Radia Tapes: Media ethics at the crossroads

IN Media Practice | 23/11/2010
"From as far back as I remember in my 20 year career as journalist, the primary rule has been: cultivate your source, listen to all his woes, extract information from him, but don't promise to ‘fix’ anything for him." Starting a debate on the Hoot.
Journalists tune in to comment on professional issues thrown up by the Radia Tapes. Image courtesy:Open magazine.

Let us discuss the professional issues involved!
Last week's disclosures on two magazine websites have stunned even the more cynical among us. The implications of these taped conversations in at least three cases are that the journalists concerned are actively involved in helping a lobbyist who is trying to fix ministerial berths for DMK MPs, among them for A. Raja. For reasons which will help the companies which employ her. 

All these journalists are at the top of the profession and were leading teams of journalists at least at the time when these conversations took place. Did they do anything wrong? Should these conversation have been published without giving them a chance to be heard?  Are notions of what constitutes ethical professional behavior changing?

Some of us thought there was a need to initiate a debate on this on The Hoot. We invite fellow journalists to respond with a comment or an article. The first responses are published below. Please use the comments facility at the bottom of the page, or send your articles to editor@thehoot.org  
 Sevanti Ninan           Vidya Subrahmaniam          Poornima Joshi
    The Hoot                  The Hindu                      Mail Today

It seems strange that when there are so many sanctimonious journalists going on and on about ''national interest'' ''the poor and down trodden'' and ''corruption in public life,'' we are reduced to now talking about what is basic journalistic ethics and where we cross the line. All of us deal all the time with power centres.. whether its the juniormost reporter talking to the corporator, the water supply board official or the constable at the local police station, right up to those covering PMO and are on nodding terms with Sonia Gandhi. From as far back as I remember in my 20 year career as journalist, the primary rule has been: cultivate your source, listen to all his woes, extract information from him, but don't promise to ''fix'' anything for him.
So how is it that when we listen to the Nira Radia tapes, journalists like Vir Sanghvi and Barkha Dutt, who have been ''role models'' and ''icons'' for generations of budding wannabes,  promise to do exactly that? Both Barkha and Vir have made statements that they have not crossed the line and are only trying to extract information. But Barkha clearly tells Nira Radia that she will arrange a meeting with Congress general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad to discuss the members and portfolios of the DMK in the Union Cabinet. That is information gathering? I didn't know that, but perhaps this is a new lesson that 'senior' journalists like Barkha want to put out?
Pumping Nira Radia for information on who is getting what portfolio, what is the behind-the- scenes-drama .. that is perfectly fine. We have all done it, we will all do it. Absolutely nothing wrong in talking to a fixer or a lobbyist to get information. But as far as I know, this does not mean promising to contact the other side to present this side's case using the influence and access that we do have. Or, promising to write a column presenting a point of view that will indirectly benefit one side of a  corporate battle, like Vir does.
Both Vir and Nira are very convincing that supporting Mukesh Ambani against Anil in the battle for gas prices is actually in public interest. That point may have some merit, but I am seriously shocked that Vir says he will discuss what to write in his column with Nira's minion and then ''run it by you'' before its published! This from a senior and respected columnist whose opinions can actually influence a lot of people? I am actually speechless about that statement and simultaneously feel extraordinarily naive for being shocked by it.
Yes most of us have lost our illusions and the ideals with which we came into the profession. I don't really want to sound holier than thou. But all of us get tarred by the same brush when people like Barkha or Vir, both of whom are objects of both journalistic and public admiration, are seen in public as ''fixers.''
I am also surprised that most of us have chosen to keep quiet or look the other way over the entire controversy. True, we have become blase and cynical. We all know this is the system, this is how it works and everyone always wants more money and power.
 But where does this end? And how are  we to defend ourselves or even continue working when, at this rate,  the general public will either expect us to fix things for them or sneers at us for doing so? And finally, in what way are we different from the politicians themselves, if we also do the same thing? Do we have any rights to be sanctimonious about anything?
It will be very interesting to know the answers to these questions from all the big names coming up in the conversations with Nira Radia.

Sowmya Aji


22 November 2010
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The excuse given by some like Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi that they were "stringing" Radia along is simply laughable. There is not a whiff of a conversation to suggest that either of them was looking for information on the number of cabinet and ministerial berths the DMK wanted, etc. Since the whole of Delhi, and I would say almost all journalists were familar with the Radia name, at least since the days of the NDA government when she was more interested in civil aviation, to me it seems almost impossible that this was a "free service" being offered by journalists -- recommending Raja for the telecom ministry, suggesting he could fix the Supreme Court (as Prabhu Chawla did), tailoring a column, described by Vir Sanghvi as "must must read" for everyone,  to suit the business interests of Mukesh Ambani. One would have to pretend to be some innocent babe lost in the woods.
Everyone would be aware that  huge stakes were involved in getting a cabinet berth and one of their own choice. What does definitely seem to be a brag is that they could in fact get Sonia Gandhi and others in the Congress like Ghulam Nabi Azad to do their bidding on Cabinet making or even take a message or two to them. I am sure Radia had other emissaries known to the politicos. But when stakes are that high -- as unfortunately for the country they turned out to be worth more than 100,000 crores -- to talk about no quid pro quo is simply ridiculous. Of course, there is no proof of that, but so far there is no proof either of Raja being given money by the Ambanis or the Tatas and so on.
Would anyone believe that Raja was handing out undervalued licences without a quid pro quo? Why should we think that journalists were saying they would do this or that favour without a quid pro quo? Because they are morally superior journalists and not immoral politicians? I simply do not buy that.
Neena Vyas
New Delhi
23 November 2010 


