Radia Tapes and the ‘Music of Democracy’

Published: January 3, 2011 - 14:54 Updated: January 25, 2011 - 16:37

The media censorship is an obnoxious and parochial plea for muzzling of democratic public debate, against cleansing the system of corruption, and breaking the collusive nexus among business, media and politics
Praful Bidwai Delhi 

There always were two components to the disclosures contained in corporate lobbyist Niira Radia's telephone conversations tapped by the government and eventually leaked to the media. The first was the role of certain high-profile journalists as political fixers and corporate stooges, who acted at Radia's behest to promote particular business interests and offered to carry messages to key politicians. The second was a demonstration of the enormous power that Big Business houses wield over politics, which they brazenly use to influence major official appointments, and the processes of policy-making and licensing of industries and their regulation.

For a variety of reasons - including paucity of time, misjudgement, and the deeply shocking conduct of 'successful' high-profile editors -  it's the media story that got prominent display in the first set of exposures, with their emphasis on the 2G spectrum scandal. These showed that the concerned journalists crossed the vitally important line of demarcation between the media, corporate fixers and influential politicians. They colluded with Big Business to secure certain cash-yielding ministerial berths for people like Andimuthu 
Raja, the recently disgraced telecommunications minister, during the formation of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) ministry in mid-2009.

Even more important was the blatant lobbying by a particular corporation for a favourable deal for natural gas from the Krishna-Godavari Basin, and the willingness of some journalists to plug its line.

Credibility of the media was a major casualty of the Radia tapes disclosures. Not only were some of its self-styled superstars, including Hindustan Times' Vir Sanghvi, NDTV's Barkha Dutt and the India Today Group's Prabhu Chawla and others, caught red-handed doing the corporate lobbyists' bidding. The bulk of the mainstream media simply blacked out the story, demolishing its claim to being fair, objective and truthful.

The tapes show that Radia was trying to recruit Sanghvi and Dutt, among others, as mediators between the Congress and the DMK to influence the distribution of portfolios. Both agreed to help Radia by talking to senior Congress leaders. (Sanghvi even suggested he could approach Sonia Gandhi and had been talking to Rahul, and in any case he would speak to Ahmed Patel.)

On the Ambani brothers' gas dispute, Radia urged or coaxed several journalists to publish Mukesh Ambani's view prominently, preferably on the front page. Sanghvi agreed to endorse it in his weekly "most, most read" column. He duly 'dressed up' Radia's line as his own argument. The content of his article placed 'the national interest' (in pricing the gas high) over an agreement between the two brothers, which was upheld by the Bombay High Court in June 2009.

Chawla too offered gratuitous advice on how to conduct the Reliance (Mukesh Ambani) group's litigation-in-appeal in the Supreme Court. Some other journalists also collaborated with Radia on the gas pricing issue and shared with her information internal to their publications. One of them even proposed a meeting between his publisher and Mukesh Ambani.

Radia comes through in the tapes as someone who could command journalists at will, threaten them with suspension of advertisements from her clients, and otherwise coax, entice or push them to follow her line.

The journalists' conduct violates the elementary ethical norm that they should cultivate their sources for information pertinent to their professional work, but shouldn't act at their behest as fixers or even as facilitators/advisers. Journalists often have to engage their sources by discussing issues extraneous to their primary interest. Sanghvi and Dutt did that at length, including their assessment of DMK politics, top Congress leaders' predilections, and the strengths and weaknesses of various key players in Cabinet formation.

That's more or less legitimate.

What's not legitimate for journalists is to use their 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, or to plug the policy line the source dictates. Half a dozen journalists did that, seemingly willingly. 

The pretence that they were merely "stringing her along" is betrayed by some of the results, which show that they did exactly what she wanted.

This raises other issues too, including the distinction between "normal" sources and corporate lobbyists. Both put their own spin on events and trends. Good, experienced journalists know how to separate the spin from the facts. But there's a big difference. The lobbyist presents a craftily worked-out 'package' - facts+heavy spin+arguments, and a line calculated to hurt their clients' competitors, coupled with demands disguised as requests on how the story/article should be displayed.

Besides, lobbyists control access to industrial magnates. They trade it for favours and patronage which border on the unprofessional or transgress the boundaries between journalism and political fixing, and between sharing of information and outright bribery. Lobbyists command enormous resources and can dispense them with few questions asked - unlike most politicians.

