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New Delhi From the website of Vaishnavi Corporate Consulting, the public relations firm run by Niira Radia, a concise statement of what the firm offers its clients:
“Understand mindsets that lead to reporting patterns in news, editorial policies and leanings”
“Effectively represent our views to the media through position papers and regular interactions”
“Hence enable influencing of media views”
Unremarkable PR firm claims? Or a corporate mission statement that’s unwittingly only too apt?
Radia is at the centre of a growing controversy where the basic storyline revolves round questions on her influence and the mindsets of some media professionals. News magazines Open and Outlook published transcripts of Radia’s conversations with politicians, industrialists and journalists. Radia’s conversations with journalists have led to questions about media ethics, and some of the journalists whose conversations with Radia have been published have both defended themselves and asked questions about the tapes leaked so far.
There is now a central government-ordered inquiry into the Radia tapes. There’s also a petition in the Supreme Court filed by Ratan Tata asking the question whether the publication of the Radia tapes aren’t a violation of privacy rights. Tata’s companies are among Radia’s clients, as are other big corporate groups including Reliance Industries headed by Mukesh Ambani.
The published transcripts feature Radia’s conversations with senior editors based in New Delhi and Mumbai. Journalists identified in the tapes include Vir Sanghvi, Advisory Editorial Director of HT Media (publisher of Hindustan Times); Barkha Dutt, Group Editor, English News, NDTV; Prabhu Chawla, Editor (Languages), The India Today Group; Shankkar Aiyar, former Managing Editor, India Today; and M K Venu, who was then Senior Editor, The Economic Times, and is now Managing Editor of The Financial Express, a sister publication of The Indian Express.
Radia’s conversation with Sanghvi and Dutt seem to have happened around the time the UPA-II government was being constituted in early 2009. The transcripts seem to indicate that Radia was seeking Sanghvi’s and Dutt’s help in securing the telecom portfolio for the DMK’s A Raja and to keep another contestant, former telecom minister and DMK member Dayanidhi Maran, at bay. Also, the tapes feature discussions around the legal and corporate battle between the Ambani brothers on the KG basin gas pricing.
From the published conversations, Sanghvi and Dutt appear keen to help Radia and also offer to mediate between the Congress and the DMK.
For example, Sanghvi says: “We’ve made a basic offer, if Karunanidhi responds to us and tell this that he would like to respond directly, he would like to talk to Ms Gandhi. He spoke only to Manmohan Singh. We would be more than happy but we’re not going to chase them now. We’ve told Maran that also they’ve to come back to us and tell us what they think of our offer. And apparently the DMK is getting very bad press in Chennai.”
In one of her conversations with Radia, Dutt is heard asking the lobbyist what she (Dutt) should tell the Congress; the context was that the Congress and DMK appeared to have reached a deadlock on the portfolio distribution issue. Dutt asks Radia: “Oh God. So now what? What should I tell them? Tell me what should I tell them?” Dutt is also heard offering to speak with Congress leaders on the DMK’s behalf and even promises action on their requests. “That’s not a problem. I’ll talk to Azad (reference to Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad). I’ll talk to Azad right after I get out of RCR (apparently, referring to the Prime Minister’s residence, Race Course Road).
One of Radia’s conversations with Sanghvi also deals with the gas dispute between the Ambani brothers. In one instance, Sanghvi seems to be asking Radia on what he should write in his weekly column, Counterpoint, in Hindustan Times. “What kind of story do you want?” he asks Radia.
Sanghvi’s Counterpoint that appeared in the Hindustan Times on November 28 said the column is being discontinued for an indefinite period.
The conversation with Venu relates to the placement of a certain news story that Radia wants published. Venu tells Radia if she wants better coverage she should give the story to CNBC, a business news channel.
Chawla is heard discussing the row between the Ambani brothers with Radia. Radia appears to have called Chawla to seek his opinion on the ongoing tussle and the two talk about courts and developments within the government on the issue. “Abhi tak Supreme Court ka, between you and me, kuch finalise hua nahin?” asks Radia. To this, Chawla says: “Finalise ka matlab kya hai? Bhai, Murli Deora bhi jayega court mein. Prime Minister is also putting pressure on Murli Deora to settle it. Because ultimate it is national loss na, as you put it.”
