Jan 24, 2011

Public awareness vs profiteering

Sandeep Banerjee

In November, Indian Telecom Minister A Raja was forced to resign over irregularities in the allotment of the 2G spectrum. Indian journalists were busy patting themselves on the back for having unearthed another scam, and for successfully halting the loot of the public exchequer. A week later OPEN magazine published a series of transcripts of telephone conversations between Niira Radia, the head of Vaishnavi Corporate Communications, and a number of Indian journalists and politicians.

Taped under orders from the Directorate General of Income Tax between 2008 and 2009, the transcripts show Radia in conversation with A Raja and Kanimozhi, the daughter of the powerful South Indian politician M. Karunanidhi whose party, the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), is not only an important Congress ally but has also held the telecom portfolio since the Congress-led alliance came to power in 2004. For the record, Radia boasts among her clients Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani. Since Tata is an important player in the country’s telecom sector, these transcripts were bound to raise a few eyebrows, and perhaps a few questions about the industrialist-politician nexus in India.

But the Radia transcripts caught the national imagination for an entirely different reason. It showed one of India’s veteran journalists (who earned her spurs reporting on the Kargil War of 1999) offering to carry messages for Radia to the Congress leadership at the time of cabinet formation. “What should I tell them [the Congress]? Tell me what should I tell them,” Barkha Dutt – the Group Editor of NDTV – asks Radia eagerly. Another transcript has Vir Sanghvi of Hindustan Times (HT) asking: “What kind of story do you want? Because this will go as Counterpoint [Sanghvi’s weekly column for HT], so it will be like most-most read, but it can’t seem too slanted, yet it is an ideal opportunity to get all the points across.” Sanghvi was ostensibly offering to help mould Indian public opinion for Radia (and her client Mukesh Ambani) as Ambani struggled against his estranged younger brother and industrialist Anil over a gas pricing disagreement.

The transcripts provide some manner of voyeuristic pleasure for readers. They eavesdrop on the whispers and murmurs that circulate in New Delhi’s corridors of power and demonstrate how the cogs of political and corporate power gently move in unison to nudge the Indian state forward. But if there is one point that comes across from these transcripts, it is about the state of the mainstream Indian media. It shows – and in no uncertain terms – the mainstream Indian media as nothing more (or less) than another cog in this giant corporate-political machine.

Barkha Dutt has since appeared on a show on NDTV to answer questions and dispel doubts that may have crept into the minds of her viewers. She fielded queries from a panel of reputed Indian journalists, including Manu Joseph, the editor of OPEN magazine. In her defense Dutt claimed she was simply stringing along her source (Radia) who was providing her information on a huge unfolding story (Congress-DMK negotiations over cabinet berths). She may have agreed to carry messages for Radia as a ruse, but in fact did no such thing. She also claims that if there is anything she is guilty of, it was one of misjudgement, that is, of being na├»ve and trustful of a source about whom she should have been skeptical. In all this, she did not seem to have a convincing answer for the rather pointed question that Joseph posed to her: why did she not report on the fact that the Tatas’ lobbyist was playing for a certain person (A Raja) to be made the telecom minister? Dutt claimed this did not strike her as a terribly important story.

This is perhaps the misjudgement that Dutt mentions, and it has provoked questions about her journalistic ineptitude on a variety of social and non-profit media. By failing to see the “story” in a corporate lobbyist who works for a telecom company striving to get a certain person appointed the telecom minister, the veteran journalist had spectacularly missed the larger picture. More importantly, she has failed in what remains the essential aspect of the journalist’s job – to keep the public informed about the goings-on in the corridors of power. It is pointless to surmise whether this act of omission was wilful or not; what is moot is that this exemplary member of the mainstream Indian media failed in doing what was expected of her. She failed to highlight the symbiotic relationship between India’s corporate and political classes.

But the mainstream Indian media’s acts of omission are not new. It has failed to take up issues that fall beyond the ken of the great Indian middle-class. For instance, the Indian farm crisis that has claimed the lives of 150,000 farmers in the last ten years has never really dominated news headlines. While they have conducted public campaigns to reduce New Delhi’s electricity bills or sought justice for the murder of Jessica Lall, it has not really spoken out against the ills that plague India’s rural poor especially in this era of neo-liberal capitalism.

At the same television show where she fielded questions from her peers Dutt also claimed that the time was ripe for a broader debate on media ethics. While this is indeed an important point, one cannot help think that these media companies – like any other company anywhere in the world – strive for maximising their profits. The point then is not to debate media ethics but corporate ethics.

The question that needs asking then is this: how should the Indian media reconcile the twin poles of public awareness and profiteering? Or rather, what is the best ethical middle ground that allows the media corporate houses to rake in the moolah while still allowing for some semblance of the media’s original social function? Right now the mainstream Indian is striking this balance by focusing its reportage energies on the urban middle class. It therefore exists at the confluence of neo-liberal capital and a certain class of Indians. It stands for corporatised values that find favour with the globalising Indian. In this process large swathes of Indians (and India) are omitted from its radar.

There is of course another important point. With its publication of the transcripts, OPEN magazine had managed to violate perhaps the most important unwritten law of Indian journalism: never shine the spotlight on yourselves. As a result, the mainstream Indian media – the ever-vigilant watchdog of Indian democracy – is under intense public scrutiny for the first time ever since its existence. This is the moment for soul searching –will the Indian media continue down this path of wilful disconnect or reaffirm its traditional social values?

This article appeared in The Friday Times, Lahore, Pakistan on December 24, . The original article can be found here.