Radia Tapes – Are Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi Guilty?

Radia Tapes have kicked off a huge controversy over the role of the media and has raised a question mark over the impartiality of the Fourth Estate. Involvement of top journalists, Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi, has raised an unprecedented outrage, especially in the Indian internet community, which has in the last few years emerged as an alternate media. While the press and media initially tried to black out the news, presumably to protect their fellow journalists, the alternate media, most notably Twitter and Blogs, thwarted these plans. #Barkhagate hashtag become the symbol of emergence of the new media and end of the era of doctored news coverage.

Barkha Dutt tried her best to put up a brave face by responding to the mob fury over Twitter and Facebook. NDTV too came out in her defense and tried to put back the blame on OPEN Magazine and its editor Manu Josef who first published the story. NDTV threatened to take “appropriate action” for defamation. Response of Hindustan Times was more subdued which published Vir Sanghvi’s response on its website and not in the main news paper.

Once the old media realized the futility of the black out, they slowly started to come out of hiding. Having missed out on a juicy “Breaking News” opportunity, they didn’t want to continue to fight a losing battle and tried to cash in on the fall out news.

We must bear in mind that the leaked tapes represent only 10 hours of recording from the total of 2000 hours of taped conversation available with the Government. Although, the Government has initiated an enquiry into the leaks, it is a foregone conclusion that the leaks were deliberately planted by the ruling Congress Party to send out a strong message to certain individual and parties that it is in the possession of the ammunition needed to fix them if they went against Congress.  Union home secretary G K Pillai says, “The 100-odd tapes that are now public have nothing to do with the ongoing probe into the 2G scam case. The real details on the spectrum scam are in the remaining 5,000-plus recordings that haven’t yet come out in the open but will become public at some point of time.”

To start with, Lobbying in India is invariably disguised as PR, Media Management, Communication and Consultancy. It is an open secret that all the top business houses use political lobbyists and the top lobbyist are well known in political, business and media circles. However, this is the first case that has come out in public domain about a lobbyist being put under surveillance by the government. This must have let the cat loose amongst the pigeons and forced people (who use lobbyists) to be extremely concerned about loss of their privacy. Phone tapping has always been a contentious issue in politics but this is probably the first occasion when tapped conversions have been leaked into the public domain. After the Radia Tapes controversy, what would be the future of lobbyists in India? In spite of the danger, in all probability, businessmen and politicians would still continue to use them albeit now with a greater caution. People will try to find new and innovative ways of communication to counter surveillance. These may work for a short while but the intelligence agencies would finally catch up with them and find ways to monitor them. The recent standoff between the Indian Government and Blackberry is an indication that all means of communication would have to allow intelligence surveillance.

What is worth noting is that the majority of the public anger on Radia Tapes was directed towards Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi. No one had any complain against Kanimozhi or Rata Tata or Mukesh Ambani. Why? Possibly because today in the eyes of the public politicians and businessmen are expected to indulge in dirty dealings but most people thought journalists, especially the top ones, were above suspicion. We Indians love to idealize of idols. We think they have descended from the heaven as our saviors. We don’t want to think of them as normal human beings as vulnerable to the temptations of this world as we are. When this dream shatters our worship transforms into hatred and anger. There was a time when we used to idealize our politicians and public servants in the same way but not any longer. Our dream leaders now exist only in our dreams. This realization about politicians is the results of tens possibly hundreds of scam stories that we have read, heard and seen in the media over the last many years. This is the first scandal involving journalists. We would become more and more pragmatic after a few more scandals.

So the real reason for the public outrage against media personalities was shattering of our myth about them. It always hurts the first time. As a consequence, most of what has appeared in the old and new media is all about how journalists must behave and how these two have blemished the noble profession. We need to ask ourselves whether our high expectations and subsequent outrage is fair. Have they committed a crime in the eye of the law? If we only go by the leaked conversation, they haven’t. But their biggest crime is betrayal of public expectation.

To understand the issue, let’s look at what happened from a logical angle. Who was Niira Radia working for? Ratan Tata for sure. From the tapes, she also appears to have worked for Kanimozhi and also Raja during UPA 2 cabinet formation. Were these people her independent clients? Perhaps not. Ratan Tata wanted Raja to continue as the Minister of Telecom. Sunil Mittal, his rival in the telecom field, was unhappy with Raja and was lobbying to have Raja replaced by Maran. This also means, Tata didn’t want Maran. Kanimozhi was lobbying to keep Maran out. She was comfortable with  Raja. Karunanidhi was almost inaccessible and although he held all the cards for DMK, there was no way, at least for the Dilli walah’s to approach him directly. Karunanidhi was also  apparently reluctant to name an official negotiator for DMK as he had to strike a delicate balance amongst the family members (Kanimozhi, Maran, Stalin, Azhagiri etc) as well as senior party leaders (Baalu and Raja). Kanimozhi, in spite of being Karunanidhi’s daughter, was not in a position to directly influence the decision. She wanted help from Congress to keep Maran out and was using Nirra to lobby for her in Congress. Maran, taking advantage of Karunanidhi’s inaccessibility, had managed to convey the impression to the Congress that he was the official negotiator for DMK. Kanimozhi wanted to dissuade the Congress from talking to Maran and talk to her instead saying that she would provide access to Karnunaidhi. She also wanted Congress to drop Maran and Baalu. Nirra apparently did not have a direct access to the people who mattered (Ahmed Patel and Gulaam Navi Azad) in Congress and was using Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi for her lobbying.

