Last November, Outlook published extracts from the Radia tapes. These were conversations that Niira Radia, head of India’s largest PR company, whose clients include the Tatas and Reliance, had with several individuals over six months in 2009. At around the same time, CDs and pen drives containing recordings of these conversations were delivered anonymously to newspapers, magazines and TV channels all over the country.
These tapes had apparently been made by the income-tax department, which had tapped Radia’s phone. Though there were said to be over 5,000 conversations, only a tiny fraction were actually leaked. But the leakers had organised them well, providing transcripts and arranging the tapes so that Radia’s conversations with relatively well-known people were bunched together and featured prominently.
Though there were at least 25 journalists on the tapes—which you would expect given that Radia’s job was to do PR for her clients—the first set of leaks prominently featured three editors, all of whom duly had their faces plastered on the cover of Outlook. One of them was me.
My conversations with Radia were not about telecom, despite packaging that suggested the contrary. They occurred in the period just after the UPA had won its second term and the Congress and the DMK were squabbling. I spoke to several sources, including Radia, during that very newsy time, extracting information about what was happening by probing and stringing them along.
The problem was that while I did indeed speak to Radia, the tape that was published differed significantly from my recollection of the conversation. Obviously, it had been edited, doctored and manipulated.
I immediately wrote out a response on my website stating this. I repeated this in the Hindustan Times and I told everybody who would listen (interviewers, the Public Accounts Committee, the Press Council etc) that the tapes were not authentic.
Having made my position clear, I looked for ways to prove that the tapes had been doctored. This turned out to be more difficult than I had anticipated. Audio labs told me that with modern technology, editing and manipulation done to digital files by a professional can be almost untraceable. Crestfallen, I abandoned this line of investigation.
Then, several months later, a Shanti Bhushan CD was sent anonymously to the media. This purported to contain a 3-way conversation between Shanti Bhushan, Amar Singh and Mulayam Singh in which Bhushan suggested that his son, Prashant, could fix a highly respected judge.
When I heard the tape, I knew that it was a fake. I don’t always agree with the Bhushans but their integrity is beyond reproach. Moreover, the judge in question is scrupulously honest and highly respected. Obviously, this tape had been doctored as well.
Then, Prashant Bhushan surprised me. He managed to find two labs, one in Hyderabad and one in America, that conclusively demonstrated how the CD had been faked and the conversation fabricated.
Encouraged by the Bhushan case, I decided to try again. Because I knew that there would always be a question mark over any tests conducted by Indian audio labs, I looked for top-quality laboratories abroad, seeking out forensic investigators who knew nothing about the case, had never heard of me, and had no axe to grind.
I first went to Forensic Audio, a respected Los Angeles company regularly used by the US Secret Service and the fbi. Kent Gibson, Forensic Audio’s founder, told me what I already knew: it might be impossible to find evidence of editing. I asked him to go ahead anyway. He used five different techniques, including digital spectral analysis, searching for anomalies using sis Editracker software and looking for discontinuities in background noise.
His conclusion both vindicated and relieved me. He found four places where the tape had been edited or manipulated. He declared, “I can say with 90 per cent certainty that the tape cannot be considered authentic.”
Finally, I had the proof I needed. But because I wanted to be doubly sure, I decided to also approach Lawdio Inc, another audio lab used by the US attorney’s office and law enforcement agencies. Once again, Lance McVickar, president of Lawdio, warned me that phone conversations were notoriously difficult to test for conclusive evidence of fakery. But McVickar downloaded the tape from the Outlook website and tested it anyway.
Forensic Audio had found four instances of doctoring. Now, McVickar found five instances of manipulation, with “missing words and broken phrasing”. His conclusion was that “within a reasonable degree of certainty” the tape was not original and had probably been ‘manipulated’.
With two audio labs in the US confirming that the tapes were not authentic, that left one bit of unfinished business: a conversation between Niira Radia and myself in which I seemed to agree to write a column to her specifications.
