Last week, I saw the Rs. 1,76,000 crore figure and thought it cannot get worse than this. But the astronomical figure turns out to be only the tip of the iceberg. Thanks to a courageous series of articles by Open Magazine, A. Raja is revealed to be only the visible manifestation of a vast nexus of corruption involving politicians, bureaucrats, corporates and “eminent” media persons.

Audio files in the possession of Open Magazine, containing recordings of phone calls tapped by the Income Tax Department, exposed the role of NDTV journalist and talk show host Barkha Dutt in negotiations that ultimately may have resulted in A. Raja becoming the Telecom Minister in UPA-II in May 2009.

A. Raja as we know is the man behind the 2G Telecom Scam, the biggest scam in Indian history and one of the biggest in the world, resulting in the loss of a scamrageous Rs. 1,76,000 Crore (US$ 35 billion) to the Indian government.

Vir Sanghvi of The Hindustan Times has also been exposed in the tapes. In his conversation with Niira Radia, relating to a case between the Ambani brothers in the Bombay High Court, he “virtually takes a dictation from Radia on what he ought to write” in an opinion column.

It is not as if we held these eminences in high regard before but these tapes confirm our worst suspicions about “eminent” media persons in general. Going by the evidence, the socalled “Christiane Amanpour” of the Indian media turns out to be a high level broker, “fixer” and lobbyist for the Congress party. Her links with the Congress run so deep that she is in a position to indulge in negotiations on behalf of that party for Cabinet posts in the Government of India. One could always detect a constant pro-Congress bias in her reporting. But after this revelation, everything is in the open and her image as a journalist stands tarnished permanently. It may be advisable for her to take up a full time role in the Congress party, to be true to her feelings and show her real face to the country. The expose of Barkha Dutt also makes a big hole in the credibility and reputation – or whatever is left of it – of NDTV.

If Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi, two well known faces in the Indian media, are so deeply involved, one may imagine how deep the rot runs. Trial by media, advertorials and paid news pale in comparision to Barkhagate, as it is being called. Also, the tapes carry only be a miniscule fraction of what really went on behind the scenes in May 2009 and later. We dont probably know anything yet. Some important questions arise:

1. Who else is involved?

Considering that there is cut throat competition in the media, what explains the relative silence on the expose in most mainstream media outlets? No major talk show has covered the issue, nor has any reputed newspaper or magazine (excepting a few like India Today, Mid Day) carried features. “India’s national newspaper” The Hindu, “journalism of courage” Indian Express and “India’s largest selling newspaper” Times of India, all prone to frequent sanctimony on all matters from India-Pakistan relations to wildlife conservation, have remained relatively silent. Does this indicate that Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi are not the only “eminent” media persons who may have things to hide?

2. Why now?

The conversations occurred way back in May 2009. The phone taps were made by the Income Tax Department, and several people must have known about these conversations. Why were the recordings kept, and kept secret, for 18 months? Plus, what is the motivation for leaking the recordings at this time? Who benefits, who loses?

3. What was their “cut”?

What remains unrevealed is if Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi and others received any benefits in their murky dealings. It is unlikely that Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi would offer their “services” without any reward, monetary or otherwise. This is important to follow because it has become a practice to award government and quasi-government postings to “useful idiots”. Take for example, the unaccountable and undemocratic National Advisory Council. The entry criteria for the NAC are neither administrative aptitude or experience nor scientific expertise but only the reputation of being a popular “activist” working for some NGO and sharing similar ideology with the Congress party. It has ramifications for the health of our democracy, economy, social harmony and national security.

Update, 22 Nov: The New Indian Express has a full page article containing the tape transcripts: “Radia tapes: telecon talking points” (jpg)