To succeed, a politician has to keep his ear to the ground. Yet success can be cruelly destructive; it is so deceptively flattering that it eventually insulates him from the very thing that has made him a success: public opinion. For the politician, fed on heady tales of his invincibility and listening only to courtiers and attendants, the moment of discovery can be shattering.
The Niira Radia tapes have come as a similar, awakening moment for journalists. At one level, the tapes are about a nation in deep crisis, with a corporate lobbyist shown as being able effortlessly to penetrate and influence decision-making at multiple levels. If this is a mere teaser-trailer, as reports of 5000 more tapes suggest, what more damning, frightening things are we going to learn?
At another level, l`affaire Radia is a stunning indictment of the media, or at least sections of it. Indeed, for journalists caught on the tape, and tried by members of their own tribe for the lapse, the troubling question is about their credibility. Did they go too far in placing themselves at the disposal of Ms Radia knowing she was a lobbyist for two powerful corporate groups, the Tatas and Mukesh Ambani? Forget the people at large, why did their explanations not carry conviction with the rest of the media? And more critically, did stardom and public adulation cause them to lose their way so badly that they could not judge between right and wrong?
That illusions of grandeur and infallibility can affect journalists in exactly the same way they do politicians and film stars has been evident in the discussions held so far. Barkha Dutt chose to face a firing squad of senior media professionals on her role in the Radia tapes and yet missed the opportunity to show remorse and recover the fund of goodwill that had made her an icon. Her point: She would not apologise for a wrong she had not committed and it was entirely valid to talk to a corporate lobbyist and trade information for information. Ms Dutt threw counter questions at her interrogators, suggesting at times that they did not know the first thing about modern-day journalism.
The verdict was that Ms Dutt did herself no favour by acting so self-important. There were the inevitable comparisons between TV journalists and the politicians they attacked; it seemed that both could be brought down by hubris. Also revealed last week was the yawning gap between rank and file journalism and club class journalism, placed on opposite ends during a discussion on media ethics held at the lawns of the Delhi Press Club. Editor-in-Chief of CNN-IBN Rajdeep Sardesai, who was among the panellists, wrongly assumed that he was lecturing to a captive audience. Pitching in strongly for the dramatis personae on the Radia tapes, he argued that sourcing stories from lobbyists, even if not desirable, had become a requirement of fast moving journalism. It was excessive and unacceptable therefore to treat this as a serious misconduct. And then, Mr. Sardesai made a fatal error: He said he detected professional envy in the orchestrated outrage against Ms Dutt.
This was more than what the assembly of journalists could take. They were being portrayed as dull, and plodding in comparison to the savvy new media. The floodgates opened and for the next hour or so, it was the popular TV editor's turn to listen as reporters tore to shreds the thesis that competitive compulsions had allowed for a variety of liberties in reporting, including tapping corporate lobbyists for information, and even allowing opinions to be formed by this information. Incensed mediapersons related their own experience of being able to break stories without compromising on journalistic sources. A senior print journalist with a stupendous track record in political journalism spoke of resisting alluring baits and finding access to important sources solely on the strength of her hard-earned credibility. Another shouted that not all journalists were in the profession for fame. However, unlike Ms Dutt, the amiable Mr. Sardesai quickly conceded the point, accepting that the lines separating journalism, politics and lobbying had indeed blurred to unfortunate portents for the health and future of journalism. The debate wound up with someone good humouredly remarking that the grassroots media had finally taken their revenge.
With the Radia debate into its third week, it has become more than apparent that a new kind of journalism has completely rewritten the rules of engagement in the profession. For those working with television, the glamour and fame can be overpowering, with the high visibility translating into throbbing, pulsating fan clubs, enormous following on social media networks and celebrity status on the party circuit. For the likes of Ms Radia, the “celeb journo” is a sitting duck, a vulnerable target both for passing on and acquiring information. News gathered this way slowly and inevitably acquires a legitimacy that eventually allows all lines to be crossed. From this to concluding that news cannot be got any other way is a small step. The trappings of power work similarly for politicians and journalists. Cut off from the rude realities of the normal world, both begin to live in a bubble of their own making. But whereas the politician, used to voter mood swings, will quickly learn his lesson when the truth hits home, the journalist, not tutored in this art, will react in anger and shock and go into spasms of denial.
Journalists who enjoy the limelight must also be prepared for the backlash when it comes. It can be argued that the journalistic indiscretions revealed by the Radia tapes are small change compared to the scale of adventurism on the part of politicians. Yet journalists alone, among a host of players caught on the tapes, have been at the receiving end of public anger: Rapid-fire tweets, emotional, angry lashing out on facebook accounts, chain text messages, black humour forwards, the responses have fed on each other. Partly lynch-mobbish, the fury is in larger measure because of a feeling of being let down. The public face of the journalist is of a brave, feisty adversary to the rapacious establishment, not the party animal who will wilt before the charms of the corporate lobbyist.
Television has hugely expanded this mandate with journalism turning almost vigilantist in the studio; here the fearless, morally superior and much loved anchor is judge and jury to the condemned political class. What the tapes have done is to expose this virtuoso performance as a sham. The combative anchor who relentlessly interrogates and shames his guests on the 9 pm bulletin morphs into an altogether different character on the tapes, entirely at ease with dubious elements. From the perspective of the trusting outsider, the cosy compact between the interrogator, the interrogated and the go-between must surely seem like a rude joke pulled off at his expense.
It does not help that most of those caught out on the tapes have a wafer-thin defence. The one claim that they have all made is that they strung Ms Radia along — as if the hard-nosed lobbyist can be so easily taken for a ride. The question is: What gave Ms Radia the confidence that journalists can be commandeered to do her bidding? What explains the easy familiarity between the hacks and their corporate contact? How is she able to wake up lofty names from their slumber? If, for all her pain and perseverance, Ms Radia only got the journalistic heave-ho, then it is a serious comment on the wisdom of the corporate groups that employed her.
Nor does the privacy argument work, given journalism's increasingly ferocious appetite for news of any and every kind. Don't TV eager-beavers chase after their targets, ensnaring them in stings and so on, often without a thought to the damage the telecast might cause to personal reputations? Taped conversations between alleged terrorists are the staple of the medium. Two years ago, TV channels feverishly ran a “sex tape” that allegedly featured a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh functionary. The tape turned out to be a fake but the RSS man lost his job. TV channels on a moral trip on privacy have had no qualms about using salacious gossip involving some of the world's biggest names, provided by WikiLeaks.
A case has also been made out against Outlook and Open magazine for not following the due process involved in doing the stories, including checking back with the taped journalists. Due process? If the tapes establish anything, it is the attempted subversion of the due process. As the lobbyist of a telecom group, Ms Radia manoeuvres to place a favoured candidate in the Telecom Ministry. She tries to influence parliamentary debate. She makes veiled suggestions about fixing judgments, and she co-opts willing journalists. In one of the tapes, she skewers the news head of a leading financial daily for daring to miss a story; the quaking, quivering news head in turn apologises to her as if she were his boss. Columnists reproduce her lines verbatim, so much so, when the first of the columns appear, Ms Radia and a senior colleague chuckle at the poor journalist's vulnerability.
Some of the implicated journalists have since been suspended by their organisations. The media must introspect more seriously, following it up with a clear understanding of the red lines, if lobbyists are not to make a habit of bossing us, if people are not to treat every story and every journalist with suspicion.