The Middle Men - Muck in their hands…

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The media complains of ‘curtailing freedom of press,’ but it has also done itself in by indulging in power broking and profiteering, as the two worst examples of recent times show

REETA SINGH

REETA SINGH

Reeta Singh is a senior journalist with over 30 years’ of experience in print and electronic media. She is also a social activist, working on gender issues for an NGO – ‘Mass Education and Development in Asia’. She is a co-founder of ‘Parliamentarian. UNION BUDGET ‘2015 The Bull’s eye or a missed opportunity While a lot of expectation was placed on Mr Jaitley for his maiden full budget, has he delivered as per the nation’s expectation, or has he missed an opportunity to take the economy out of the shambles and make a common man happier? In his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith writes with impregnable candour: “It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion”. The Father of Modern Economics, in the same treatise, also writes “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the greater part of the members are poor and miserable.” Mr Jaitley, in his maiden full budget, had tried to strike a deft balance between these two lines of thoughts. The task before the finance minister was humongous: the treasury had been left dry by the previous regime, the fiscal deficit needed to be contained, inflation had to be tamed. It was inevitable that the FM’s focus would be on infusing fiscal discipline and providing a conducive business environment, to rescue the Indian economy, which has been grappling with slowdown for the last couple of years. In a nuanced fashion, the FM has also provided a much needed boost to the infrastructure sector – road, rail, power, housing etc, by allocating Rs 70,000 crores as well as announcing major projects in these sectors. This will have the twin effect of raising the investment levels as well as providing much needed employment opportunities, benefiting the economy in the long run. Although the rating agencies have criticised the FM’s decision to postpone the target of reducing the fiscal deficit to 3% of GDP by an extra year, the strong impetus for growth seems to capture the imaginations of many analysts. They are of the opinion that the growth engine will slowly put the economy back on track and the fiscal deficit will be hence taken care of. A lot of changes have been brought to enhance the tax earnings without making too many people unhappy. The steps to gradually lower the corporate tax rates from 30 % to 25% over a span of four years will help India Inc boost their earnings and enhance their cash flows. The effect of this cut in government burse will be offset by the 2% surcharge levied on companies with income exceeding 10 crores. The increase in the service tax to 14% will also enhance the government coffers. This will definitely raise some eyebrows, especially for the middle class whose entertainment avenues are set to get costlier. Critics have also questioned the cut in wealth tax although this will be neutralized by adding a surcharge of 2% on the incomes of the super-rich. The FM’s well intentioned move to delay the introduction of GST needs to be understood in totality. In a phased manner, the FM has raised the states’ share in the net proceeds of Union tax revenues from 32% to 42%. This will make it easier for states to accommodate the provisions of GST when it is rolled out in April, 2016. This government has been facing lot of criticism for being too industry friendly, thus side-lining the interests of the common man. Mr Jaitley has tried to allay some fears by widening the social security net. Providing universal access to health, accident, life insurance and pension schemes in a friendly manner through the JAM trinity (Jan Dhan, Aadhar and Mobile) will be a long step in ensuring a universal social security system. Six crore toilets under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, housing for all by 2020, upgradation of 80,000 secondary schools, and many more are going to directly benefit the common man in the long term. But, however appealing and visionary the budget seems on paper, no direct and immediate benefit has been provided to the people. The common man, who has been dealing resolutely with the huge price rise in recent times, has been left high and dry for all the trust placed on the Modi government. Right now, one of the immediate priorities of the government should have been to regulate the incessant price rise aam aadmi has faced over the last couple of years. But, the increase in service tax, increase in the fare of goods train (in rail budget) in no way are going to provide relief to them in the short run. On top of that, all the welfare schemes have been merely announced, while no clear guidelines have been provided to ensure its effective execution. In these regards, Jaitley’s budget doesn’t differ much from his predecessors’, where budget promises are huge but the common man is left waiting for more. If Jaitley was to truly hit the Bull’s Eye, he needed much more than a balanced budget, a budget which would make the common man believe in Modi’s slogan –“Sabka Saath. Sabka Vikaas.

