Crumbling Credibility

BY Muralidhar S| IN Media Practice | 28/11/2010
The Radia Tapes debate: Is defining clear guidelines a solution to prevent recurrences? No. The issue is not about defining a code, but its implementation.
The very traits they expect from everybody else the media do not apply to their own, says MURALIDHAR S
Keith Olbermann was the face of MSNBC’s prime time news until October 28 this year. That’s when POLITICO published news that the star anchor, who was instrumental in driving up viewer ship for MSNBC, contributed funds to the election campaigns of politicians. The contributions, though legal, ran foul of MSNBC’s code of conduct. MSNBC swiftly took Olberman off air and suspended him without pay (since reinstated).
The mature western media industry has clearly laid down guidelines on what constitutes breach of ethics, probity and professional integrity making it difficult for journalists who transgress to defend the indefensible. Is there a lesson here for the Indian media houses reeling under the embarrassing revelations in the Niira Radia tapes? Yes. Is defining clear guidelines a solution to prevent recurrences? NO.
 Here are excerpts from Mint’s code of conduct (emphasis added)
 The central premise of this code is that Mint reputation for quality products and services, for business integrity, and for the independence and integrity of our publications, services and products is the heart and soul of our enterprise.
The company will suffer, for example, if our customers cannot assume that:
Our facts are accurate and fairly presented;
Our analyses represent our best independent judgments rather than our preferences, or those of our sources, advertisers or information providers;
Our opinions represent only our own editorial philosophies; or
There are no hidden agendas in any of our journalistic undertakings.
Editors, by virtue of their positions of authority, must be ethical role models for all employees. An important part of an editor's leadership responsibility is to exhibit the highest standards of integrity in all dealings with employees, customers and the world at large. Editors must avoid even implicit or unspoken approval of any actions that may be damaging to the reputation of HT Media, and must always exercise sound business judgment in the performance of their duties.
How many of those who listened to Vir Sanghvi can assume that his analyses were his own rather than his sources? I wasn’t able to find any such code for NDTV whose Managing Editor is also in the eye of the storm. The issue is not about defining a code, but its implementation. In this age of campaign journalism, the media instantly whips up frenzy whenever the rich and powerful try to get away with their misdeeds. Anchors dish out sermons on public morality, conflict of interest and accountability. Now, when the chickens come home to roost, they conveniently choose to look the other way. Somehow the very traits they expect from everybody else do not apply to their own.
 Another hindrance to addressing the problem is our Indian psyche of denial. Instead of digging our history, let’s look at the scams, exposes, scandals, riots since 2000. Ministers, bureaucrats, godmen, politicians, celebrities, business honchos, law enforcement officials have all been tainted. How many of those allegedly involved actually owned up their actions? ND Tiwari in the wake of the scandal that forced him out of the Raj Bhavan in Hyderabad dubbed it a "conspiracy" and famously said "It is baseless, fake... It is risky to even talk to a woman ... Anyone can make an allegation. It is 100 percent wrong allegation". Now, the tainted journalists have been caught in bed with their source with their pants down. They are employing the very tactics Tiwari employed (though Tiwari was literally caught!)
Anybody who cares to scrutinize the defense of the tainted journalists will see their hollowness. Vir Sanghvi, despite taking dictations and reproducing them the very next day, amazingly claims those were his own "views". This, despite Niira Radia(in another tape) basking in the glory of getting Vir accomplish her mission. Barkha Dutt, backed by ex-colleague and rival channel honcho Rajdeep Sardesai, vehemently demands proof of quid-pro-quo and makes an incredible denial that she acted as a go-between. Here is what I heard on the tapes. I am not just going by the transcripts (my inference in italics):
Barkha: Apparently now the message from the other side is why did Baalu go public…… Apparently, the PM is pissed off that Baalu went public. ( She either spoke to the Congress or is passing information from the Congress camp to Niira. It is quite possible she did both)
 Niira: Congress needs to tell Karunanidhi that we have not said anything about Maran.
Barkha: Okay, Let me talk to them again.( Note the word "again". Which means she already spoke to them(possibly related to the exchange above). Clearly, she is agreeing to be a courier, may I add "again")
Barkha: Now they are saying, they will take whoever...
