Ranjona Banerji: Slippery slope of big biz-funded media

18 Oct,2013

By Ranjona Banerji

 

The Supreme Court has taken the media back to one of its most shameful episodes: the exposures against senior journalists in the Niira Radia tapes. For those who have been living on Mars since 2010, here goes. The transcripts of the conversations between corporate lobbyist and various people including several journalists were leaked by Outlook and Open magazines. Radia’s phones had been tapped by the Income Tax department after allegations of financial irregularities by a former associate. But the tapping led to enormous breakthroughs in the 2G spectrum scam case.

 

Radia, employed by the Ambanis, the Tatas and Mittals, was heard talking to various journalists asking them to help ensure that A Raja became telecom minister in the 2009 UPA Cabinet. She said she was speaking on behalf of Kanimozhi of the DMK. Of the journalists she spoke to, Barkha Dutt of NDTV sounded the most helpful as also did Vir Sanghvi, then editorial director and columnist with Hindustan Times. Sanghvi and Radia also discussed how Sanghvi’s columns could be used to project Mukesh Ambani’s point of view as far as the KG Basin gas project was concerned.

 

There was an understandable uproar after the tapes were made public and Sanghvi lost his once very well-respected column but that was about it. Dutt remained defiant, putting down her comments as regular journalistic practices. In an incredible TV show, she told several senior journalists who questioned her that they knew little about how journalism in New Delhi functioned and moreover that she didn’t think there was anything remarkable in a corporate lobbyist who represented people with telecom interests calling journalists to influence Cabinet selections.

 

Indeed, if that is what passes for standard practice for journalists in Delhi, it is tragic as far as Indian journalism is concerned. This new Supreme Court directive will lead to the tapes being examined again and perhaps Indian journalists and media houses will be under the scanner again for several nefarious practices. Too much has been allowed already in the name of making money. Nothing wrong with profit at all: we all know it is vital for survival of our system. But for people who spend all day pointing fingers at other people to bend the rules when it comes to themselves is unacceptable.

 

There is a tangential discussion possible here on the inroads which the public relations industry has made into journalism but that is for another day. The onus here is on the journalists – all very senior and powerful – that Radia spoke to. Interestingly, not one thought that there was a story in the fact that the Tatas and the Mittals wanted Raja to be telecom minister and not Dayanidhi Maran or that the DMK insisted on retaining telecom or indeed on the divisions within Karunanidhi’s family made apparent by Radia’s requests. At face value, this looked like a great story to the rest of us.

 

**

 

If journalistic integrity needs to be examined again, so does the problem of paid news and corporate interests in the media. The big story for the last couple of days for almost every newspaper, journal and news channel has been the FIR lodged by the CBI against Kumar Mangalam Birla for his company’s involvement in the coal allocation scam. However, there are allegations and insinuations that the story has either not been covered or has been downplayed by Hindustan Times and by Headlines Today. The Hindustan Times is a Birla company owned by Kumar Mangalam’s cousin Shobhana Bhartia and Kumar Mangalam Birla has invested heavily in the India Today group.

 

From what I have checked, Hindustan Times on October 16 of its Mumbai edition did not carry the story as lead, unlike every other paper. The story appeared on page 10, a nation page, below the fold. I cannot confirm the Headlines Today accusation because I did not track the channel after the story broke.

 

However, there can be little doubt that this is how corporate investment is a potential danger for even a semblance of free and fair journalism: conflict of interest. Is it possible to keep burying such a story? Conversely, how would it look if these journals or news channels tried to support KM Birla? Indrajit Hazra, a columnist with Hindustan Times, has written this rather scathing piece for newslaundry.com on this “lapse”: http://www.newslaundry.com/2013/10/canaries-in-the-mine-shaft/

 

R Sukumar, editor of Mint, also from the Hindustan Times group, has this perspective to offer in Mint: http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/F7R4IYn8nJp2Kj5C5RwtaN/Edspace–The-Kumarmangalam-Birla-story.html

 

It’s a slippery slope and we’re all falling down it as far as I can see…

 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator based in Mumbai. She is also Contributing Editor, MxMIndia. She can be reached via Twitter at @ranjona. The views here are her own

 

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One response to “Ranjona Banerji: Slippery slope of big biz-funded media”

  1. Guest says:

    How many media outlets can one tycoon purchase ?