THE ORIGIN OF THE TAPES
Open and Outlook have said the tapes and the transcripts are courtesy a petition filed by Prashant Bhushan, an advocate, in the Supreme Court seeking an investigation into Radia’s role in the 2G scam. The two news magazines have said these tapes were from official phone taps that happened between May 11, 2009 and July 11, 2009.
According to a senior income-tax official who was part of the team involved in the phone-tapping, the I-T department was investigating cases of tax evasions and I-T violations by Radia and her various PR agencies. As part of the investigation, the department, after a go-ahead from the Home Ministry, tapped Radia’s and some of her associates’ phones between August and October 2008 and May and July 2009. Meanwhile, the Central Bureau of Investigation was investigating several bureaucrats and individuals in the 2G scam case.
During its investigations, the CBI came across Radia’s name and asked the I-T department if it had any information on her. In a letter, dated November 16, 2009, Vineet Agarwal, Deputy Inspector General of Police, Anti Corruption Branch, CBI, wrote to Director General Income-Tax (investigations), Milap Jain, asking if the I-T department had “any information or records pertaining to any middlemen including Ms Ni(i)ra Radia, regarding (the) award of UAS licenses”.
In response, Ashish Abrol, Joint Director of Income-Tax, apprised Agarwal that the I-T department has been tapping Radia’s and some of her associates’ phones.
In his letter, dated November 20, 2009, Abrol wrote to Agarwal: “From conversations it appears that Ms N(i)ira Radia might have had some role with regards to the award of Telecom licenses…There are some direct conversations between Ms Radia and Telecom Minister (Raja)…” Abrol asked the CBI to collect the “extracts” of the conversations from his office.
On November 15, 2010, Bhushan filed a case in the Supreme Court with a copy of the “extracted” conversations and sought Radia’s interrogation in connection with the 2G scam. When asked about where the tapes came from, Bhushan said, “I cannot reveal the identity of my source. All I can say is that these conversations were tapped by the I-T department and the tapes were submitted by the CBI before the Supreme Court.” Explaining why he filed the petition with the tapes, he said: “The CBI has had these tapes for around a year but it didn’t bother to interrogate Radia in connection with the 2G scam.”
According to the I-T official, there are close to 6,000 pieces of conversations, out of which nearly 1,000 have got leaked.
No journalist named in the tapes has disputed the fact of the conversations with Radia. “I am not denying these conversations (with Radia),” said Sanghvi. “But at the same time, I am mystified about the source of these tapes and also the timing of the leaks,” he said. “It has been suggested to me that somebody in the government may have leaked these tapes to set the media on itself,” he said. Another journalist named in the conversations said: “The selection of the tapes and the manner in which they were released also make it seem like a case of corporate rivalry but in any case, the leaks have managed to deflect the ongoing debate on the government’s silence on 2G scam to the media.”
When contacted, Outlook’s editor-in-chief Vinod Mehta did not want to speak on the issue and the magazine’s editor Krishna Prasad regretted “not sending in a response” to questions sent on email. Open’s editor Manu Joseph, in response to a questionnaire sent by this newspaper, sent a note saying: “Open is sure of the authenticity of the recordings. That is the reason it ran the story.”
The journalists in question have denied any wrongdoing. Venu has initiated legal proceedings (civil and criminal defamation) against Outlook arguing that the magazine’s insinuation that he was part of the lobby — that “put Raja in the Cabinet” — was incorrect and defamatory since there’s no reference to Raja in the transcripts.
In a statement on NDTV’s website, Dutt said “the one sentence being used to damn me, ‘Oh God, What should I tell them’, is in fact two separate sentences, neither of which are related to A Raja or the telecom portfolio at all. When transcripts are edited and capture neither tone nor context, the message is severely distorted.”
She said that “the magazines that published the tapes themselves have flouted several principles of good journalism… They didn’t cross-check anything before publishing the said tapes”.
