The republic on a banana peel

Media-corporate links are structural. But journalists, certainly entrenched ones, can choose whether they wish to be stenographers or not.

December 03, 2010 01:40 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:53 pm IST

It was gratifying to have the head of India's most reputed business house confirm the existence of crony capitalism in the country. True, others have believed this for 20 years but it carries more weight when Ratan Tata says so. As he put it in a television interview with admirable candour: “Yes, I can see evidence of it. I am not in a position to say a lot on it, but the evidence of it ...” Gee whiz! It exists, after all. A legendary Indian reformer also once observed ruefully that “all capitalism is crony capitalism.” But since the high position he now adorns won't allow him to own up to that remark today, he shall remain nameless.

Mr. Tata rightly warns us against becoming a ‘banana republic.' For “Banana republics are run on cronyism.” And things don't look good for “people of lesser power” in such states. “They go to jail without adequate evidence or their bodies are found in the trunks of cars.” A grisly thought. But we can draw comfort from knowing that our captains of industry, at least, are safe. They are not, as the Radia tapes confirm, “people of lesser power.” Presently, such awful fates befall, with distressing frequency, RTI activists, whistleblowers, people leading struggles against forced human displacement. Maybe they are at the wrong end of the banana, which does indeed ripen in stages from end to end and can wind up rotting the whole plantation if not cut and consumed in time.

Up to here, Mr. Tata's words would find wide agreement. The point of departure is when he sees the media as the biggest banana peel in that republic. Where he calls for “strictures on the media to not use the [Radia] tapes the way they have been using them.” Maybe we're being unfair, as his only objection is to “the way they have been using them.” But in the larger canvas, his worry is misplaced. The media are mostly stenographers to power, not its banana peel. Especially to corporate power. The Radia tapes, whether in origin, content or fallout, do nothing to dampen that dictum. (Too many, though, use the terms ‘media' and 'journalists' interchangeably. But that is another debate.) When, after all, have the media been disrespectful in covering Mr. Tata, for instance?

If the Radia tapes show us anything, they show us again who runs this country. Corporates. Not even the lobbyists who do their bidding — but would have much less clout without their backing. Not journalists who crave access to corporate titans or seek to advise them on how to fix the courts. It wasn't long ago that a whole session of Parliament went by in just debating the dispute between the Ambani brothers. A private spat over a public-owned resource called natural gas. Oddly enough, Parliament has never had a whole session focussed on agriculture. Not even through the sector's worst crisis in the past decade.

Whether it is gas, spectrum, or mining, luxury private townships or other dubious land deals, the last 20 years have seen the consolidation of corporate power on a scale unknown in independent India. It would be wrong to disconnect the Radia tapes from this background. From pitching for licences, mines and spectrum using money and media power to pitching for ministerial candidates and portfolios by the same methods is not a huge leap. The same period has also seen the emergence of media themselves as major corporate entities. Today, we often have seamless movement between the personnel of some economic or financial newspapers and non-media corporations. An assistant editor goes off to Company ‘A' as a PRO, returns in a more senior post to the same newspaper. Next, goes on as chief PRO, or maybe even as chief analyst or a business manager to a bigger corporate. But the newspaper's door is open for his or her return, perhaps as resident editor.

The dominant media are not pro-corporate or pro-big business. They are corporates. They are big business. Some have margins of profit that non-media outfits might envy. Media corporations are into hundreds of businesses beyond their own realm. From real estate, hotels, mining, steel, chemicals, rubber and banks to power and sugar. Even into private treaties with other corporations in whom they acquire a stake. On the boards of India's biggest media companies are also top corporate leaders. Some who find places on the Governor's Forums of the World Economic Forum. Others heading private banks. And then there are top political leaders who directly own vast media empires. Who can hold ministerial portfolios (affecting these domains) while running their media fiefdoms. The dominant media are not pro-establishment. They are the establishment.

The intertwining is strewn with the corpses of Enron, Securities scam, UTI, and a hundred other scandals. Remember those sections of the media that stood by Enron to the last? One investigation that remains undone in our media: where did the millions of dollars set aside by Enron to “educate” Indian opinion-makers go? Given this long corporate-media jugalbandhi , should it surprise us that a lobbyist for two giant business groups is able to influence which story will appear on what page of which newspaper and even who will write it?

The Indian Premier League represents an advanced merger of corporate control, political power and media stenography. The media cover the warts in that enterprise only when forced to by its internal feuds. Corporate bosses own cricket teams. The nation's most loved sport stands privatised. Media companies own IPL teams too, or are their media sponsors. Political heavyweights are the big bananas in the IPL Republic. These links are structural and not about individuals. The complex nature of media-corporate links still allows for spaces within which honest journalists can function. The somewhat anarchic nature of our politics and institutions still creates situations where things tumble out. True, the spaces are shrinking but they exist. So journalists, especially entrenched ones, can choose whether they want to be stenographers or not.

In the larger context, the Radia tapes capture corporate power at work. Yet, clubbing all these tapes together doesn't help. If you're looking for a bunch of journalists who crossed ethical boundaries they shouldn't have, did things that were plainly wrong, or played games they were unwise to, these journalist transcripts are vital. If you're looking for the guilty in the 2G scam, or who is really running the country, this is the wrong address. If we divide the dramatis personae of the larger show into lead actors (for there are no heroes), main villains, supporting cast, minor baddies (the guys who “yes boss!”), comic relief, extras, wardrobe staff and make-up artists, the journos wouldn't make it to the top three categories. Nira Radia might, to the third. If you're seeking to understand the back channels of corporate power, the tapes as a whole are an education.

The journalists were out of line, some in worse ways than others. Varying degrees of naiveté, knavery and indiscretion adorn their transcripts. True, we don't know how many tapes are held back. And yes, almost anybody's calls taped without his or her knowledge can sound stupid. But some of the arguments in defence have been unacceptable, too. Yet lumping all the tapes together is wrong. And unfairly damaging to some while downplaying larger transgressions of others. One transcript has a strong whiff of quid pro quo . Another sounds like a waiter jotting down an order from a favoured customer (a what-can-I-get-you-today kind of thing). A third is showing off. A fourth, making awful errors of judgment that will haunt their author. Most exaggerate their importance, as journalists often do. All have damaged their vital asset: credibility.

There is a great deal for all of us to learn from here about how-not-to, why, when and what-not-to. Journalists can talk to anybody on a story. How you sift what you are told and assess who it is coming from then becomes important. Journalists do exist who are not gardeners for their sources. Who are outside the old boy's network that typically, in a state, hovers around the Chief Minister's point man. Or who attach themselves to warring corporate camps. In a fine piece on Outlook 's website, Saba Naqvi makes the point that “credible journalists do know when to shut down a source or not to take some calls.” Those who show independence may lose out on some stories (the source fearing they will not spin it the required way, or worse, check it out). But in the long run it works.

Some are paying the price for a form of journalism they have helped create. A charge — any charge at all — comes up against politician A or B, and the first question to him on television is: “When are you going to step down? You mean you're not going to resign?” That logic now spites its authors. The chickens are home to roost in a stifling coop. That righteous drawing-room outrage hurts when turned inwards. Audience disillusionment follows when they perceive a fall from that high perch. Meanwhile, I'll take a pass on the bananas.

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