NDTV Group Editor Barkha Dutt's name resurfaces

While the first publication of the 140 tapped phone calls involving lobbyist Niira Radia included conversations with top newsmakers as well as newswriters — from business tycoon Ratan Tata and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam politicians A. Raja and Kanimozhi to journalists Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi — the latest set of tapes includes a large number of conversations with Ms. Radia's colleagues and subordinates at Vaishnavi Communications, providing a fascinating view of the mechanics of media manipulation in a top public relations agency.

One of the most startling discussions outlines a plan to blacklist the Press Trust of India, the country's largest news agency.

In a June 1, 2009 conversation with colleague Manoj Warrier, Ms. Radia dictates an email about a communication plan for the Reliance Industries group, where she seems to be asking for permission to deal more freely with the media.

“There's a plan that is ready, we're waiting for that plan to get accepted,” she says. “We've always learned to deliver. And this is like working with our hands tied behind our back. You're expecting us to take care of ‘certain situations',” she says, emphasising the quotes around those words, adding as an aside that, “I don't want to go into this thing about journalism…gatekeepers.” She then continues the email: “You're expecting us to do this, but with what?”

She then dictates a separate mail to Reliance's Manoj Modi. “We've already got a plan ready to roll out. And I think we need to consider this,” she says. “We're still waiting for you to give me a decision on PTI. Do we blacklist them or don't we? Are you going to work with the Tatas to get them blacklisted? So when two of the largest groups in the country stop using PTI, maybe we have…do we have an alternative to PTI?” she asks, before going on to pitch United News of India as the alternative, in an aside to her colleague.

PTI's chief executive and editor-in-chief M.K. Razdan does not sound too worried. “What is meant by blacklisting a news agency? We don't have advertisements. Everyone knows our reach. I haven't heard of such a situation,” he told The Hindu. “In the worst case, you might deny us interviews. But I don't think there was any instance in which we were left out. Even today, we are getting statements from Ms. Radia.”

He was hesitant to read too much into the tapped conversation. “I don't know the context of this. What is obvious to me is that she is upset with PTI. Why she is upset, I have no idea. This is a lobbyist telling her colleague to tell her client about blacklisting…I don't know,” he says.

He is not the only one worried about the “third party” nature of many of the conversations in this second tranche, with Ms. Radia's colleagues and associates dropping names of newsmakers in their discussions.

NDTV Group Editor Barkha Dutt's is one of those names. A conversation with R.K. Chandolia, an aide to the former Telecom Minister, A. Raja, reinforces the impression that Ms. Dutt had played an intermediary role for the lobbyist during the formation of the second UPA Cabinet, something Ms. Dutt has denied ever since the first set of Radia tapes surfaced last month.

Congress ne to statement, thank God, issue kar diya. Barkha ne karwaa liyaa us se (Thank God, Congress issued the statement. Barkha got it done),” Ms. Radia tells Mr. Chandolia. In an email to The Hindu, however, Ms. Dutt has once again denied that she passed on any message from Ms. Radia to the Congress, and says her name was misused in conversations with third parties.

“I maintain that I did not pass on any message to any Congress leader. I only humoured a news source during an unfolding news story,” she said, pointing out that Congress leaders have confirmed her denial. “While a Congress spokesperson would hardly base his press briefings on comments by journalists, I have already spoken about making an error of judgment in how I dealt with Radia as a news source and listening to these new tapes, I do feel very upset and sorry about the fact that my name was misused/misrepresented by her in conversations with other people.”

Outlook magazine says it is being careful in publishing this second set of audio conversations, vetting them to ensure that no purely private discussions are revealed in the public domain. However, questions remain about who is behind the leak of these tapped conversations, and what secrets lie in the almost 5,600 other conversations that have been placed before the Supreme Court.

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