Some media veterans see the issue differently. “Nobody can deny the existence of lobbyists and PR people in the political or corporate space. It is a fact that journalists have to deal with such people while chasing stories and powerful people. There is nothing illegitimate in this,” said B G Verghese, former editor of Hindustan Times and The Indian Express. “There is no suggestion of corruption or any wrongdoing on the part of the journalists in the tapes. If at all, they come across as willing listeners and this is no crime.”
The issue has received some play in the US media, with The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post having reported on it. There have also been responses from media observers. “There is a clear clampdown, an orchestrated silence, in the media on this issue. Television news channels, which will pounce on the slightest hint of a controversy, have not even found the issue worthy of examining, forget about chastising people from their own fraternity,” said Santosh Desai, a columnist and CEO of Future Brands, the company that manages all the brands owned by retailer Future Group.
“Even if no quid pro quo is established, there is a clear evidence of power broking in the conversations. Journalists (in the conversations) seem quite comfortable in the role of players and those who peddle influence…they seem at ease in a space that they are not supposed to be in. And this is neither good for journalism nor for the democracy,” said Sevanti Ninan, an independent media observer.
Vir Sanghvi /Advisory Editorial Director with HT Media Ltd (publisher of the Hindustan Times and Dainik Hindustan)
In at least three instances, Radia is seeking Sanghvi’s help in reaching out to the Congress leadership and Sanghvi assures her of help. Sanghvi also seems to be discussing the content of his yet-to-be-written HT column. An email to Rajiv Verma, CEO, HT Media, asking him about the company’s stand on the tapes did not elicit any response. On November 28, Sanghvi, in Counterpoint, his column, announced that he was “taking a break” from writing the column. “I do not deny that these conversations happened, but the tapes have been doctored and the context tampered to give the conversations a certain slant,” he told The Indian Express.
Barkha Dutt / Group Editor, NDTV
Radia seems to be seeking Dutt’s help in resolving a logjam between the Congress and the DMK, and Dutt says she will communicate Radia’s and her bosses’ stand on various issues to Congress leaders. Said Dutt, “I never passed on any message to any Congress leader. But because she was a useful news source, and the message seemed innocuous, I told her I would. Ultimately, I did no more than humour a source.” In a statement, NDTV Group CEO and executive director Narayan Rao said, “To caricature the professional sourcing of information as ‘lobbying’ is not just baseless, but preposterous”.
M K Venu
Senior editor of The Economic Times at the time of the conversation; now managing editor of The Financial Express, a sister publication of The Indian Express
Venu and Radia discuss industry gossip; Radia seeks Venu’s opinion on whom she should give a certain story to. Venu says she should give it to an organisation that will display it prominently. Venu has initiated legal proceedings (civil and criminal defamation) against Outlook arguing that the magazine’s insinuation that he was part of the lobby — that “put Raja in the Cabinet” — was incorrect and defamatory since there’s no reference to Raja in the transcripts.
Managing Editor with India Today at the time of the conversation
Discusses Cabinet formation of the UPA-II. Radia communicates with him on the portfolios that DMK wants for itself in the new government.
Senior Assistant Editor, The Economic Times
Shares with Radia the placement of reports in the newspaper.
When contacted, a spokesperson of the Times Group said: “Media should refrain from publishing private conversations that merely serve to titillate and can damage individual reputations… A story has to go through many editorial filters before it appears in ET, which is often frustrating for PR agencies…We are watching the situation and reserve our right to act against individuals and publications if they harm the image or credibility of our brands.”
Editor (Languages), The India Today Group
Chawla’s conversation with Radia is about the gas dispute between Mukesh and Anil Ambani. Radia seems to have called Chawla to seek his opinion on the gas dispute case being fought by the two brothers in the Supreme Court. Chawla and Radia discuss the possibility of the Supreme Court judgment being fixed. Aroon Purie, chairman and editor-in-chief, India Today Group, didn’t respond to an email from The Indian Express. In a statement, Chawla said: “The 13-minute conversation had nothing to do with the controversial 2G of A Raja. Niira called me as she said ‘to seek my expertise’ on the ‘Battle for Gas’ between the two Ambani brothers. I merely told her that the earlier the brothers put an end to their private battle, the better it will be for the public good.”