I remembered talking to Radia for two columns I was writing about the way in which businessmen were cornering India’s scarce resources. I spoke also to Tony Jesudasan, who handles PR for ADAG and one of the two columns specifically mentioned the conversations, naming both Radia and Jesudasan. The problem was that the conversation I actually had with Radia was significantly different from the conversation on the leaked tape.
[See the Niira Radia - Vir Sanghvi tapes: #80, #2.5 and also Niira Radia discussing the Counterpoint article with her colleague Manoj Warrier:#84]
Lest I be accused of having both US audio labs in my pocket, I then sought out a third audio expert, Paul Baker of Audio Forensic Services in the UK. Baker conducted a different kind of test. He compared a sample of my voice with the voice on the tape. His conclusion was even more shocking. The two voices, he said, “do not match”. He added that having analysed my voice sample and compared it with the voice on the tape, there were “variations in pitch, pause, pace, inflection and resonance tonal quality”.
So, I had been Shanti Bhushan-ed. It sounded like me but the tape had probably been electronically synthesised from different conversations. To the naked ear, it sounded like my voice. But a good audio lab could tell the difference.
With three respected labs in America and England saying that the tapes were manipulated or faked, I don’t think anyone can claim any longer that they are authentic. But two questions remain. First, who did it?
Frankly, I don’t know. Neither does the government—or so it says. Its current position before the courts is that these tapes were not leaked from the I-T department and that perhaps service providers had illegally tapped Radia’s phone. Moreover, the government has not been able to convincingly explain why the taps were ordered in the first place. It has changed its story from income-tax investigations to alleged threats to national security.
Off the record, government sources told me last year that corrupt officials had made the tapes at the behest of corporate interests and that genuine and false tapes may have been mingled in the I-T department’s archives. The tapes were leaked as a diversion, they suggested, to throw the media off the scent while those actually involved in the 2G scam used the time to clean up their money trails before the CBI eventually chargesheeted them.
On the other hand, corporate sources told me that this was too major an operation for any business house. They said that the leaks were a symptom of a war within the cabinet, where ministers were even bugging each other’s offices. I laughed dismissively then. I am not laughing now.
The second and more important question: what should the media do when presented with seemingly convincing tapes?
I have no right to get self-righteous about Outlook because, in my career as an editor, I have also carried tapes without verification. Besides, how reliable is verification, anyway? Consider the Shanti Bhushan tape. Though it is an obvious forgery, the government still maintains that it is genuine and has lab reports to back its case.
So, here’s what I think. Technology has now advanced to the stage where fake documents, morphed photos and fabricated tapes are all too easy to create. As journalists, we simply lack the expertise to tell what is genuine and what is a fake. So, perhaps the time has come for us to be more cautious. Just because something sounds right, it does not follow that it is genuine.
Technology can make fools—and liars—of us all.
In his response Mr Sanghvi only refers to his August 15 piece but there was one on June 20 which is relevant and is discussed here by Ms Radia and her colleague Manoj
Apropos Vir Sanghvi’s defence (‘Radia tapes weren’t authentic...’, Nov 7), it hasn’t taken him one year to say the tapes were not authentic, he had challenged the veracity of the tapes in a statement in the Hindustan Times just a week after they were released. He has always stuck to the line that, yes, he and Radia did have a conversation as he did with many other PR agents but the tapes had been altered or doctored by vested interests to cause mischief. Nor did Sanghvi quite apologise on the Headlines Today show, all he said was he was sorry the controversy disappointed many of his fans. When the anchor tried to make him apologise at the end of the show, Sanghvi bitingly asked him not to put words in his mouth. The Radia tapes were always a red herring, selectively released to shield the main culprits, who’re now tumbling out one by one. It’s time we forgot the tapes and moved on.
Sachin Kapoor, Mumbai
Instead of introspection and remorse, Vir attempts to spin and obfuscate. This merely reinforces the fact that he peddled his bespoke journalism and pretty much sold himself to Radia and her rich clients. But why is Vinod Mehta giving him space to shamelessly promote his self-delusion?
