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Media in the spotlight - Outside View by Sidharth Bhatia

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Media in the spotlight
Nov 29, 2010

If you, like most Indians, get your news mainly from newspapers and television, then you would have missed the story that has created a stir, nay a storm in the media industry. The story is about tape recordings between a high-profile and influential corporate lobbyist and many top Indian journalists which was initially revealed by two magazines, Open and Outlook on their websites. Within minutes of the recordings being posted, they went viral and were passed around among journalists all over the country.

This was last week, but for the first five days not a word appeared in any newspaper. One television channel, NDTV mentioned the tapes in late night news shows but that was primarily because one of its star anchors was involved. She read out a statement from the channel against the recordings, but to anyone not fully informed about the controversy, it must have meant very little. Only now some media outlets are beginning to refer to the tapes and the aftermath.

The tapes were recorded a year and a half ago during an authorised tap of the telephones of Niraa Radia, whose company consults on PR with the Tata group and the Mukesh Ambani group. Many of her conversations, among them with journalists, were recorded. Radia is heard discussing, among other things, the appointment of A Raja as telecom minister and the implication is that if he does take over it will be of great help to her clients. The journalists she speaks to apparently suggest they could help her carry the message of the DMK, to which Raja belongs to the Congress, effectively behaving like middle-men and facilitators.

The journalists have emphatically denied doing any such thing. Their main defence is that in the course of their work they speak to many people who can give them information. To suggest that they were acting as go-betweens and even pushing anyone’s case is blasphemous. The chats are sufficiently ambiguous in most parts, though I would suggest that readers heard the tapes themselves and read the transcripts to make up their own minds. It is also important to note that no one has so far denied that the tapes are authentic; it is the interpretation they contest.

Within the media, however, there is a general sense that the tapes show the journalists in an unflattering light. Sure, it is understandable that journalists have to speak to all kinds of people for information, but even so, commentary on blogs, in media circles and on websites (www.thehoot.org) has been critical.

Moreover, the question does arise-what if such recordings between a lobbyist and a politician surfaced? Would not the journalists who have been named go after the politician for his links? Should not the same standards be applied to the media too?

In recent years, many of our most hallowed institutions have been tainted by corruption. We have a low opinion of our politicians and now it is also clear that even the bureaucracy, the so-called steel frame of administration, is rotten. As for the police, the less said the better. Sadly, even the judiciary and the defence forces are now tainted. The media was admired as being independent, but those in the profession do know that corruption is prevalent in it. This secret has now become public, or at least has spread far and wide, since the general populace still does not know much about the controversy; only those who are connected to the internet are aware of it.

The cosy relationship between power elites - politicians, industrialists, media - is bad for our democracy. Journalists are supposed to be aloof and at arms length from others, in the government and in the private sector. But power ends up seducing them.

Take a look at our business media. Newspapers, magazines and television channels tend to give only a rosy view of companies and corporates and of the stock market. There is hardly any critical analysis of a company, its management and its performance. No one wants to upset a big advertiser. This is true even of big media houses, which ought to have enough power to withstand any pressure. The end result is that the investor gets shortchanged.

It is not as if the entire media industry is bad or every journalist is on the take. Far from it. There is a lot of fine investigative work going on and by and large media professionals are an honest lot. The problem lies in the fact that whenever issues of conflict of interest, or corruption or of unhealthy practices surface, they are not discussed and debated as much as they should.

The media is the fourth pillar of democracy. In a nation where other institutions are under criticism and scrutiny, it remains a bastion and a hope for the ordinary citizen to get his voice heard. Which is why it is imperative to face these latest revelations head on debate them and make sure the public gets to know that any wrongdoing or misdemeanour will not be allowed to go unchecked or unpunished. There should be no witch hunt and carefully built reputations should not be needlessly destroyed, but at the same time the media should open itself to full public scrutiny. Unfortunately, at the present moment there is just denial which is not a good sign. The public has a right to know. The media’s credibility cannot be destroyed; without credibility, newspapers and television channels are nothing more than noisy entertainment.

This article is written by Sidharth Bhatia. Sidharth is a senior Indian journalist who has worked in print, broadcast and online media. He is a columnist and regular commentator on current affairs for several leading publications and on national television. This article was first posted on Personalfn.

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