Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Curious Case of Barkha Dutt (and others)

Excerpts from Silver Blaze (The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes), by Arthur Conan Doyle

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

Gregory: "The dog did nothing in the night-time."

Holmes: "That was the curious incident."

Reality TV met News Opinionating met Court TV yesterday when well known TV journalist Barka Dutt, news editor of the NDTV channel came under cross questioning by four editors - Sanjaya Baru of the Business Standard, Dileep Padgaonkar, former editor of the Times of India, Manu Joseph of the Open Magazine which broke the “Radia tapes” story and Swapan Dasgupta, right wing columnist and contributor to The Pioneer and The Telegraph among others.

The key behind this charade held by the channel was to bring into focus the role played by Barkha Dutt as a news editor reporting during the UPA-II cabinet formation based on information she received from corporate lobbyist Niira Radia. The conversations with Radia establish a few things - a) Barkha Dutt explicitly agrees to act as a message courier between Radia (ostensibly speaking for entities within the DMK) and Congress leaders - senior ones like Ghulam Nabi Azad for e.g., b) Radia was particularly keen on passing the message as to who among the DMK was a preferred candidate for ministership in certain berths.

The anger against Barkha Dutt expressed online was on various counts. Many in the public were linking this up with the 2G scam and role of DMK minister A Raja in it. They saw it as a case of Radia playing a facilitator for the re-entry of A Raja into the UPA-II cabinet despite serious questions about the 2G scam during UPA-I and journalists helping her in the process. It was galling for the public to see journalists who they ideally see as detached players wanting to partake into such murky processes orchestrated by corporate players.

No wonder, Barkha Dutt, being the high profile journalist that she is, was prominently highlighted along with a few others. The other high profile journalist Vir Sanghvi was caught even more red handed, playing the rat to Radia’s Pied Piper in helping in message delivery and opinion making about two issues - again the A Raja re-installation in cabinet and also the Mukesh Ambani line in the gas dispute between the Ambani brothers. Sanghvi has recently taken a break from writing his column, Counterpoint. And he makes a bogus defense based on “stringing his source”, but the proof is in the pudding that is his writing and there, as is pointed out earlier, he is caught red handed doing Niira Radia’s bidding. Evidently Vir Sanghvi is more interested in pushing for the national interest as long as that interest expediently serves the corporate lobbyist's.

Barkha Dutt in her first response was outraged by the insinuations of lobbying in particular. She insisted that her assurances to Radia were basically “fibs” wanting to string her to get further information. And it is this outrage that pervaded her response besides the point on media ethics, where she questioned Open magazine (and Outlook magazine)’s decisions to publish transcripts of her conversations without contacting her for a response and so on. This was evident in her replies during last night’s inquisition-of-sorts as well.

But substantively, the key question remained and asked only by a relative few - Siddharth Varadarajan of The Hindu in his article, and by the Open magazine’s editor, Manu Joseph and his colleague. Joseph asked Dutt why wasn’t it that as a news editor she saw it necessary to bring to the public’s purview that a corporate public relations person having two of the richest clients in the world and indeed most powerful in India, was trying to pass on messages on which DMK leader was suitable for a particular cabinet post? Wasn’t it obvious that the role of corporate players wanting to have a say in getting ministers of their liking was a case of gross crony capitalism? Why was her coverage restricted to the minute-by-minute reporting of what the DMK’s demands were and what bargains were being struck by the Congress and the DMK rather than this substantial question of great public import? And why wasn’t this point highlighted even during the height of the revelations of the 2G scam, as representatives of various political parties pointed out irregularities in the 2G auction and the losses to the public exchequer (as early as early 2008). Or even during the recent release of the CAG report that put a number to the notional loss suffered by the exchequer - a mind boggling Rs 1,76,000 crore. Why didn’t Barkha Dutt want to bring out the undue and unusual interest shown by corporate players in wanting A Raja’s continuation in cabinet, during her reportage of the 2G Scam recently? Surely it was in public interest to bring out the nuances and minutiae of how crony capitalism worked and how ministers were at the bidding of big corporate players who controlled the strings of functioning of democracy from without, wasn’t it?

No, according to Barkha Dutt. It was a mere judgement call whether to report this or not. This was commonplace - the undue and shady corporate interest in public affairs and day-to-day and she didn’t consider it important enough.

Here is where Barkha Dutt is trying to string the public along with her and fib to us. Here is where the main contradiction is brought out clearly. Here is why the import of the Open magazine and Outlook magazine stories are brought out in the clear and in substance. It is similar to why the dog didn’t bark in the Silver Blaze story in the Sherlock Holmes series.

Our news media revels in trying to outdo each other in bringing out procedural, titillating details as if they are doing ball-by-ball commentary of a cricket game, when it comes to political reporting. But they do not want to displease their advertisers, mostly big corporate fund dispensers, by seeing and reporting things that are fundamentally wrong in the core issue of crony capitalism. It makes more sense for them to ridicule the political class and play up the middle class imagery of the crooked political class without distinction and difference and win eye balls in that process.

This is the problem with Indian news journalism. As Lydia Polgreen of the New York Times tweeted, “the larger problem of political journalism, esp[ecially] on TV: it privileges process minutiae over substance”. The question is why? This editorial in the EPW commenting on the Paid News issue can provide answers - “The Indian media is selling its soul to the market and forfeiting its claim to be an independent estate” or this editorial , which comments on the media coverage of the 26/11 incident says,
The manifest failures of the political establishment though, cannot obscure the fact that older notions of the media serving as a vigilant watchdog over public affairs have once again proven hopelessly romantic and outmoded. The media is a slave of the market. Its social role is little else than to serve as an echo chamber for the voices of the rich and the powerful, however shrill, irrational or lacking in coherence these may be.
Or more systematically as to how profit privileges public interest in the mass media, by the formidable intellectual, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in the excellent book, “Manufacturing Consent”. A film made on the subject can be viewed here -

So, there you go.It is a good thing that the larger public now gets to see the “lapdog of the market” face of the media for once, shown up through the “Radia tapes” story. Holmes would have approved.

1 comment:

Anand Singh said...

While the nexus between politicians-corporates-bureaucrats and how this elite section plunders this country in the name of democracy was well known, some people, many of them well intentioned, still had some hope that this 'democracy' would work in favour of the ordinary people, resting their hope as they were on the institutions such as media, judiciary, armed forces etc. The hope of all such people seems to be dwindling in the wake of the events which unfolded this year, be it Bhopal judgement, CWG scam, Adarsh scam, 2G scam or now the startling revelation from Radia tapes.Its high time that all those who genuinely believe in the dream of an egalitarian and democratic society must vigorously support the building of the foundation of an alternative socio-economic and political system through a revolutionary process rather than pinning their reformist hope on a dacadent system which in any case is going to be thrown to the dustbin of history on account of its gruesome crimes against humanity.