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I think this is unfortunate. At the very least, even without impugning anyone without a hearing, it is very clear prima facie (from the content of the tapes - which have not been refuted) that there are serious questions.

1)Corruption is not limited to taking or giving money. Playing the role of a power broker, fixing things or taking clear instructions on how and what to write in the article from corporate lobbyists must certainly qualify for a breach of ethics. Certainly favours exchanged, even if it is only that of assuring access to powers-that-be in return for 'fixing' are a form of quid pro quo journalism.

2) Certainly all the journalists who have been taped exhibiting similar trangressions must be asked questions. Of course not all of them sound equally culpable of 'fixing' things and a distinction must also be made. The point is not to make this a witch hunt but for the profession to discuss very seriously the breach of very basic journalistic principles and take a stand on it irrespective of whether we name and shame anyone individually. At the very least we can come up with a common ground on the kinds of behaviour that we have found objectionable.

3) I have heard the explanation that journalists 'talk to everyone' and I find that quite unsatisfactory. While all of us may - from time to time- cajole or flatter our sources to extract information, there is a real conflict of interest in becoming a participant in a story one is reporting on. If there is a more detailed rationale for the conversations that have been taped  - and I really hope there is because otherwise we face a really dismal state of things - lets have that in the public domain. I think and hope that the majority of journalists do follow clear codes of conduct and are able to keep the required distance from the stories they cover. I think this fact needs to be emphasised loudly and clearly if the profession is to retain any credibility. I am sure media house managers may from time to time need to engage with powers that be at various levels. But that is exactly why there is a separation of tasks between the advertising or sales department and the reporters, a distinction that is  maintained even by the most commercial of media organisations. If 'fixing' is what some seniors in the profession feel they need to do, lets leave that to them - but perhaps they should then retire from active journalism, certainly reporting on issues of fact at least.
Aunohita Mojumdar

23 November 2010



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A lobbyist will lobby and a journalist has to report. One does not expect a lobbyist to be ethical for what matters is the deliverable to the client. When the clients are politicians and businessmen, and with their interests overlapping, you do not expect Radia not to pull every plug to get the outcome she needed. She did what she had to do - her job. If I were in her place, the efforts would not have been different.


But I am not in her place and have been a journalist for 36 years, and though there have been temptations galore to help someone along with a plug, resisted it. Mark this: the temptations are tiny to rich, depending on the stakes involved. A journalist has to find and keep his sources and the only concession that could ever be extended is to keep a point off-the-record if it was sought. Nothing is lost by agreeing to keep something under wraps till one day or the other, and sooner if some effort were to be put in, the same story can and does come out. Only the source changes. Beyond that - nothing to the source. And to the lobbyist especially. But even PR guys are lobbying an image that the client desires, right?


The error is to assume that a lobbyist is a source and cosy up with him or her because they at best have the value of being a tipster. Their story can never be complete and would have more twists and spins than facts so they are best avoided. Regardles of Vir Sanghvi's 'paying along' theme or Barkha Dutt's claim that she was only listening to the lament of the lobbyist, it does appear they were hand-in-glove. Perhaps they thought their phone lines were secure but have been found out.


I recall my then editor G Kasturi's counsel to me: you may appear close to the source, make the source comfortable enough to share information but never ever walk with your hands on the source's shoulders. The short point: a source is just that, not a sweetheart. Once the source morphs into a sweetheart, the deals creep into the relationship. Barkha, Sanghvi and others of the profession who were taped made the mistake - they appear to have gone to bed with the source, in this case, disastrously, a lobbyist. It ought to be noted that they were not talking about possibilities of who would get what cabinet berth, which would be part of journalistic fishing expeditions. They were in on the job - how to ensure that someone got what the lobbyist wanted on behalf of her client.


Give them an opportunity to have their side told? Did these worthies, who editorialise on TV shows (distinct from newscasts) and in columns - thank the good lord, they are not reporting news! - always give that benefit to their victims? "There are some who would say you are a crook, Mr Crook, so what have you to say?" is their standard approach without saying who that "someone is". But the tapes were revealing, there was no doubt about their authenticity and if Outlook and Open Magazine went ahead with it, they had their good reasons. It is like picking a paper out of a government file and publishing it; you do not ask the clerk if he had a side to narrate.


Mahesh Vijapurkar


November 23, 2010



Related links


The Radia Tapes debate: swallowing the bait


The Radia Tapes debate: working journalists introspect


The Radia Tapes debate: journalists and others write in


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