Forget about the Radiagate, it may be easily be said. But for all well-meaning journalists in India, Open Magazine’s expose, what it calls the X-Tapes, has not only come as a rude shock, it is also a defining moment, a turning point in a profession that many within and without consider almost sacrosanct. So, change must come, change for the better, discarding all the rotten apples and the muck that has come to stay. Will it be possible at all, is the larger question.
There is no doubt that with media gaining an unsavoury hue in recent weeks, the focus by editorial heads, for the short-term at least, will be on cleaning the stables although several horses may have already bolted. Another pertinent question is whether the clean-up operations will continue for long and whether after Radiagate has moved from the front pages of newspapers, some journalists will be tempted again by lure of proximity of power and perhaps money and other attractions to “string a source along”… to no actual good as we have all seen.
If any editor hit the bull’s eye in post-Radiagate discussions, it was N. Ram, editor-in-chief of The Hindu. Both in Karan Thapar’s programme on CNN-IBN and on a late night programme yesterday hosted by Rahul of Headlines Today, Ram was categorical. He called Barkha Dutt’s performance on NDTV’s extraordinary programme, or defence of her position if you will, “pathetic”. Few will disagree with him. For, Barkha chose to ride the high horse and had just no intention of admitting her mistake, going only so far as to say it was a “learning experience”. The tone and tenor of her voice and what appeared as almost contempt for Manu Joeseph and the Open Magazine story, deprived Barkha of an opportunity to regain people’s hearts. We still remember her reporting from Kargil, don’t we? But that was quite another Barkha, another time.
On Headlines Today, Vir Sanghvii, much senior to her, was calm and composed. He adopted a sober tone, seemed humbled by the experience, did not argue with the moderator, and although did not admit he had done something terribly wrong, did seek an apology from viewers, and readers of his column, if they felt he had strayed. Ram felt the explanations (Barkha’s included) were all a “cover-up”.
The difference between the two telecasts couldn’t have been starker. While Barkha hardly allowed anybody to speak, the moderator, Sonia Varma, never gained control. You probably couldn’t blame her… she is after all junior to Barkha in the NDTV pecking order. What was more surprising was that none of the panelists (Dilip Padgaonkar and Swapan Dasgupta), save Sanjay Baru in patches, was able to pin Barkha down.
The Headlines Today discussion was far more refined. Nobody spoke out of turn. It was clear that M.J. Akbar and Prabhu Chawla had a lot of respect for Ram. And no wonder. Because Ram has been clear in his stance fright from the beginning. On the Karan Thapar show and last night, he stressed that were the tainted journalists employed by the BBC, The Guardian or The New York Times, they would have lost their jobs. That, I presume, means that The Hindu, too, would not or will not tolerate such behaviour. Why can’t we set the bar higher, Ram asked. He went on further to emphasise that all journalists must be governed by a code of ethics, or by codified rules. Therefore, anyone trespassing the line has no place in the profession.
Unless such steps are taken, unless there is a continuing debate among senior editors, publishers and those who matter about journalistic ethics and what constitutes right and wrong, unless mechanisms are put in place to redress reader’s or viewer’s grievances and to admit and correct mistakes, not by one or two newspapers, but by the newspaper publishing and Indian television world in general, I do not see much hope. Unless corrective steps are taken earnestly, once the Radia Tapes pass into history, you may still have a journalist willing to plant a story for a price.