I have had a long chat.. they've promised me that they(Ghulam Nabi Azad) will speak to her(Kanimozhi)
Radia says Kanimozhi is leaving for Chennai @ 5 ...
Barkha says Let me call Ghulam then (to tell him Kanimozhi is leaving @ 5 and that he has to talk to her before that)
Radia says Congress is saying No to Maran and Balu for Infrastructure.. Radia is asking Barkha to ensure Congress talks to Kanimozhi so that this message gets passed on…
Barkha says... theek hai.. no problem....I'll talk to Azad…. (If this is not acting as "go-between", what is?)
In another taped conversation (with Ranjan Bhattacharya), Niira tells that she "made Barkha call up Congress and get a statement from Congress whether the Prime Minister had actually said that he doesn’t want Baalu and Maran which she carried and he had never said it" (You have it from Niira. Barkha posted a  lengthy response on NDTV along with links of her coverage. It will be interesting to see whether this piece that Niira mentions is among them.)
For many, this would be an open and shut case. I am taking the liberty of talking for the rest of the public despite having no qualification whatsoever. When anchors can claim to represent the "aam admi" merely because a fraction of the tiny English speaking masses watch their shows, why can’t I? After all, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
Against these exchanges, it’s hard for anyone to believe Barkha didn’t carry out her promise to call. There is reasonable suspicion to believe so. The credibility of the media in general and these two in particular have been severely dented. Prima facie, there is a case for internal investigation against her and Vir. What’s stopping NDTV and Hindustan Times from emulating MSNBC and suspend both until their names get cleared. Would NDTV and HT have acted differently if some low profile staff was found doing something similar? Inaction of the media houses will only make people suspect complicity or discrimination. The phone records of Barkha and Vir can prove their innocence or guilt. The leaked transcripts are only a part of those submitted by Prashanth Bushan to the Supreme Court. The remaining tapes too can throw more light on the issue. So will the scrutiny of the bank accounts of those involved. What makes her think the very grounds under which she and her ilk clamored for A Raja, Sashi Tharoor, Narendra Modi et al to step down until they prove their innocence, do not apply to her?
Her demand for proof of quid-pro-quo has been answered several times. Open’s editor Manu Joseph has rightly pointed out that the very fact she did not expose that corporate lobbies are interfering in portfolio allocation is a quid-pro-quo. Information in exchange for silence? Barkha in her response has said "I knew Nira Radia professionally as the main PR person for the Tata Group". Yet, I do not know whether a story on the Tata Group’s interference in portfolio allocation is among the links she has posted to defend herself. Worse, NDTV has done an interview with Ratan Tata, the man who pays for Niira Radia, in a meek attempt at damage control. He has no doubt said things that were music to NDTV’s ears and they were promptly flashed. (Oh, by the way, this has become a practice of sorts for NDTV. Under fire for its coverage of 26/11, Barkha issued a similar statement in her defense  quoting N.R Narayana Murthy’s appreciation of her coverage. Mr Murthy has been on the board of NDTV)
In addition to the refusal to acknowledge and introspect, the other disturbing aspect of this entire scandal has been the silent burial of several troubling issues. Revelations that Dayanidhi Maran paid Rs 600 crores to Karunanidhi’s first wife, Praful Patel sacrificing Air India to favor Naresh Goyal’s Jet airways and Vijay Mallaya’s Kingfisher, his bringing in his "henchman" Arvind Jadhav to safeguard the Boeing deal, Mukesh Ambani’s proxies getting representation in Haldia petrochemicals in view of his interest in taking over the company, Prabhu Chawla’s suggestion that Supreme Court judgments can be fixed, Praful Patel’s alleged accumulation of wealth to the tune of at least 10,000 crores, Rcom fudging its subscriber base, Radia planting stories with UBS and Kotak Mahindra’s analysts on Rcom’s tottering finances, media houses letting ADAG leverage its media spend to shut out bad press, Radia having access to confidential government documents etc. Even if all these are just accusations, don’t the media think these are newsworthy? Don’t these warrant a more serious discussion than when Obama brushed and what Obama ate during his visit to India? Or is the media concerned it will be scoring a self goal? Arundhati Roy must reserve some of her copious pity for the nation that has such weak-kneed media that is neither well regulated nor has a semblance of self regulation.
Muralidhar S is a Chennai-based media analyst.
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The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

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