Arindam Chaudhuri argues why the Radia tapes prove nothing and why Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi remain two of India’s best journalists
When Barack Obama was running for the US presidency, the common joke in America was that win or lose, Obama was sure to get a job with MSNBC! And when he won, the joke was that “all the channels declared Barack Obama as the US President at 11 in the night; MSNBC declared him the winner six months back.” That’s representative of how blatantly MSNBC had lobbied to make Obama the US President. And every media house with an ideology and conviction does so. Yes, that’s the job of media houses and of journalists with character, ideology and convictions.
Wake up to reality, my friends! In UK and USA elections, newspapers rally behind individual parties till the very end – openly. And it’s not because the party owns the media house. During the very next elections, the media houses could support the opposition. That’s how it is in all true democracies where media doesn’t fear a backlash if the party they don’t support comes to power. India is, of course, not a democracy. Behind the illusion of democracy, demons – almost one and all – rule this country, making it a unique “demonocracy”. What the government of India does is that they create cases similar to what they did with Tehelka, and makes it clear that if you try to expose the government, they will get back at you. So, before elections, Indian media – one and all (unless in regional cases where parties themselves own media) – is always polite about the ruling party even if they per se support the opposition. And this, because they fear that in case the ruling party returns post elections, they’ll have to face the music! Even the largest media house, the Times of India, has not been spared in the past, with Ashok Jain being harassed to his literal death with cases being fabricated against him for trying to act smart with the government! Compare this with the nine page special feature that The Sun ran in 1992 on the day UK elections with the headlines commenting, “If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights?”
In 2010, while the Daily Mirror remained loyal to the Labour Party, The Sun withdrew its support for Labour – and Labour lost the elections. When Gordon Brown had shrugged off The Sun’s decision saying that The Sun doesn’t decide who wins the elections but voters do, the front page of The Sun next day read, “Labour’s lost it!” The Guardian and its Sunday sister paper, The Observer, were backing the Liberal Democrats, with the former saying it supported their stance on electoral reform. The Times and The Sunday Times had switched support to the Conservatives, and had said that David Cameron was ready to govern. That’s how Western media lobbies.
And it’s not just media houses, even individual journalists lobby depending on their convictions. Whether they are right or wrong is a totally different story – and that’s why different media houses exist, so that the public gets both sides of the story. For instance, Glenn Beck, the maverick rightwing superstar of Fox News, has even compared the Republicans’ difficulties with their own disaffected core supporters by comparing the party to a recovering alcoholic.
Before I come back to media and journalists, let’s talk about lobbying as an industry and worldwide practices!
When US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton introduced Richard Holbrooke as the special envoy for South Asia, both were expected to spout fire on Pakistan on the terrorism issue, and consequently, also were necessarily supposed to mention India and the Kashmir issue in their most important introductory press briefs in 2009. But India didn’t want the Kashmir issue to be discussed by Holbrooke, especially on the same platform as a discussion on Pakistan. Clearly, Indian government’s lobbying prowess won that day as India and Kashmir were as absent from Hillary and Holbrooke’s well decorated press briefs as a live turkey from the White House. According to Center for Congressional and Presidential studies, America spent around $2.13 billion on lobbying in 2004 alone; there currently are as many as 150,000 people involved in the industry. And the characteristic, if you can call it that, is not limited to corporations. The Center for Public Integrity reveals that over 300 universities have spent over $132 million in the last six years while 1,400 local governments have spent $357 million to seek favours from the government. Europe witnessed the emergence of lobbying as early as 1979 during the first European parliamentary election. In Brussels alone, there are 1,400 lobbyists and over 2,600 ‘special interest groups’.
In no unclear terms, lobbying is a legal and ethical business. The legal lobbying industry in UK is estimated to be worth $1.9 billion, employing over 14,000 people – in fact, a few MPs are often approached (read ‘physically spammed’) more than a hundred times per week by lobbyists. Researches show that Israel obtained popular US support in over 55% of ‘issues’ while Arabs or Palestinians have achieved support in less than 10% in the last 40 years, especially due to strong lobbying by Israeli think-tanks, activist organizations etc.
It is due to lobbying that notorious President Omar Bongo of the Gabon, who is criticised for committing some of the worst human rights violations in history, had a successful meeting with Bush. It is claimed that Bongo paid $9 million to Jack Abramoff, a famous lobbyist, to ‘fix’ the meeting. Since 2004, Equatorial Guinea have paid Cassidy and Associates – a government-relations firm – around $120,000 per month to create the right public image for itself and to win audience with American leaders. The result was that in May 2007, US officials, who would have never talked about their relationship with Guinea, saw Condoleezza Rice standing before a pack of reporters with one of Africa's most appalling dictators – Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo – by her side and addressing him as a ‘good friend’.
