Thursday, December 2, 2010

NDTV Bad Times

For the last couple of weeks I've been rather busy finishing a longish review article on String Theory. Anyway I don't watch much TV, but when I do it's usually NDTV 24x7. And I read a newspaper, but only the one that gets delivered to my house which, thanks to some coupon scheme that I accepted without thinking, is the Hindustan Times.

Given that these were my main news sources it's no wonder that I recently ended up on Mars, sort of. The Wikileaks revelations went on day and night, as I learned from NDTV, HT and occasional glances at Yahoo! News, and I even found a few minutes to surf the net and blog about this topic over the last couple of days. But NDTV and HT simply did not do a complete story on the ongoing Indian Leak Mela.

I kept coming across mentions of a certain Niira Radia, but I didn't find time to sit down and figure out what exactly was going on with her. Then I learned that Ratan Tata had filed a case against the release of some tapes, which made me realise there must be some tapes. Next, I read Vir Sanghvi in last Sunday's HT ineptly defending himself against something. But what? Then yesterday Barkha Dutt on NDTV, while talking about Wikileaks, kept grinning foolishly and saying "ask me what it's like!!" What on earth did she mean?

Silly me. Yesterday I finished writing my article and this evening landed back from Mars and went on the internet to find out what was going on. In the process I snooped on several conversations that were intended to be private. You can snoop too, and I think you actually should. If you are worried about journalistic ethics, there's this article by Manu Joseph and this article by Hartosh Singh Bal, both on the website of Open Magazine, that argue eloquently why (i) these conversations deserve to be heard, and (ii) the Indian press has shamed itself by mostly suppressing the story. If you're convinced you have the moral right, and the bandwidth, then click on the audio links, or better move to Outlook Magazine's page on the 2G tapes which seems faster to me and offers mp3 files to download.

What emerges, for me, are two main points: (i) there was intense negotiation and lobbying between the Congress and the DMK after the 2009 elections, mostly about the latter party's desire for cabinet posts and ministerships, one of which involved a certain A. Raja becoming (again) the minister for telecommunications, (ii) some of the negotiations were conducted through Barkha Dutt (NDTV) and Vir Sanghvi (Hindustan Times). Point (ii) seems to explain why my main media outlets censored the whole story and I effectively remained on Mars all these days.

Now point (i) emerges as slightly unremarkable. Obviously there were negotiations, but what do we learn from snooping on them? To paraphrase something I quoted in my recent blog posting Leak Soup:

Karunanidhi is deaf! Alagiri is domineering! Kanimozhi is soft-spoken but persuasive! A. Raja was desperate to get telecom! The powerful lobbyist Niira Radia, employed by Tatas, Ambanis and DMK alike, is well-connected, pushy and slightly crude!

Big deal. No news here, I believe.

On the other hand two people whom I feel I know, Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi, stand exposed. I don't feel very sorry for Sanghvi, whose writing I always found quite superficial and self-gratifying. But I was an admirer of Barkha and I'm frankly shocked by what I heard. For me hearing is believing -- and it's reasonably apparent to me that the tapes are not doctored, that Barkha and Vir said everything they said and did everything they said they did.

The two journalists come out with some very damning quotes. Barkha to Niira Radia: "Oh God. So now what? What should I tell them? Tell me what should I tell them?" (referring to what the DMK, through Radia, wants Barkha to tell the Congress party leadership). Later Barkha says "everybody I know in the Congress was at the swearing in, so I haven’t been able to speak with the top guys, and now I just finished and I am going to make my set of calls.". So despite appearing to be an objective, unbiased journalist whom we all see on TV, she was actually behaving like a Congress party member. If the Hindutva brigade is after her now, she has only herself to blame.

Vir Sanghvi comes off worse. He appears in two sets of conversations, one about the tussle between Mukesh and Anil Ambani over natural gas, and the other inevitably about A. Raja. About Mukesh Ambani, Sanghvi says to Radia: "What kind of story do you want? Because this will go as Counterpoint, 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." About an interview that Ms Radia wants him to do of Mr Ambani, Sanghvi agrees that "it has to be fully scripted. I have to come in and do a run through with him before." And at some point Ms Radia tells him "I mean you’ll have to attack the judge here because the judge has, what he’s done, he’s given preference to an MoU." On the Congress-DMK matter Sanghvi indicates he "was supposed to meet Sonia today, but I’ve been stuck here. So, now it’s becoming tomorrow."

Mr Sanghvi's claim that he was saying all this just to extract information and that he never intended to write about the Ambani issue as he was being told to, or pass on requests from the DMK to the Congress leadership, is hogwash. To be convinced of that you do need to listen to the audio and not just read the transcript. You can also read Hartosh Singh Bal's article to which I linked above. It carefully analyses Sanghvi's Counterpoint column that appeared just after he promised Ms Radia what he would write, and correlates the two things. The final nail in the coffin is a taped conversation between Ms Radia and her colleague where they celebrate that Mr Sanghvi wrote exactly what they had told him to.

The mighty have fallen. Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi will never be the same again for me. On the other hand, as I indicated above, the Congress and even the DMK don't come out particularly damaged. They are doing what political parties always do, it's not pretty and in fact it's quite squalid, but the main point is we always knew that.


Anonymous said...

Firstly, Good Morning :)/Welcome back from Mars
Secondly, Twitter is/was where all the action is on this one!

Sayan said...

The mainstream media is so much entrenched within the corporate establishment that they are beginning to loose all credibility. Here is an article by Sainath on the paid news scandal and how press council suppresses its own report.

There are magazines, "Economic and Political Weekly" for example, that strive hard to maintain their independence. The tragedy is general public do not even know that they exist.

Btw, your blog posts are really nice. I used to think internet is dominated by Hindutva brigade, so it was a pleasant surprise to come across this blog :)

aativas said...

Interesting information for me as I do not watch TV and read newspapers rarely!