The programme on the recent allegations against Barkha Dutt, the well-known anchor of NDTV, aired by the NDTV on the night of November30,2010, was not satisfying.
2. Its failure to make an impact can be attributed to the format chosen by the NDTV. They should have chosen the BBC's "Hard Talk" format involving a one-to-one hard-hitting discussion between Barkha and a senior, eminent journalist. The objective should have been to throw light on the allegations levelled against Barkha in connection with her tapped (by the intelligence agencies) telephone conversations with Niira Radia, who runs a consultancy-cum-liaison agency euphemistically called a communications agency based in New Delhi. Two of India's leading corporate houses were among its clients. The conversations between Barkha and Radia related, inter alia, to attempts being made from behind the scenes by either the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a regional political party of Tamila Nadu, or some corporate houses or both to influnce, through Radia, the Cabinet formation by Dr.Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister, after the elections of 2009. They apparently wanted to ensure that the DMK got its share of portfolios in the coalition Ministry of Dr.Manmohan Singh, including the Telecommunications Ministry, which is the most lucrative Ministry of the Government of India, for A.Raja, who was holding that portfolio for some years before last year's elections.
3. During his first tenure as the Telecommunications Minister, there were serious allegations of improper procedures and favouritism against A.Raja in connection with the allotment of telecom spectrum to mobile operators. It was reported that the Prime Minister was reluctant to retain him in the Telecom Ministry because of the allegations against him. However, he had to give in to the pressure from the DMK and retain Raja. He has recently resigned following more allegations against him corroborated by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, who had gone into the manner in which the Telecom Ministry under A.Raja handled the spectrum allotment. As a result, the Government of India incurred losses amounting to billions of dollars.
4. Radia was apparently approached by elements in the DMK as well as the corporate world, independently of each other, to use her contacts in the decision-making circles of New Delhi to ensure that the DMK's demands were accepted. Radia seems to have had a wide circle of contacts in the world of journalism. She was in the habit of contacting them over phone to seek their help in various matters and allegedly to influence them to write in favour of her clients. There had been instances even in the past of intermediaries seeking to influence business-related decisions. The case of the late Win Chaddha, whose company played an important role in the 1980s in influencing the decision of the Ministry of Defence of the Government of India in favour of the Bofors gun, comes to mind.
5. There were no confirmed instances in the past of such intermediaries seeking to influence political decisions. They restricted themselves to influencing business-related decisions. Radia allegedly sought to influence not only business-related decisions, but also political decisions in matters such as appointment of Cabinet Ministers. Interested people approached her because they believed that she had the capability to influence such decisions. The fact that the DMK approached her shows that her reputation as someone who can influence political decisions was well known not only in the business world, but also in the world of politics.
6. Radia's attempts to influence the Cabinet formation would have remained unknown to the public but for the fact that the Income Tax Department allegedly suspected her company of tax evasion. They obtained the approval of the then Home Secretary of the Government of India to have her telephone tapped by the intelligence agencies in order to look for evidence regarding her alleged tax evasion. Apparently, they could not get any evidence on this score. Otherwise, they should have by now registered a case against her and formally initiated the investigation. However, the intelligence agencies recorded clandestinely near 5000 telephone conversations of Radia with her contacts on various matters.
7. These conversations revealed the extent of her role in seeking to influence political and business-related decisions. It was reported that there were about 15 journalists among those contacted by her. Copies of these recordings would have been available at three places--- the Income-Tax Department, the Intelligence Agency which carried out the tapping and the mobile telephone company or companies whose subscriber Radia was. From one of these sources, the recorded conversations leaked out to two journals, which published the transcripts of about a hundred of them. It needs to be underlined that these tapes were not discovered by the two journals as a result of their journalistic enterprise. These were apparently given to them by an unidentified source for giving publicity to the contents.
8. What could have been the motive of the source in leaking the tapes? Either to discredit Radia and her business clients or to discredit her journalist contacts or both. Of the 15-odd journalists figuring in the conversations, two have received the maximum adverse attention ---- Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi. Barkha is a highly successful TV journalist with a large circle of admirers and critics. Her contribution to making Indian TV journalism reach great heights has been immense. Despite this, she is disliked by many, who accuse her of being pro-Muslim, pro-Pakistan, anti-national, anti-Hindutva, anti-RSS and anti-Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat. In recent months, her ctitics have become even more virulent against her after her active role to highlighting the alleged involvement of some Hindus in acts of terrorism against the Muslims. Her stories on the so-called Hindu terror have added to the enemity against her.
9. It is intriguing that the leakage of her tapped conversations with Radia and the controversay that followed came in the wake of her stories on the alleged Hindu terror. People, who know Barkha well, say that she has some negative traits in her personality too. They allege that she is intimidating and cannot take criticism in her stride. There was one alleged instance of her forcing a blogger, who made a critical posting on her, to apologice in public and remove his posting. Her success as a journalist has also brought in the professional jealousy of some of her colleagues in the profession.
10. Her critics and detractors jumped at the opportunity provided by the tapes in an attempt to put her on the defensive, destroy her credibility and damage her professional reputation. Nobody has accused her of being complicit in any crime by being in touch with Radia. Nobody has accused her of trying to play down or cover up the allegations against A.Raja in her journalist reporting. She has been accused only of letting herself be used by a lobbyist in a manner, which is contrary to the ethics of journalism. Barkha's reply is that she did not let herself be used by Radia, but she was using her contacts with Radia to collect information about the DMK. Barkha has been asked by her critics as to why in that case she did not write about the use of Radia by the DMK to influence the Cabinet formation. This is an unkind question---- as unkind as asking N.Ram, the Editor-in-Chief of "The Hindu", as to why he allegedly let himself be used by the Tamil elements from Sri Lanka as an intermediary with Rajiv Gandhi when he was the Prime Minister in the 1980s? As unkind as asking N.Ram as to why he played down the stories of the mass anti-Chinese uprising in Tibet in 2008? As unkind as asking N.Ram as to why for many years till recently he blacked out references to His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the columns of his paper. As unkind as asking him as to why he used to give publicity in his paper to the despatches of the Xinhua, the news agency owned by the Chinese Government. Ram should be the last person to throw stones at Barkha.
11.Many journalists, who are throwing stones today at Barkha, had themselces acted as intermediaries to some one or the other and allowed their coverage to be influenced by extraneous considerations.
12. A person should be judged not by what he or she says in private, but by what he or she says or writes in public and does.There is nothing inappropriate or unethical in Barkha's writings, reportage and actions. As regards her private conversations with Radia over phone she has explained the background and context and denied any malafide or unethical intention. Her explanation should be accepted instead of trying to fix her through an inquisition. ( 1-12-10)
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and , presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )