Forget journalistic ethics. The Radia tapes have wider implications

December 3, 2010

British press magnate Lord Northcliffe once stated: “News is something someone wants suppressed. Everything else is just advertising”.
Ratan Tata, Chairman of the Tata Group, attends the annual general meeting of Tata Consultancy Services in Mumbai July 2, 2010 REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui/Files
It’s interesting, then, that in a season of multi-billion dollar scandals that has seen India’s 24/7 news machine at its probing, questioning, investigative best, one — perhaps bigger and more serious than all the rest — has failed to make the hourly bulletins.

Taped conversations involving corporate lobbyist Niira Radia, anonymously leaked from a reported set of around 5,000 recordings made by India’s Enforcement Directorate and Income Tax authorities, appear to reveal the unholy nexus between India’s business leaders and the political policymaking machine.

But due to the embarrassing proximity that the Indian media elite have to the most controversial dialogues amongst her web of business, political and journalism sources, full-blown coverage has not been seen.

Save the outrage to the wall of silence seen on social networking website Twitter, only Open magazine, which first published the tapes last month and a handful of other publications have given column inches to the story.

However, the questioned journalistic ethics of NDTV’s Barkha Dutt and the Hindustan Times’ Vir Sanghvi that have dominated the minimal coverage and has led India’s media to circle the wagons are, in terms they are familiar with, details for the tenth paragraph.

Radia’s middleman role, and the potential fallout from her bugged conversations is suggested by the decision of Ratan Tata, chairman of India’s largest industrial conglomerate, to take the very public decision to petition the Supreme Court to stifle any further airing of the tapes.

And what would Lord Northcliffe say to that?

In his petition to the Supreme Court, Tata stated the leaked conversations were obtained without authorisation and that the public dissemination stands to affect the investor appetite for his firm.

And Tata is not the only Indian industry captain referenced in the tapes.

Mukesh Ambani, the multi-billion dollar chairman of Reliance Industries, is discussed by Radia and an influential Indian MP as they mull a last-minute change in the opposition speaker to debate finance legislation that stood to significantly lower his firm’s tax bill.

In another tape, mobile phone competitors Sunil Mittal of Airtel and Tata are referenced by Radia in a discussion centred on the lobbying of powerful government figures for their supposed choice of telecoms minister to be appointed.

The eventual appointee, A. Raja, was forced out of his job last month in a media storm after allegedly granting licences to companies at below-market prices, losing the state a possible $39 billion.

Dutt has appeared on her own channel to undergo a grilling and Sanghvi has reportedly been demoted at Hindustan Times. Radia is being investigated by the federal agency.

As for the murky relationship between business and politics that Radia purportedly facilitated, the ball is now firmly in the Supreme Court.

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