The Niira Radia episode raises questions about the boundary between legitimate news gathering, lobbying and influence peddling.

The publication of taped conversations between Niira Radia — a lobbyist for Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata with a keen interest in the allocation of ministerial portfolios — and editors, reporters, industrialists and politicians has shone a harsh and even unwelcome light on the web of connections which exist between the worlds of business, politics and journalism.

The transcripts — drawn from 104 phone conversations recorded between May and July 2009 when the Manmohan Singh government was in the process of beginning its second innings — also raise questions about the boundary between legitimate news gathering, lobbying and influence peddling. Even as the journalists involved have strongly defended their conduct, others in the media are divided with some believing the boundary was transgressed.

The transcripts were published last week by Open and Outlook magazines, which sourced them to audio recordings submitted recently to the Supreme Court by advocate Prashant Bhushan as part of a PIL on the 2G scam. The magazines claim the recordings were made by the Income Tax department as part of its ongoing surveillance of Ms Radia. The recordings are believed to be part of a wider set of phone taps, though who leaked this particular selection and why is not known.

In the tapes, NDTV Group Editor Barkha Dutt and Hindustan Times' Advisory Editorial Director Vir Sanghvi both appear to be offering to use their connections and influence with Congress leaders to pass on messages from Ms Radia, who seemed to be representing a section of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam interests. Other senior business journalists have discussions with Ms Radia about the gas pricing dispute between the Ambani brothers, mostly regarding favourable coverage for Mukesh Ambani. Prabhu Chawla, India Today's editor of language publications, appears to be offering her “advice” on how to pursue an appeal in the Supreme Court.

On the political front, in multiple conversations, both Ms Dutt and Mr. Sanghvi offer to mediate between the Congress and the DMK, and even help to set up meetings, in order to dispel misgivings between them on the specific role of Dayanidhi Maran and the allocation of portfolios more generally. In what seems to be an ongoing conversation during the stalemate between the Congress and the DMK over Cabinet berths, Ms Dutt asks Ms Radia what she should tell her Congress contacts. “Oh God. So now what? What should I tell them? Tell me what should I tell them?” she asks.

After listening to Ms Radia's instructions, she promises to speak to Congress leaders. “OK, let me talk to them again,” she says. In a later conversation, she says, “That's not a problem, I'll talk to [Congress leader Ghulam Nabi] Azad —I'll talk to Azad right after I get out of RCR [which has been read as Race Course Road, where the Prime Minister lives].” In separate conversations with A. Raja and Atal Bihari Vajpayee's foster son-in-law, Ranjan Bhattacharya — who also, surprisingly, appears to be playing the role of a conduit to the Congress — Ms Radia speaks of Ms Dutt's help. “I made Barkha call up Congress and get a statement,” she tells Mr. Bhattacharya. In response to questions on Twitter, however, Ms Dutt has categorically denied acting on any promise to pass on messages to the Congress.

In his conversations with Ms Radia on the Cabinet issue, Mr. Sanghvi claims to be passing on information from Congress leader Ahmed Patel. “I spoke to Ahmed … Ahmed is the key figure. Ahmed says, ‘We told him, we told Maran also that we'll deal with Karunanidhi, so he has gone back',” he tells Ms Radia. Later, she asks him to pass on the message that the Congress must deal directly with DMK chief M. Karunanidhi. “I was supposed to meet Sonia today but I've been stuck here. So, now it's becoming tomorrow. I've been meeting with Rahul, but tell me ... So, who should they talk to?” When she replies, “They need to talk directly to Karunanidhi,” Mr. Sanghvi's response is: “Let me try and get through to Ahmed.”

On his part, Mr. Sanghvi has indignantly denied any wrong-doing. “When there's a fast moving story like the formation of government, you talk to all kinds of sources. Most of the time, they're quite busy doing whatever they want and they don't actually give you the information unless you string them along,” he told The Hindu. “It just seemed easier to say, ‘Yeah, yeah, I'll do it' and then forget about it.” He insisted that he had never acted on Ms Radia's requests to call Mr. Patel or anyone else in the Congress “as anyone in the government will know.” However, even if he had called Mr. Patel as promised, it would not have been unethical if it was not privileged or secretly communicated information, he felt.