Hill & Knowlton, a lobbying firm, has had particular success in marketing the Gulf War and the Iraq War to the American people; while Sudan, famous for genocide, spent $530,000 to create an image that it was cooperating on the war on terrorism. It took three PR firms for Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev to make Bush announce that Aliyev “understands that democracy is the wave of the future”. Developed nations like Russia and China are as embellished! Russia paid lobbying firm Ketchum $2.9 million (from August 2008 to January 2009). The firm secured a CNN interview for Vladimir Putin and facilitated Putin becoming TIME Magazine's “Person of the Year” for 2007. In 2005, China – to facilitate the China National Offshore Oil Corporation’s (CNOOC) bid for Unocal – spent approximately $3 million to employ six US lobbying firms, which reportedly contacted US Congressmen and state representatives more than 250 times over a period of eight days.
The US capital alone is supposed to have around 20,000 registered lobbyists. So, when Malaysia intended to refurbish its tainted image, the then controversial PM Mahathir Mohamed paid $1.2 million to get a date with Bush. Pakistan spent $1.1 million in 2008 on lobbying for gaining trade support. India is also not behind in the league, paying almost $2.5 million to the famous lobbying firm BGR and $291,665 to Patton Boggs for influencing the nuclear deal.
Having given this background, let me now come to the recent cover stories of two magazines! Well, the truth is that these tapes were in the market in possession of most magazines and media houses for months now! Why didn’t anyone write about the same earlier? The answer is that they were afraid to offend the Congress in our system of ‘demonocracy’. The moment Congress fired Raja, all the bravery came rushing out! But did it serve any purpose whatsoever? The scam is totally nothing about what the tapes reveal. Well, the Supreme Court itself has questioned what the Prime Minister was doing all this while? One has to be living in a fool’s paradise to believe that the government didn’t gain out of all this. Or did they just wake up one fine morning!? However, the tapes have helped the government in one way indeed. The tapes have diverted attention from the real scam and the media is now busy discussing ‘RadiaGate’, as it’s being stupidly termed!
Nira Radia is a lobbyist by profession. Like a lawyer, it’s her duty to fight for her clients’ interests. If you are a lobbyist, you generally don’t have conversations with the local vegetable vendors on the phone. The only conversations will be with your clients and those who can influence decision making, viz bureaucrats, politicians and powerful media personalities. That’s why PR firms exist. In fact, The Times of India, fed up with PR firms trying to plant their clients in their Delhi/Bombay Times supplements, decided to convert these into “advertorial and features supplements” – as written clearly below the mastheads of these supplements – and do away with PR menace from the peepshow supplements of theirs, meant primarily to titillate and increase young readers. Nira Radia was only doing her job and if her phones were tapped, it was for income tax reasons etc, which should have been necessarily kept confidential. It’s absolutely criminal if private conversations tapped for official reasons have this kind of risk of getting into public domain; and Ratan Tata must take it up seriously and make the courts find out who was really responsible for these leaks, so that such cases don’t happen again. And in a country where the rich are more privileged to get justice, he has all the means to keep a battery of lawyers and win it for every individual in this country wishing to exercise the right to privacy.
Finally, let me come to the bigger issue that I started off with, that of the role of media and journalists – and in this case, Vir Sanghvi and Barkha Dutt. Well, as I said, as a media house, you are worth nothing if you simply give staid viewpoints and are fence sitters – traits that Indian media specialize in. For example, as a media house, The Sunday Indian, amongst other issues – like health, education and judiciary – stands clearly for pro-Left thoughts and concerns for those marginalized by the market system; and we’re clearly anti bottomline-driven greedy capitalism. In a world where shameless media – owned by pro capitalism profit makers – like, say, the History channel, distorts the very history they claim to propagate, by branding the biggest global revolutionary icon, Che Guevara, as a global terrorist; where the increasingly America controlled UN, through its arm UNDP, has the audacity of dropping Cuba from its HDI rankings fearing the country would enter the top 30; where Michael Moore’s film Sicko is edited by an American channel and given a conclusion other than the one he had originally made (Moore had concluded that the Cuban health system was the best, while the channel in question – after doing a series on it without knowing the ending and subsequently realising that the conclusion will be bad for America’s PR – changed the ending with a voiceover saying that the Canadian health system was best!), The Sunday Indian stands to give the other more logical and humane side.