G. Bulkogi, Madurai
A good try, but Vir Sanghvi’s explanation is hardly convincing. He says that the tape that was published differed significantly from his recollection of the conversation. But he does not provide any subsequent clue to the “recollection of his conversation”. And while one can understand a rival party doing in a politician, why would anyone want to do the same to Vir. Unless, like Digvijay Singh, Vir too prefers the flavour of the season—blaming the Sangh parivar. Looks like he decided to come out of the woodwork after he saw Barkha Dutt brazen it out.
U. Narayana Das, Hyderabad
Shame on you, Vir Sanghvi. One thought you had handled it better than Barkha Dutt. But with this, you prove yourself to be a disgrace to journalism. Have you no shame at all? Why can’t you just go on enjoying the hospitality of good hotels and writing those food columns?
Shabnam Ali, New Delhi
Even before the Bhushan CDs were circulated, doctored CDs to smear inconvenient opponents had been par for the course in political circles. The recently rehabilitated Sanjay Joshi of the BJP was felled by his own partymen with a doctored CD. Vir Sanghvi was not born yesterday nor is he a babe in the woods in the field of journalism. It’s strange that he had to wait to be inspired by the Bhushans to get the Radia tape CDs tested. Testing CDs has been nothing new since the Tehelka tapes. Further, Sanghvi admits that each of the three labs in the US and UK told him it is almost impossible to check high-tech CDs for being spliced. He says, with no irony, that each of them nevertheless submitted them to a test and came out with a positive verdict about them being doctored. Presumably they were made an offer of a fee they could hardly refuse. This belated clarification is well-crafted and well-timed. With the Radia tapes now ceasing to be an issue, the time was right for Sanghvi to nudge his ‘recollection’ faculties.
Manish Banerjee, Calcutta
I don’t think anyone would want to doctor the tapes of a Vir Sanghvi conversation. He’s too much of a small fry in the larger scheme of things. What did him in was a tendency common to all journalists: ingratiating themselves with people of influence.
V.R. Ganesan, New Jersey
I spy another controversy: in the timing of Vir’s article and Niira Radia’s decision to quit PR. The media should probe her role in the K-G basin scam as well, since RIL too was among her clients. It will be tough, though, as all media entities are on Mukesh Ambani’s pay list. It’s amazing that it has been two years since Radia’s phone-tapping but no big guns from these corporate establishments have been convicted, in a case where the corporate lobbyists were hand in glove with the netas and babus in something worse than insider trading.
Shyamal Barua, Calcutta
Barkha Dutt has already accepted that she “might” have made a mistake in doing what she did. So her conversation was not doctored but yours were? Nice. And while we are at it, is it safe to assume that in your conversation with Radia, only your part was doctored but not Radia’s? After the tape revelations, one sees your columns in a new light. Unfortunately, one cannot but agree with some on the Right who have been crying themselves hoarse all along: that you are a paid scribe for the Congress. Go back to writing about kababs and biriyanis.
All the journalists featuring in the Niira Radia tapes could win an Oscar for hypocrisy. Once we had journalists of the calibre of C.R. Irani, Durga Das and Frank Moraes. Now we have toxic hacks who are more wheeler-dealers with an English education. Rather than trying to prove their innocence in this roundabout fashion, Vir would do better to repent. Perhaps his readers will forgive him in due course..
R.K. Singh, Gurgaon
Vir Sanghvi’s defence could just be plausible. You can tape a few conversations any of us have ever had on the phone, cut and paste bits and pieces to sound like we are doing something dreadful. Whoever leaked the tapes wanted us to swallow them whole, and we obliged, all too readily, as we were expected to. And frankly I didn’t have a quarrel with Sanghvi’s argument in that Counterpoint that no corporate house should control the core assets of the country; they collectively belong to the people of India.
