Radia Tapes: Tempers Run High at Media Ethics Meet

'You need to use your sources and not let the sources use you. These are the first lessons one gets in a journalism school'.

New Delhi
Radia Tapes: Tempers Run High at Media Ethics Meet
Tempers ran high and heated exchanges were witnessed as journalists today debated the issue of media ethics in the background of lobbyist Niira Radia's tapped conversation with leading scribes, published by two weekly magazines, Outlook and Open

A suggestion by Editors' Guild President Rajdeep Sardesai that the magazines had violated principles of journalism by publishing raw data and his comment that the journalists concerned were guilty of "professional misjudgement" rather than "professional misconduct" came under attack from media persons gathered in the jam-packed lawns of the Press Club here.

Mr Sardesai defended Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi, saying they had been judged guilty without corroborative evidence. Vinod Mehta, Editor-in-Chief of Outlook, Mrinal Pande, former editor of Hindustan and chairperson of the Prasar Bharati; veteran journalist Kuldip Nayyar; and Sunil Jain, a business journalist with The Financial Express were also on the panel.

The basic principle of seeking a reaction of the journalists concerned was ignored which is "shock and awe" and "bad" journalism by the magazines in question, said Sardesai, who is also Editor-in-Chief of a leading TV Channel, CNN-IBN.

He said reporters did need to talk to a variety of sources, and the mere fact of talking to a lobbyist or even taking notes from one, was not an indication of professional misconduct. He said that a sense of scepticism was missing, assumptions had been made and those featured in the stories had not been given “the right to reply".

He went on to say: “The fundamental principle of jurisprudence, that you are innocent until proven guilty, has been reversed here,” and even  added that there was an element of professional jealousy in the chorus of voices raised against those accused.

Sardesai's comments evoked sharp reaction from several journalists, one of whom, Poornima Joshi of Mail Today, told him, "I find it absolutely disturbing and disheartening that the President of Editors' Guild is not only condoning but also justifying carrying of messages from a corporate to Congress."

Sardesai said he was not making any such attempts.

Radhika Ramaseshan of The Telegraph  took objection to Sardesai’s claim that there was nothing new in what was shown to be happening, that this has been happening, and so why bother.“Neena Vyas [of The Hindu] has been covering BJP for 30 years. Nobody ever accused her of misusing her access. Likewise, there are a number of journalists who have never succumbed,” she said.

'Completely Bogus'

Vinod Mehta, editor in chief of Outlook, replied to Sardesai pointing out that  in major exposes like Watergate and Bofors, response is not taken because evidence in the raw material is "so compelling".

“I keep hearing that this issue is sensitive and complicated, that it is not a black and white issue. I can’t understand what is so complex here. It doesn’t require an Albert Einstein or a rocket scientist," Mr Mehta said.

“It is a black and white issue, where the journalists knew who they were talking to and should have known where to stop a conversation and say, no, thank you," Mr Mehta pointed out.

Mr Mehta added: “If you are talking to a hotel PRO and he tells you, ‘our hotel is the no.1 hotel in Asia’, it doesn’t mean you come and write that his hotel is the no.1 hotel in Asia. You check and verify before you report.

“The claim that they [the journalists on tape] were stringing along their sources is complete bullshit. Do you think somebody like Radia would keep on giving information knowing that her instructions weren’t being followed?" Mr Mehta added.

The Outlook editor in cheif said while journalists have to speak to many people but what they finally end up writing depends on the kind of people they are speaking with. “When journalists speak with a public relations officer or lobbyist, they must be aware of the mandate, brief and interests of the persons they are talking to."

"The journalist is being gullible if he ignores such evidence," he said.

Editors are becoming owners...

Veteran journalist Kuldip Nayyar took a dig at employment norms adopted by media houses saying Working Journalist Act insulated reporters from pulls and pressures but that is now being circumvented through prevalent contract system which prevents them from speaking their mind.

Prasar Bharti Chairperson Mrinal Pande said cases of language journalists wielding their influence in the appointment of local officials are rampant across the country.

She blamed ownership patterns in media house as one of the reasons for such happenings in media.

"In English medium, editors are becoming owners while in other languages, owners are becoming editors. The corporatisation of media is making it profit driven which is one of the root causes of such issues," she said.

Sardesai said that there was no proven case of quid pro quo by the journalists who conversed with Radia regarding cabinet formation in UPA-II.

Sardesai said he was talking about the bigger question of how corporates have managed to subvert the system and growing proximity between journalists, corporates and politicians.

Quid pro quo

Neena Vyas of The Hindu cited an incident where a senior BJP leader had asked her to be soft on him in her coverage in exchange for information on happenings in the party.

She also said some senior leaders were using their stakes in television channels to settle their political scores.

"I did not ring him up again," she said adding that tapping that source would have made her life easy but she chose the hard way to get news.

Ms Vyas went on to narrate a story of how Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi had “blackmailed” BJP bosses to throw a senior RSS leader out of the party after he was shown in a sexual act on a TV channel after a sting operation. Ms Vyas also questioned the true ownership of the said TV channel.

Incidentally, Ms Vyas's allegations, and indeed the proceedings of the meeting, were being telecast live -- in a raw, unedited form, on a TV channel.

Vidya Subrahmaniam, also of The Hindu, contested Sardesai’s claim that there was no quid pro quo. The tapes, she said, carried enough evidence of quid pro quo since the journalists appeared to be doing exactly what they promised.

The debate was organised by Editors' Guild, The Press Association, Indian Womens' Press Corps and Press Club of India.

Name and Shame

Sunil Jain of Financial Express said the best way of curbing such tendencies among journalists is to "name and shame" them than discussing questions of ethics.

"You need to use your sources and not let the sources use you. These are the first lessons one gets in a journalism school," said Vinod Mehta towards the end.

Referring to the defence of one of the journalists justifying her conversations with Radia, he said the claim that political journalists have a special mandate and responsibility compared to "travel journalists", was ridiculous.

He said he did not agree with the suggestion that the episode involved complex and delicate issues saying these were simple and even a beginner in journalism will know that these violated basic tenets of the profession.

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