links to several shows hosted by me on the 2G scam over the last two years.)

In several different statements, I have already challenged two newsmagazines who first carried the allegations to establish any proof of a quid-pro quo or a bias in reportage.

I know that neither charge stands the test of any scrutiny.

For those perplexed by the ongoing debate, it could be useful to understand the context in which these conversations took place. The few, short conversations took place in the backdrop of cabinet formation in 2009, when the DMK had stormed out of the UPA coalition over portfolio allocation.

In this instance, Nira Radia, was clearly plugged into the inner workings of the DMK, a fact we only discovered when she rang up to tell me that the news flashes running on different news channels were incorrect; the stalemate between the DMK and the Congress had not yet been resolved.

She corroborated her claim by saying she was in direct contact with the DMK chief and was in fact with his daughter, Kanimozhi. We talked about news developments within the DMK and the Congress and nothing I said was different from what I was reporting on TV minute-by-minute.

Ironically, the one sentence being used to damn me, “Oh God, What should I tell them”, is in fact two separate sentences, neither of which are related to A Raja or the telecom portfolio at all. When transcripts are edited and capture neither tone nor context, the message is severely distorted.

The phrase “Oh God,” was nothing more than a response to a long account by Nira Radia on a DMK leader, T.R. Baalu, speaking to the media without sanction from the party. The excerpt, “What should I tell them,” was in response to her repeatedly saying to me over several different phone calls, that if I happened to talk to anyone in the Congress, I should ask them to talk the DMK chief directly.

As a matter of record, I never passed on any message to any Congress leader. But because she was a useful news source, and the message seemed innocuous, I told her I would. Ultimately, I did no more than humour a source who was providing me information during a rapidly changing news story.

AT NO STAGE WAS I EVER ASKED TO PASS ON ANY MESSAGE TO INTERCEDE ON BEHALF OF A PARTICULAR MINISTER OR PORTFOLIO.

NOT ONCE, WAS I ASKED TO “LOBBY” FOR A. RAJA. NOT ONCE WAS I ASKED TO CARRY ANY MESSAGE REGARDING HIM OR ANY OTHER APPOINTMENT.

Anyone who has bothered to read the entire transcript of these conversations instead of just the headline, would notice that the conversation is essentially a journalist soliciting information from one of the many people plugged in – something all journalists do as part of newsgathering. And as journalists, we also often humour our sources without acting on their requests.

The only “benefit” I ever got from talking to Nira Radia was information; information I used to feed the news.

It is important to remember that at this point, in May 2009, none of us were aware of the present investigation against Nira Radia. Like most other journalists in India, I knew Nira Radia professionally as the main PR person for the Tata Group. In this instance, she clearly represented one side of the story.

She was just one of many people I spoke to as is typical in such news stories.

As journalists we deal with different kinds of people, who sometime solicit information and at other times, provide news leads. Unless we believe in only press-conference driven journalism, the need to tap into what’s happening behind-the-scenes in the corridors of power involves dealing with a multitude of voices, and yes, we cannot always vouchsafe for the integrity of all those we use as news sources. We concern ourselves primarily with the accuracy of the information.

But, I must come back to my original objection to what the two magazines have implied.

Strangely, when I complained to the editor of Open magazine about the smear campaign against me, he sent me a text saying , there was “not much remarkable” in my conversations and went on to even say that, “there is one bit in the strap where the word go-between is used that I don’t like myself.”

I have to wonder then, with anger, why he did not pause before using such a defamatory description.

Are there learnings in this for me? Yes, of course there are.

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight and with what we know now, I realise that when we talk to people who represent or belong to the power establishment, there can be a danger in sailing too close to the wind, even for those of us who are experienced and are driven purely by a deep passion for news.

The takeaway from this debate for me pertains to the everyday practice of journalism. I think of how different kinds of people, who could be potential sources of news, call me, and indeed all editors in this country every day, with different requests ranging from complaints about stories to requests for coverage and yes, sometimes we are also asked to pass on innocuous bits of information.

Never have these requests—nor will they—dictate the agenda of my news decisions. But, the calls that we treat with polite friendliness, to keep our channels of news open, clearly need to be handled with more distance. This controversy has made me look at the need to re-draw the lines much more carefully.

There is also another learning. I have always operated by a code of ethics that holds me as accountable to the public as the politicians I grill on my show. The selective and malicious nature of some of the commentary against me has reinforced my awareness of how responsible we ought to be before we level an allegation against another.

While a genuine debate on media ethics is always welcome in the quest for self improvement, I hope this debate will also look at what amounts to character assassination.

* Disclosures apply

**

Text: courtesy NDTV.com

Photograph: courtesy Outlook

***

Adolf Hitler finally reacts to “Barkhagate”

24 November 2010

So what if “mainstream media”, assuming such a beast exists, ignores the Niira Radia tapes in the 2G scam involving, among others, topguns of journalism like Barkha Dutt, Vir Sanghvi and Prabhu Chawla?

Also read: This is “All India Radia”

CHURUMURI POLL: Do you trust the media?

20 November 2010

As if all the scams involving the legislature, executive and the judiciary weren’t enough, a big blow has been struck against the so-called fourth estate—the media—with tapped conversations allegedly revealing that some of Indian journalism’s biggest names may have crossed the line between legitimate news gathering to lobbying with political parties on behalf of corporate houses.

The voices of Barkha Dutt of NDTV, Vir Sanghvi of Hindustan Times, Prabhu Chawla of the India Today group, and other leading journalism lights—and the tone and tenor of their conversations with Niira Radia, the fixer of the Tatas and Ambanis—show that the first two may have actually played a less-than-innocent part in the reinduction of A.Raja, the disgraced telecom minister at the centre of the mammoth 2G spectrum allocation scam.

The employers of M/s Dutt and Sanghvi have issued boiler-plate denials, although it is the individuals, not the institutions, which stand charged. (Sanghvi has posted a response on his personal website.)  But there is no question that the contents are damaging to the credibility of the journalists concerned given the exalted positions they enjoyed as fair and competent opinion-shapers on national television.

Paradoxically, this moment of shame comes at Indian journalism’s finest hour, when it can legitimately claim to have unearthed the 2G, CWG, Adarsh housing society and the IPL scams. While motives are being attributed at the timing of the expose, the key issue is simple: the stinky stables of media need urgent cleaning up after the paid news, private treaties, medianet and other associated scandals that have tarnished its image in recent months.

At a time when trust in the media is slipping according to a recent survey, do scandals like these help enhance your trust in the media and mediapersons? Or do you think that they are carrying out their own agendas on behalf of hidden puppeteers while keeping you in the dark?

* Disclosures apply

Also read: The TV anchor, the ex-editor and TV personality

Why we didn’t air Niira Radia tapes: two examples


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