Thus, Vir Sanghvi and Barkha Dutt have the right to their convictions and the right to talk to all kinds of people as journalists to get more research for their stories. Given human tendencies, 9 out of 10 human beings will brag about their connections at high places – and journalists often use this as a tool to dig out other persons’ perspectives. What is important is what they do finally. And finally, though not as original as Swaminathan Ankleseria Iyer, Vir sanghvi – who most likely loves to talk more about restaurants – is perhaps the most reader-friendly print columnist who, week after week for years, has given hard-hitting logical perspectives of general and political affairs of India. He has overcome his relative inability to think originally by becoming an outstanding presenter of a combined view of intellectuals – and with his sharp sense of logic, has most often than not been able to be on the more logical side of issues. One can rarely say that he has lobbied for wrong people through his columns. He might right now have more faith in Congress, that too as the better of the existing evils – and might even refer to Congress as “we” with a lobbyist friend in private conversations – but it would be donkey sense, even for Radia, to imagine that Sonia Gandhi acts as per Vir Sanghvi’s suggestions or that he lobbied through his columns to make Raja the telecom minister!
As for Barkha Dutt, she perhaps has the second highest number of enemies in the country – after me!!! And why not? She is young, she is mighty successful, she altered the journalism landscape single-handedly with her fearless firebrand image and became an icon not only for women in this country but also for men! People who criticize her are purely jealous and not initiated with ethics of journalism and the business of lobbying. Today, thanks to the social ‘media’ (as they love calling social networks without, of course, wanting to take the responsibility and liability that comes with becoming media), we have millions giving their often frivolous, uninitiated 140 charactered super expert comments – typically sitting and wasting their companies’ money during work hours. And when a negative wave starts on any topic, the intelligent word rarely gets any space in the world of vitriolic social media – because firstly, those who are logical don’t have that kind of free time to do Internet hooliganism; and secondly, when they do take out time, very few are initiated and educated enough to understand perspectives which often require a deeper understanding of the subject. So years of hard work and patriotism of Barkha Dutt are wiped off in a day by the social media 140 character experts – in this case, many driven by petty jealousies and many who are nothing but wannabe Barkhas who have failed to make it! After all, Internet spewing doesn’t require any effort. For that, you don’t need to make personal enemies, take life risks, go to war-torn areas, or scream literally against corruption and wrongdoers for years without having the time for your own personal life! Her tapes reveal nothing but pure journalistic ‘headline hunting’; and most non-jealous journalists who understand this profession will agree with me. Barkha is quite a hero for an entire generation and will remain so, because many of those who criticize her are the ones who would give their right arms to be in her place! As they say, jealousy is the sincerest form of flattery!
Evil is when you sell your convictions for money or lobby for money – as a journalist, not as a PR professional of course – and Vir Sanghvi or Barkha Dutt have no such track record nor do the tapes reveal that. On the contrary, they are known to be fearless and logic-driven people. I have read many a column of Vir Sanghvi criticizing issues with the Congress itself. Still, while in Vir’s case, people may not know much about his thoughts (because we hardly read beyond 140 characters nowadays; and research says only 2% of those who still read newspapers read the edit page!), as far as Barkha is concerned, I don’t need to tell anything; everyone has seen with their own eyes that she has stood for good journalism for years. When the same journalists and the entire media lobbies against a court verdict on Jessica Lal and Barkha hosts a We The People show, it is appreciated so much, isn’t it? Well, that’s also lobbying. They can be right or wrong, but ‘lobbying for their own convictions’ per se is what great journalism is all about! Just because someone lobbied – or worse, someone spoke to a lobbyist – one can’t consider them wrong. It’s a part of a journalist’s daily life! It’s time TSI readers at least get the right perspective and realize that we need to catch hold of the real scamsters instead of getting carried away by something that should have never come out at the first place – and once out, should have been ignored as a frivolous piece of useless page 3 type gossip.
Bulbs 1 - The legal lobbying industry in United Kingdom is estimated to be worth $1.9 billion, employing over 14,000 people
Bulbs 2 - When Malaysia intended to refurbish its tainted image, the then PM mahathir Mohamed paid $1.2 million to get a date with Bush
Bulbs 3 - when a negative wave starts on any topic, the intelligent word rarely finds any space in the world of vitriolic social media
- 03 December 2010 |