Pay the piper, call the tune

Published: January 25, 2011 - 16:38 Updated: January 31, 2011 - 14:43

A 'surrogate corporate war' plays out behind the Radia tapes expose', claims Ratan Tata
Hardnews Bureau Delhi

Expectedly, the media gaze at the rot within proved to be ephemeral. The leakage of the telephone conversations between lobbyist, Niira Radia, and senior editors of TV and print presented an unedifying spectacle of how media is a plaything in the hands of manipulative big business. Television media may have moved on to its favourite obsession of passing judgement on malfeasance in the government manned by corrupt politicians, but l'affaire Radia has scarred and bruised the Tatas, besides many others.  

A business house that prides itself for its clean image and adherence to corporate governance, the Tatas were badly stung by the exposure of the Radia tapes. They brought out in the public domain the important fact that the Tatas had to retain a lobbyist, Niira Radia, to manage the political and media environment. Some conversations also reveal the Tatas engaging in all those dubious business practices that they claim to find objectionable. The tapes present a dirty, messy picture of how the corporate world navigates through a corrupt and avaricious political system.  

Ratan Tata, chairman of Tata Sons Ltd, to his credit, did not go into hiding after the exposé. He stepped out and defended his decision to employ Radia, and subsequently filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court about India's lackadaisical privacy laws and how unguarded conversations taped by State agencies on some pretext find their way to media and corporate rivals.  

It is the second affidavit filed by Tata that cuts closer to the bone, where he talks of conflict of interest and links the exposé in some publications and TV channels to ownership of stake by telecom companies in these media groups. This is a sensational allegation, which lends a different spin to the corporate wars that have been raging in the lucrative telecom sector for some time. What it really implies is that the dirty leakage of the tapes, with selective plants in certain publications, reveals how the editors crawl when owners/stakeholders crack the whip. 

Tata says in affidavit that "as much (as) the concern bestowed by the press upon the influence of corporates on governmental policy, it is also necessary to keep in view the potential influence of specific corporate investments in the press itself and their potential conflict - applying the high standards of apprehension of bias". He further says that the right of media to broadcast has to be evaluated in the backdrop of potential conflict arising out of investment by corporate houses in the media. Freedom of expression, Tata claims, should not be a "euphemism for waging surrogate corporate wars". 

Tata points out that the Anil Ambani-owned Reliance Capital had invested in media holdings like TV-18 and TV Today network.

Reliance Capital invested Rs 136 crore in IBN-18, which runs CNN-IBN and IBN7, and Rs 162 crore in Network 18 Media and Investment Ltd, the firm which runs the affiliates of business news channel CNBC in India. Reliance Capital also invested Rs 101 crore in TV Today Network, which runs the news channels Aaj Tak and Headlines Today. 

As Anil Ambani is a major player in the telecom sector and finds prominent mention in the CAG report, Tata's affidavit implies that the entire campaign against Radia was motivated, and a manifestation of a "surrogate corporate war". He wants to know, in the backdrop of this understanding, whether the media can claim freedom of expression and show the publication of Radia tapes as an example of investigative journalism. 

"Similarly, Respondent(s) no(s) 5 and 6 - Outlook and Open magazines - are also substantially owned by large corporate conglomerates, namely Raheja group and RPG Enterprise respectively," said Tata while annexing the investment details of the magazines and news channels in his affidavit.

Tata's affidavit raises many fundamental issues about individual privacy and whether the leakage of a telephone tap conducted by the government is a violation of the Official Secrets Act as all audio, video and text files enjoy similar status as secret government documents, if listed as classified.

A ‘surrogate corporate war’ plays out behind the Radia tapes expose', claims Ratan Tata
Hardnews Bureau Delhi

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