Credibility of the media -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Credibility of the media

Praful Bidwai

As a gigantic scam over allocation of 2nd generation (2G) telecom spectrum for mobile telephony reverberates in India, two magazines (Outlook and Open) have made disclosures about another related scandal involving the media. They have reproduced partial transcripts of certain telephone conversations between Nira Radia, a powerful lobbyist for the Tata and Mukesh Ambani groups, and several top journalists, industrialists and politicians. These show the journalists acting as political lobbyists.

The conversations, wire-tapped officially by the Income Tax department, are part of the record in a 2G litigation before India’s Supreme Court. Although their veracity is not forensically established, it isn’t denied by most of those implicated. They prima facie appear authentic. The 104 conversations are only two per cent of the 5,851 calls tapped from Radia’s phone. They contain damaging evidence of violations of journalistic ethics and political propriety.

They show that Radia tried to recruit journalists Vir Sanghvi and Barkha Dutt, among others, as mediators who would influence portfolio distribution during the mid-2009 formation of the second Manmohan Singh government, and in particular, ensure that the now-disgraced minister A Raja would be given the telecommunications portfolio.

A second issue was the June 2009 Bombay High Court judgment on the Ambani brothers’ dispute over the pricing of natural gas from the Krishna-Godavari Basin. Radia coaxed journalists to support Mukesh Ambani’s view. Sanghvi wrote a column in The Hindustan Times relying heavily on Radia’s version.

Both the 2G and Radia tapes’ scandals show that India’s precious public resources are being undersold or plundered by venal businessmen and politicians — in some cases, with journalists’ help. The two scams haven’t fused in public discourse. That’s because most of the media has blacked out the story despite its claim that it’s a watchdog of truth and democracy. Yet, the scandals are eroding the legitimacy of the entire governance system. The underselling of 2G licences has caused the public exchequer a loss of between Rs66,000 crores and Rs1.77 lakh-crores, according to the Comptroller and Auditor General.

All recent scandals pale beside this, including the two stockmarket scams (1992 and 2001), the coffins scandal (1999), the Sukh Ram scandal (1996), the defence kickbacks exposed by newsmagazine Tehelka (2001), and numerous Special Economic Zone-driven land grabs since then. Bofors, which involved bribes of Rs64 crores, looks like a lark.

The mind-boggling Rs1.77 lakh-crore loss to the public equals more than four times the budget of the United Progressive Alliance’s flagship social programme, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

Raja used four devices or methods to inflict it. First, he priced the spectrum licences ridiculously low, at less than a third of the price at which they were resold within weeks. Second, the application deadlines were changed to favour certain businessmen. Third, some industrialists were allowed to conceal their equity holdings in different telecom companies, thus violating the ten per cent stake-limit in two telecom service-providers in the same circle. Among the culprits was Anil Ambani’s Reliance. Fourth, the licensees were to roll out ten per cent of their network within a year and all of it within three years. This wasn’t done. The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) should have levied weekly penalties of up to Rs20 lakhs for delays exceeding 26 weeks, or cancelled the licences. It didn’t. Finally, the DoT gave away spectrum worth Rs37,000 crores free to several companies.

The scandal is rooted not just in corruption, violations of licensing conditions and regulatory failure, but in the deeply flawed Telecom Policy formulated in 1999, since carried over. This policy allowed blatant partisan decisions, including most importantly, allotting spectrum on a first-come-first-served basis.

This makes no sense in a precious scarce resource like the electromagnetic spectrum. Its price was arbitrarily fixed in 2001, when mobile telephony was at a nascent stage. Auctioning spectrum would have been far better, if accompanied by conditions containing larger social objectives — access for the rural and underprivileged population, affordability, healthy competition, and prevention of cartels. The Telecom Policy has encouraged cartelisation against consumer interest and balanced telecom development.

This makes it imperative that the Parliamentary investigation into the 2G scam cover the Telecom Policy too. This is essential if past malpractices are to be probed, including permission to Reliance to migrate from a wireless-in-local-loop licence to mobile telephony, and the extension of CDMA licences for the Tatas and Reliance to GSM services. Parliamentary committees must go into policy issues if they’re to keep a check on the government.

However, what issues do the Radia tapes raise regarding the media’s role in the 2G and gas allocation episodes? Several, including the legitimate limits of the journalist’s relationship with his/her source, industrial lobbyists’ role and their trading of access to magnates with favours, the integrity of anchors and journalists, and the state’s violation of privacy without a proper legal rationale, which must be strongly resisted.

It’s clear from the Radia tapes that Sanghvi and Dutt offered to lobby senior Congress leaders at Radia’s behest so that some DMK politicians hostile to Raja wouldn’t influence the choice of portfolios. Only slightly less implicated was the India Today group’s Prabhu Chawla, who offered gratuitous advice on how to “manage” the Ambani gas litigation in the Supreme Court. They, and other journalists, also discussed DMK internal politics, top Congress leaders’ predilections, various individuals’ moves, and key players’ strengths and weaknesses. That’s legitimate. Journalists often have to engage their sources and exchange information that’s not strictly limited to their primary interest.

What is illegitimate and unethical is using access to and influence with powerful politicians to fix ministerial berths and other positions in order to help the companies that employ the lobbyist-source. It’s one thing to pump and cajole sources, including lobbyists, for information or interpretation that’s professionally relevant. It’s quite another to do favours for the lobbyist and his/her company, where what matters is crude political influence, not information, analysis or interpretation.

It’s illegitimate for journalists to use their access to people in authority in this way, leave alone agreeing to write articles on lobbyists’ dictates and offer to “run it by you”. Sometimes, journalists use information from one source to extract more “dope” from, say, their competitors, or get help from other sources to analyse it. But there they must draw the line.

The self-justification offered by Sanghvi and Dutt is unconvincing. The claim that NDTV has carried anti-Raja stories doesn’t validate Dutt’s offer to lobby Congress leaders on Radia’s behalf. Nor will Sanghvi’s excuse wash, that he was only “stringing” Radia along. Nothing in either conversation suggests anything but a subordinate, if not supplicant, relationship in a context defined by stakes running into thousands, even lakhs, of crores.

The crossing of conflict-of-interest lines has dangerous implications for the media’s credibility — its greatest asset. Already, many Indian journalists have become advisers, strategists and publicists for corporations, serve as “food consultants” to five-star hotels, and enjoy free perks from airlines, hotels and spas. That’s bad enough. It would be even worse, and ethically repugnant, if journalists become political fixers or take instructions from corporate lobbyists. The Radia tapes suggest that’s precisely what happened. Journalism has reached a new moral-professional low in India. That’s tragic for democracy.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email: prafulbidwai1@
Source: The News