February 23, 2020
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What If

I Was Just Doing My Job

What if I am a journalist covering the ministry of defence? What if an arms dealer (or lobbyist) becomes one of my “legitimate sources” for news?

I Was Just Doing My Job

Hear the Radiia tapes. It is the cacophony of the powerful. 

But also listen to the messengers. They are the media which reports, and at times, doesn’t report on this cacophony. 

Both are worrying. 

So let us build a “What If?” argument here.  

  1. What if I am a journalist covering the ministry of defence?
  2. What if an arms dealer (or lobbyist) becomes one of my “legitimate sources” for news?
  3. What if I regularly start taking the information from him?
  4. What if I promise him that I will pass on his inputs to the powers that be?
  5. What if he suggests that his backers are lobbying for a particular person to be appointed as the defence minister/ minister of state for defence?
  6. What if I promise him that I will speak to the powers that be that I claim to know and have in the past claimed proximity to?
  7. What if I get some scraps of information in exchange for these promises?
  8. What if I go ahead and put out this information as “news”?
  9. What if I fail to state in my story/article/programme that the information came from an arms dealer (lobbyist)?
  10. What if the arms dealer's (lobbyist's) efforts bear fruit and the deal — appointment of a tainted minister — actually goes through? 

Now let us examine the facts as available to us in the “What If” context.

Fact # 1: Niira Radia and her firms handle two major corporate houses with huge stakes in major sectors.

Fact # 2: Niira Radia is heard on the tapes stating that A. Raja should be the telecom minister in UPA 2

Fact #3: A. Raja had a large "taint" of the Spectrum Scam during his tenure as telecom minister in UPA 1

Fact # 4: Journalists are heard stating that they will write their columns/stories in a certain manner; they offer to pass on Radiia’s message(s) to the politicians; they offer to set up meetings between politicians and/or between Radiia and prominent politicians.

Fact # 5: A Raja comes back as a cabinet minister in the Telecom ministry in UPA-2

The very fact that Raja did come back to the same ministry where he was under a cloud for an earlier scam speaks volumes for itself. 

At least this much is clear is that the journalists knew who was actively trying to ensure Raja's return to telecom.

So now come back to the arms dealer’s story. 

The arms dealer is now lobbying for a particular deal/contract. 

I agree to write in favour of the deal; I offer to take his word/proposal to the people who matter; I offer to set up meetings for him with people who matter.

Finally even the proposed arms deal does come through for him. 

Now let me ask you these questions:

  • Does that make me complicit in the now successfully concluded arms deal?
  • Does that make my journalism and the reporting of the arms deal as “legitimate news gathering”?
  • Does that make my work as a journalist credible?

And most importantly: 

  • Does that mean that I need not report that the known arms dealer lobbied for this person to be appointed the defence minister and also lobbied for this particular deal?

Now perhaps also because I am privy to a lot that's going on, and because my "legitimate sources" have their person as the defence minister, I am able to "scoop" many:

  • news stories
  • hard-to-get interviews
  • wrong-doings and details of when exactly due process was not followed by the competitors of my “legitimate sources”

I even "appear" knowledgeable to my readers/viewers because I can every now and then throw in some of the tidbits in (7) above at them. 

Life is good. I even routinely exchange gup-shup with my "legitimate source" about who should be the next army chief, or how someone else is not fit enough to lead the air force. 

It's a real win-win. Because of all of this

  • My readers and viewers are happy
  • My editors are happy

As a result I get more 

  • "credibility"
  • promotions
  • increments
  • perks
  • junkets
  • privileges 
  • "legitimate sources" etc

Surely, none of these are "quid-pro-quos"

Then someone — perhaps the government — perhaps someone else — anyone — manages to tap the phone of my "legitimate source" — legitimately or illegally. 

My conversations with my source of  one day are released. 

I am outraged. 

I am not even saying much in those tapes.

And my integrity is being questioned?

I don't know who exactly is responsible.

It is possible that my "legitimate source" has many legitimate competitors. Or even those who have serious dirty tricks departments. Or perhaps someone is just trying to deflect attention from someone or something else. It could even be someone just jealous of me because of all the privileges I get because of cultivating my "legitimate sources" (it doesn't matter that hundreds of recordings of others are also released and made public). 

It is an invasion of privacy. It's now become all about gossip, innuendo, not separating facts from casual conversation, 'prurience, settling of private scores, even merely promotion of one’s own virtue'.

Don't you think I have been wronged? 

Shouldn't my editors defend me? After all they too gained from my "exclusive" stories and "scoops"?

Even if the world now knows that we had not let it be known that the arms-dealer was a “source” for some of my stories? 

After all my work is “effective journalism (that) involves engagement with a multitude of characters in the process of gathering news and information”? This is not the only "legitimate source" I have for all my stories. I have many more.

It is easy to be quick to pass judgement. But one also needs to understand that there are pressures to perform, beat the competition and scoop the news. In the end, it all depends on the choices we make.

What would you do?

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