The Radia tapes have generated a huge interest in the workings of the Indian media. There have been indignant messages on Twitter and irate blogs by readers and media professionals alike suggesting that the Indian media stinks. I have been asked by many media friends to boycott NDTV because of what is being called Barkhagate. On Twitter, many have interpreted a prolonged silence to imply complicity in dishonourable practices.
Before some of these issues are addressed, it is important to spell out the functioning style of the political journalist.
Meaningful political journalism involves many things: a deep awareness of the political process, an open mind and, above all, a wide range of political 'contacts'. The last attribute is particularly important.
A paratrooper with good writing skills may be very useful describing a political jamboree or even assessing an election campaign where the opinions of ordinary people matter. Unfortunately, these skills are secondary to understanding the politics that goes on behind closed doors in ministries, core committees and cabals. To understand these you need insider information which come from a variety of sources, some obvious and others unlikely.
Sources need prolonged cultivation and a relationship of trust. No politician of consequence will tell all at a press conference or spill all the beans to a complete stranger—unless, of course, he/she has a definite motive. To acquire the 'real' story you need to build a relationship.
The relationship, however, is based on understandings. The 'source' may tell you everything that has transpired in a crucial, closed-door meeting. But if he/she tells you that you can't write a word about it, you are obliged to respect his/her wishes. The price of violating the understanding is future exclusion. To survive in political journalism you can't spit and run.
Every political journalist develops a cosy relationship with sources. This is the price you have to pay for knowing what is actually happening. Since I am not a daily reporter but write opinion pieces, I am privy to a little more information than those who are in search of exclusives. I can use the sense of what politicians reveal in confidence without having to flesh out the details.
The relationship, however, is symbiotic. Politicians often ask us for information about developments in which they are not players. I have one rule for such requests: if you can't enlighten them without compromising your other sources, don't mislead them. Also sometimes it helps to say: "I don't know." Many journalists find this very difficult.
Do sources end up as friends? The answer is, yes. I am not in the least embarrassed to say that I count many professional contacts of yesterday as today's friends. They are the ones with whom you enjoy a convivial dinner and converse uninhibitedly.
Does this jeopardise journalistic independence? It can but a genuine friendship should withstand critical observations. In my journalistic career, there has only been one occasion when a senior politician berated me for being critical of him in print. As a friend he expected loyalty and wasn't impressed when I told him that I had a journalistic responsibility too. I regret that he didn't appreciate my point.
Are journalists supposed to be unbiased? The myth of objective journalism needs to be demolished. Everyone has biases, preferences and prejudices. Some are ideological, others based on personality. For a tiny handful, the tilt is dictated by material favours—a euphemism for plain corruption.
Being judgmental works: the readers and viewers love it. Just look at Arnab Goswami's huge fan following.
Readers often expect the political writer to provide them arguments to reaffirm a pre-existing conviction or preference. I have never hidden the fact that I am unashamedly Right wing. Neither have I objected when TV anchors have introduced me as being "close to the BJP." I am close to it but I choose to disagree with the party when I feel it necessary.
Barkha Dutt too has her political leanings. I have often jokingly taunted her as the "voice of the Hurriyat".
Vir Sanghvi refers to the Congress as "we". He is not being disingenuous. Perhaps he should admit his preferences openly. It wouldn't be misconstrued.
This backdrop may help someone unfamiliar with the byways of political journalism to understand the Radia tapes a little better.
- Journalists are habitually accustomed to boast about their contacts and their easy access to the homes of the high and mighty. This is plain vanity. Many of the Radia tapes are replete with boasts.
- Journalists often play courier between politicians. This isn't necessary but sometimes it helps to gather additional info. Equally, it may be a labour of love. It may suggest political bias/preference. But it doesn't necessarily imply corruption.
- Being in touch with lobbyists, PR companies and advocacy groups is part of the news gathering game. No one can be tarred for just being in touch with Radia who, after all, represented two big corporations. What, after all, is the difference between Radia and some NGOs. Aren't they all lobbyists?
- Arranging pre-scripted interviews of anyone breaks all media code of ethics. I know journos who tempt their subjects with assurances of a "soft" interview. But a pre-scripted interview with a dress rehearsal takes the biscuit.
- Hinting about the ability to 'fix' the judiciary suggests criminality. It is not journalism. It is as despicable as those business journalists who deliberately manipulate news to play the stock markets. Or those who use their police contacts to run a lucrative private practice.
- There are rotten eggs in the media basket. They must be discarded, if necessary through public pressure because the owners often wilfully turn a blind eye to their criminality in return for collateral favours.
Let us target the rotten eggs—and there are lots of them in the media. It doesn't help to denounce every one of those whose phone conversations with Radia happened to have been taped by the IT authorities.