Ms Dutt declined to answer The Hindu's questions, citing legal concerns, but she has been freely offering answers to similar queries on her Twitter account over the past few days. “Let's put it like this, unless we only cover news based on bland press conferences, we have to talk to all sorts, good and bad,” she said in one tweet. “I think there is nothing wrong in stringing along a source for info… I think EVERY journo has the right to engage a source, its NO CRIME … as a matter of record, I never passed the message. But info sharing per se is not immoral in a fluid news situation,” she tweeted.

In an official response to the publication of Ms Dutt's conversations in Open magazine, NDTV said it was “preposterous” to “caricature the professional sourcing of information as ‘lobbying'.”

Other senior journalists are not so sure about the appropriateness of the conversations but admitted there are growing gray areas in the ethics of journalism. “Cultivating a source, giving him a sense of comfort, that you are not antagonistic, massaging his ego — all that is fine. But acting as an intermediary is inappropriate,” said one senior television journalist who asked not to be named. The same editor felt that increased competition led to today's journalists being in more constant and informal touch with their sources, and he admitted that misusing this legitimate proximity was now easier than ever. But he hastened to add that political reporters often make tall claims or promises to get their sources to part with information.

The same argument is echoed by Diptosh Mazumdar, national editor of CNN-IBN, who endorsed Ms Dutt's insistence that she had done nothing wrong. “Regarding Nira Radia tapes, let me say that accessing info is a difficult job and ur promises to ur source is often a ploy to get more info,” he said on Twitter. “When there are fast moving Cabinet formation stories, you make every possible move to get the info out, those promises mean nothing …” Rajdeep Sardesai, IBN's editor-in-chief tweeted in response to the Open story: “Conversation between source and journo is legitimate. If quid pro quo is shown, expose it. Else, don't destroy hard earned reputations.”

Apart from the portfolio-related recordings, many of Ms Radia's conversations dealt with the tussle between the Ambani brothers over gas pricing. She is heard berating financial journalists for the poor placement of stories she had passed on. In one conversation, Mr. Sanghvi asks Ms Radia — who represents Mukesh Ambani — what kind of story she wants him to do on the gas dispute between the two Ambani brothers. Ms Radia talks of gas being a national resource and that the younger brother should have no right to insist that “a family MoU” he signed with her client be placed above “national interest.” Mr. Sanghvi's column in the Hindustan Times the next day makes precisely the same argument. His defence is that this was genuinely his own view, and that the conversation with Ms Radia was only one of multiple inputs for his column.

In another conversation, India Today's Prabhu Chawla advises Ms Radia on Mukesh Ambani's strategy in appealing the apex court against the Bombay High Court ruling in the gas pricing case. “You should convey to Mukesh that the way he is going about the Supreme Court is not the right way,” he tells her.

However, Mr. Chawla insists he was not giving any advice regarding the case. Instead, he told The Hindu that he was indulging in “social chit chat” with a source who called him, and merely giving his opinion that the Ambani brothers should come together since “when the brothers fight, the nation suffers.”

Perhaps because of the large number of journalists involved in the controversy, most Indian newspapers and TV channels have not covered the Radia tapes at all, even though they include conversations with Mr. Raja himself and Ratan Tata, head of the Tata group. This despite foreign newspapers like Wall Street Journal and Washington Post taking note of them and none of the protagonists denying the genuineness of the recorded conversations.

Though the blogosphere has been filled with outrage over the seemingly cosy relationship between the media and corporate lobbyists (one website has spoken sarcastically of ‘All India Radia'), questions have also been raised about privacy issues, especially since some of the conversations seem to be personal, with no direct news linkage. “I don't agree that tapes of private individuals not breaking law should be aired,” Ms Dutt said on Twitter.

Outlook editor-in-chief Vinod Mehta defended his publication of the tapes, but declined to comment on the recorded conversations or answer further questions. “We printed the story because it was hugely in the public interest,” he told The Hindu. “Our purpose is not to pass judgment, but to put information in the public domain.”

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