We need to keep in mind that 2G Spectrums were allotted in January 2008 and the Radia Tapes on UPA 2 Cabinet formation were recorded in May 2009. It is worthwhile to note that Radia’s conversation with Ratan Tata veers around 3 G Spectrum allocations. Keep in mind that, in December 2007, Ratan Tata, in a handwritten letter to Karunanidhi, reportedly praised Raja’s “rational, fair and action-oriented” leadership, stressing the spectrum controversy had been created by “vested interests”. Tata was a victim of Raja’s predecessor Dayanidhi Maran, who had reportedly tried to arm-twist the group to give an equity share in its direct-to-home venture to the Sun TV group.

From Radia’s conversation with Tata, another interesting angle emerges which is Tata’s rivalry with Anil Ambani in the telecom field as both were trying to lobby for the 3 G Spectrum allotment. See this in light of the rivalry between Mukesh and Anil Ambani and also the fact that Radia was working for Mukesh Ambani brings another interesting alignment between her two most important clients – Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani. Although Mukesh has no interest in telecom and Rata Tata doesn’t get along very well with Mukesh, but from Radia’s angle checkmating Anil Ambani would have pleased both Mukesh and Tata using “Enemy’s enemy is your friend” theory.

This theory coupled with “Friend’s friend is your friend’ also seemed to have worked in the case of Kanimuzhi. Radia may not have been working directly for Kanimozhi but here Maran is the common enemy and Raja is the common friend. Ratan Tata and Kanimozhi both didn’t want Maran. Tata specifically didn’t want him as the minister of Telecom and Kanimozhi didn’t want him in the cabinet. Tata wanted Raja back in the same position and Raja is acceptable to Kanimozhi also.

Putting two and two together, it is not too difficult to conclude that Radia was primarily lobbying on behalf of Ratan Tata to ensure that Raja is back as the telecom minister and at no cost Maran gets this position. How would Radia go about achieving this? She would have had to work on DMK and Congress both. So she would try to find out who are the most influential people in DMK, after Karunanidhi of course and amongst them who is opposed to Maran and preferably also favourable to Raja. In Kalimozhi, she found the perfect match she was looking for. Raja was always on her side as he stood to benefit by what Raida was trying to achieve. Another important person in DMK was Azhagiri who was opposed to Maran but given his limitations in English language, Radia would have found it very difficult to deal with him directly but working with Kanimozhi and Raja she made sure that Azagiri was on their side. On the other hand, Radia would have had to work on Congress but she didn’t have direct access to Sonia’s inner circle (read Ahmed Patel). Gulam Navi Azad was somewhat important because Tamilnadu was under his charge and therefore he was in the loop. So, Radia used Barkha Dutt, Vir Sanghvi and Tarun Das to lobby in Congress. It is interesting to note that during this lobbying while Kanimozhi and Raja were on the same side, they didn’t seem to be directly talking to each other and most of the communication or alignment between them was being managed through Radia.

Coming back to Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi’s role. In spite of being a huge embarrassment for both, they do not seem to be on the wrong side of the law and nobody has so  far suggested a legal action against them. But is all this so simple? Certainly not! Barkha and Vir both, in their responses, have tried to justify their dealing by saying that they were trying to extract stories from Radia. Have a look at conversation, at no place you would get the slightest hint that any one of them was showing any interest in extracting any information from Radia. The impression you get is that Raida was practically directing both to do what she wanted.

Why would top journalists like Barkha and Vir take orders from Radia? The answer is obvious – this is only possible with a quid pro quo arrangement. What did the two get in return or at least what were they hoping to get in return? First thing that comes to one’s mind is MONEY. Yes, quite possible and why not. What else is a better way to compensate someone who does your work?

We can easily guess who was getting what – Radia was getting money from Tata. Kanimozhi was getting political benefit. Raja was getting both. Radia may have received money from Kanimozhi and Raja as well but that was certainly not her primary objective. The only two people left are Barkha and Vir. They both had good jobs and had no apparent interest in getting a better career deal through Radia. So, what else could be their interest if not money?

Is there any substance in Barkha and Vir’s argument that they were dealing with Radia with a hope to extract news bites? Possibly to some extent because Radia would have definitely had lot of inside information about political and business field. But the question is – would she divulge any confidential information related to her clients or dealings related to them? Certainly not – that would have been suicidal for her. All she could have or might have done is to provide some juicy stories about the rivals of her clients but that was her job. In fact, in such case, the direction of the favour is reverse. The journalists would have done Radia a favour by publishing the joucy stories about the rivals of her client. So following simple logic – one can’t think of any other way Radia would have returned the favour to the two journalists.

So, have Barkha and Vir compromised their professional ethics? Barkha in her response has painstakingly tried to convince her viewers that “Judge us (meaning NDTV) from our coverage.” She is somewhat right – NDTV’s coverage may not have been influenced by Barkha’s dealing with Congress for the simple reason that NDTV couldn’t have been any more pro Congress than it already was.

One last question is – why were the Congress boys listening to Barkha and Vir and the obvious answer is – each party, and especially Congress, has got its blue eyed journalists with whom exchange of favours is not surprising. It is an open secret that NDTV is virtually a Congress mouthpiece and Barkha Dutt plays a big role in that. Owned by the Birlas, Hindustan Times, traditionally, has been a pro congress news paper and therefore Vir also fits perfectly in this picture.

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