The temptation to accept handsome but illegitimate favours has grown enormously in the recent past as business has discovered new ways of cornering public resources and influencing policies with the collusion of all willing, including journalists. At stake are thousands, often lakhs, of crores in contracts, licensing arrangements or business deals.

As our television-driven media competes, with no holds barred and few scruples, it becomes increasingly tempting for journalists to attach themselves to particular corporate lobbyists, who also become sources of instantly available (if processed, packaged and tainted) political information.

In such circumstances, it's hard to make sound discriminatory judgements. The journalists in the Radia tapes either failed to make such judgements - or didn't want to. They eagerly fell in line with Radia's demands.

Each of the journalists indicted in the tapes should have lost his/her job, as would certainly have happened with a more professional and self-respecting media culture which respects norms of integrity. Good newspapers in the West have sacked prominent journalists for much lesser malfeasance and comparatively minor infringements of professional ethics.

Unfortunately, only two of the journalists who figure in the Radia tapes have been relieved of their duties. Sanghvi has lost his weekly 'Counterpoint' column. And Chawla has had to quit India Today. The others still strut about as if they had committed no malfeasance or brought no disgrace to the media.

The media will take a long, long time to recover its loss of credibility in the public eye.

The spotlight has since shifted to the Big Business side of the tapes - much the larger issue. The disclosures reveal the huge but unaccountable power that business groups have come to acquire over governments and over political parties, and how flagrantly they deploy it to influence the allocation of scarce resources, with enormous financial consequences. The influence is particularly toxic in the licensing of natural resources exploitation, including land, minerals, real estate development rights, and airwaves.

As even former IMF chief economist Raghuram Rajan - who is no radical - has said, the key to the rise of all of India's new billionaires lies in their political contacts. Fortunes are being made by unscrupulous businessmen through gross manipulation and by rigging policies and even capturing regulatory agencies. 'Regulatory capture' is a reality particularly in petroleum and natural gas, telecom, urban real estate, mining and highway construction, which are among the highest-growth sectors in India.

This makes a mockery of transparency, rational policy-making, assertion of public control over rogue private economic activity, and even competition and the market. Rent-seeking businessmen, who have stashed away the equivalent of one-half of India's national income abroad over the years, are destroying the edifice of responsible and accountable governance and of democracy itself. This should jolt us into corrective action.

However, Big Business and its representatives have responded to these genuine public-interest concerns by issuing dire warnings against unsettling 'India's growth story'. Anyone who questions the unscrupulous policy-rigging conduct of our industrial magnates is maligned as anti-development and inimical to 'the national interest'.

People like Ratan Tata, Deepak Parekh (once regarded as the thinking executive's executive, if there is such a thing), Sharad Pawar and Arun Maira have all been roped in by a particular newspaper to articulate this parochial and self-serving view. Some have even called upon the prime minister to 'intervene' and reassure industrialists that their phones won't be tapped and their rivalries won't be made public.

Their new anthem is: don't rock the boat; India's global image is at stake; the Radia tapes and public discussion of the processes through business suborns government are hurting industry's interests. At this rate, Indian businessmen will stop investing in India and go abroad. Industrial expansion and economic growth will collapse. The people's faith in governance will be weakened. Don't confuse such public debate and contention - part of India's one million mutinies - with the "Music of Democracy". We need order and institutional discipline, not 'negativity' and a culture of suspicion and witch-hunting.

It's not hard to see that this is an obnoxious and utterly parochial plea for censorship and muzzling of democratic public debate, and against cleansing the system of corruption, and breaking the collusive nexus between business and politics. The collusion is necessary to keep the wheels of corruption lubricated, and for rent-seeking and earning super-profits at public expense to continue untrammelled. In other words, let Big Business continue to poison the system of governance - and the 'growth story' will go on, driven by India's sleazy capitalism.

To accept such counsel is to give up on the agenda of reforming Indian capitalism, and to shield malfeasance and monumental venality - in violation of the public interest. Caving in to such views means being complicit in the corporate takeover of government. Nothing could be more injurious to democracy.   

The writer is an eminent columnist

The media censorship is an obnoxious and parochial plea for muzzling of democratic public debate, against cleansing the system of corruption, and breaking the collusive nexus among business, media and politics
Praful Bidwai Delhi

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