Viraaj Khosla, Los Angeles
When the Radia-media nexus was exposed, one remembers Vir Sanghvi expressing deep regret for what the tapes revealed about his conversations with her. And there can be no doubt about the most damaging part of the tapes: his writing a certain column in HT exactly as he has promised Radia on one of the tapes. Hence, on his own say-so at the time, the tapes were essentially true. Whether they have been doctored in bits or parts does not matter.
Manish Anand, Delhi
Vir and Barkha are the kind of intelligent people who know when to be liberal and when to keep mum to respect the “sentiments of the people”. Even when they are caught red-handed, they are not worried. They will still have their continuous supply of kababs and endless parties with the bosses. Padmashris may even be upgraded to Padmabhushans. ‘We the people’ are already accustomed to leaders like Diggy and Laloo, so what’s wrong with a few Virs and Barkhas in the media as well.
A pathetic, laughable attempt at self-defence. Did it take him close to a year to look for top-quality laboratories abroad, seeking out investigators who knew nothing about the case, had never heard of him and had no axe to grind? The country is better off without the likes of Vir and Barkha. Let them stay hidden.
G. Vishwanathan, Chennai
As I said then too, the hoo-ha against both Vir and Barkha is grossly exaggerated and possibly ill-motivated. There’s nothing in their private conversations that is extraordinary or egregious.
Clever move, Vir, using the Shanti Bhushan CD episode as a crack in the door through which to sneak in and resuscitate your damaged credibility. Pity there are so many holes in this beleaguered explanation. No amount of whitewashing will be enough to breathe life into your dead reputation.
Since Niira Radia has decided to quit the PR trade, the UPA government will have to look for a new PR agency to outsource governance. Perhaps Vir could apply.
Gilbert D’Souza, Bangalore
Vir is damaged goods, and this piece is proof of his arrogance. I didn't expect him to insult the readers’ intelligence like this.
Ajit Tendulkar, Seattle
Credibility, Mr Sanghvi, is as fragile as an egg-shell...like Humpty Dumpty, you can’t be put together again.
D.L. Narayan, Visakhapatnam
So, a lab told Vir that the voice on the tape did not match his? See what a year’s worth of trauma does to your voice?
K. Suresh, Bangalore
Who will trust his word again, he has betrayed both his readers and his viewers.
Shesh Kumar Jha, Darbhanga
Maybe Sanghvi can call his next book ‘Making Conclusive Evidence Inconclusive for Dummies’.
One fact is proven beyond doubt: Vir has an incredibly thick skin.
Bhagat Singh, Atlantis
Having read the coments of Nasar ,I am aghast at how these jokers interpret violation of all norms of journalism.Sick.
On what basis is this Broker(vir) being called a SECULAAAAR.
Why because he asked Cho what was the vermilon on his forehead for?.That was none of his business.
Question his double speak on corruption.
Learn to live with technology. The new age of transparency makes all of us to be honest at all times. If we can't accept that, then keep writing your food column
[[Why not start asking questions about who leaked the tapes? Were some corporate interests suited by their release? Let's get to the bottom of this.]]
That needs to be done alright, but it is an entirely different issue and in no way alleviates Vir's wrongdoings. It is like saying that just because someone videotaped a murder and leaked it to the public, the act of leaking is more grievous than the act of the murder itself.
It's pretty upsurd how every debate has to take a RSS vs Cong turn. Lets stick to topic please.
Vir is a gifted writer and has the power to upset many important people through his articles. I am sure he has an army of enemies who have the resources to go to any costs to malign his image and name. Why haven't all the other 5000 tapes that Outlook once said it had access to been put out in public. Why such selective leakage? Most of the people whose conversations were released talking to Radia, turned out to have nothing to do with the 2G scam. And the real culprits are behind bars. Why not start asking questions about who leaked the tapes? Were some corporate interests suited by their release? Let's get to the bottom of this.
>> I said the tapes are ambiguous, not doctored.
So you're calling Vir a liar?
I thought you were his friend. Are you like Agnivesh, who like to stab "friends" in the back?
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