A media magnate being grilled and a prime minister called into
question. As the drama unfurled in London and millions watched
News Corp chief Rupert Murdoch and British Prime Minister David
Cameron explaining their stance on media ethics and government
accountability, questions were asked whether there were any
lessons in it for Indian media and their growing influence over
the nation's public life and polity.
When Murdoch's News of the World (NOTW) unceremoniously exited
from the world tabloid space after it was found that some of its
journalists hacked phones of a dead 13-year-old girl and 9/11
victims - all for some heartfelt stories - outrage followed. What
also followed in quick succession were apologies and resignations
from top police officers and others.
In India, with its long tradition of a free and vibrant media, the
questions that followed were inevitable. Innovative stings and
advanced techniques of phone tapping were still virgin territory
for much of the media, struggling with low budgets, but the larger
lessons were the same.
What is needed is some self-introspection, said veteran journalist
Kuldip Nayar. He believes the situation in Indian media is not as
bad as in the West, "but the press is not that free because of
corporate ownership of media houses".
Bias, lies, paid news, plagiarism, political leanings and
corporatisation are increasingly entering the public domain. And
they all came together with the disclosure of the Niira Radia
tapes that gave an insight into the symbiotic relationship among
journalists, corporates, politicians and public relations
The transcripts, released in November 2010 by Open and Outlook
magazines, relate to conversations corporate lobbyist Radia had
with a series of people, including journalists Barkha Dutt and Vir
Sanghvi, raising questions about media ethics and the cosy
relationship that journalists often enjoyed with politicians.
But the fact that no action was taken against the reporters in
question "is a typical example of how nothing really happens in
the end in India", said Sashi Nair of Chennai's Press Institute of
"...Barkha Dutt never really went away. Sometimes, we must apply
the same yardstick to ourselves by which we judge politicians,"
Nair told IANS.
"Except N. Ram (editor-in-chief of The Hindu) mentioning that had
it been the NYT (New York Times) or the WSJ (Wall Street Journal)
or the Guardian would they have tolerated such behaviour, nobody
else really said anything significant," he added.
As the world witnessed the rare spectacle of a media tycoon being
ruthlessly questioned under public scrutiny in London, it's
difficult to say that the press can be ever held accountable like
that in India, say experts.
"I don't see it happening... We don't have a system of televised
hearings, and I don't think we have media barons who think they
owe the public an explanation for what their papers or channels
do," media analyst Sevanti Ninan, who runs a media watchdog The
Hoot, told IANS.
Sashi Nair agreed, saying India was not mature enough for the kind
of transparency one has seen in Britain.
However, Aniruddha Bahal, who launched the Tehelka website with
Tarun Tejpal and introduced India to sting operations by exposing
match-fixing and graft in awarding defence deals, had a slightly
"Well, grilling is a common phenomenon in India as well. I was
grilled by both the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha over our
cash-for-questions story in 2005. The only difference is that it
wasn't telecast live," said Bahal, now the editor of online
investigation portal cobrapost.com.
The cash-for-questions case, or Operation Duryodhana, a
Cobrapost-Aaj Tak investigation, busted 11 MPs accepting monies
for asking questions in parliament.
The jury is also still out on whether sting operations are a
While Ninan believes they are justified "only in a situation where
there is substantial public interest at stake", Nair is completely
"Let the media get stories done by reporters in the normal course.
Sting operations can be done by government or investigative
agencies when required and as per law," he said.
Ninan cites the examples of "NDTV sting operation in the BMW case
or the tapping of corporate lobbyist Radia's phone which showed
that corporates were seeking to influence ministerial
appointments" as the perfect examples in the legitimate category.
The NDTV sting alleged collusion between the prosecution and
defence counsel to help Sanjeev Nanda, accused of killing six
people with a BMW car in a 1999 hit-and-run case.
Bahal also draws the line between stings and phone hacking. Phone
tapping, he said, is illegal as it "implies a third party
interception of a conversation between two people using illegal
In a sting, "the reporter is shooting a conversation or scene in
which he is present. He is there with an editorial intent exposing
something which would be in public interest".
The jury is out on that one too.
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