The news came as a bolt from the blue. Director (News) of one of the leading Hindi News television channels, Hemant Sharma, resigned in August first week. Sharma was a very high profile journalist, whose daughter’s wedding a couple of months earlier was attended by who’s who of the country from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Finance Minister Arun Jaitely, BJP president Amit Shah, a spectrum of opposition leaders to a bevy of jurists, bureaucrats and law enforcement officers besides, of course, fellow journalists. The celebrations had continued for over a fortnight, with friends like India TV promoter Rajat Sharma and Director, Aster Group of Educational Institutions, VK Sharma, throwing parties at five star hotels. A day after Sharma resigned came the news that CBI had arrested four persons on charges of ‘trying to influence government recognition to medical colleges by bribing unnamed people’. Among the four arrested was VK Sharma, and the arrests had been made from his residence itself. The arrested confessed to the CBI that the money was to be sent to unnamed government officials through a senior journalist. While media circles were speculating on the identity of the journalist, Rajat Sharma dropped a bomb by claiming that Hemant Sharma had been asked to resign because “I have zero tolerance towards allegations of corruption.” The fog had been cleared and the dots had been joined.

Though the name of Hemant Sharma was not mentioned in the FIR, his name figured in the questioning of the accused persons. That is why India TV asked him to make an honourable exit for the sake of the channel, with which he had been associated for a long time, Rajat Sharma told the media.

Comet Cometh

Hemant’s ascent had been spectacular especially during past four-five years. His proximity to Amit Shah was an open secret. He claims that he not only influenced Modi to contest for Lok Sabha from Varanasi Sharma’s hometown but swung BJP tickets for at least a dozen persons in Uttar Pradesh.

He was reportedly instrumental in the appointment of a retired bureaucrat, Nripendra Mishra, as Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister one of the most powerful posts in the country, along with those of the National Security Advisor and Cabinet Secretary.

His story exemplifies how media persons use their access to the corridors of power in gaining proximity and swinging deals. Politicians want to be showcased positively in the media. A favourable media avoids their warts and presents them as clean as the Ganga. The politicians use their power and influence to pay back the ‘favourable media’ through favours, subsidised accommodations, government posts, advertisements or other such means. There are a large number of journalists staying in subsidised government accommodations for 25 to 30 years, even long after their retirement.

The mutual coexistence of these journalists and the politicos also explains how some scribes survive after being rendered unemployed for whatever reason. Politicians and bureaucrats too want trusted conduits, and having known journalists over the years, use them as middlemen mostly in transfers, postings, awards of contracts and distribution of tickets.

The practice often starts at the grassroots district or block level where politicians and bureaucrats start their careers, and journalists too work part-time, doubling up often as advocates or teachers. They swing deals for people with money, often taking a cut. The magnitude grows with the rise of the journalist to bag bigger deals at state headquarters; and mega-deals in metropolises. With their modest salaries, those wanting to push their ways up the socio-political ladder often take recourse to dangerous shortcuts. No wonder, it is said that Delhi has more power brokers than in the rest of the country put together. A journalist was once offered a fortune by an upcoming businessman for arranging a meeting with a Union Minister. Cutting an assured deal with a Minister or Secretary obviously gets the journalist an assured commission as well. No wonder names of some journalists have been cropping up from time to time in various mega deals, especially in petroleum, construction and defence sectors. Couple of them have also been named and detained by law enforcement agencies.

There are many journalists who own swanky farmhouses, luxury cars and a lifestyle far bigger than their salary would allow. But, like tainted bureaucrats and politicians, tainted journalists also manage to avoid the long arm of the law, precisely because of this unholy nexus with the politicians.

Jindal & Zee

Two incidents in particular highlighted how journalists work, network and then use their ‘contacts’ for personal gains. One was the ‘Nira Radia Tapes’ case, and the second one was allegations of blackmailing Jindal Steel owner and Member of Parliament Navin Jindal.

“Jindal plays CD, claims Zee editors demanded Rs 100 crore” was the boldly displayed four-column headline at the top right hand of the first page of The Hindu of October 20, 2012. The amount was said to have been demanded by Zee TV editors Sudhir Chaudhury and Sameer Ahluwalia in the form of advertisements worth Rs 25 crores per year for four years for not airing incriminating stories of involvement in coal block allocations of Jindal Steel and Power Ltd. (JSPL).

Zee denied the allegation, counter-charging JSPL with attempting to muzzle it first with a bribe of Rs 25 crore to one of its editors, and, when that failed, coming up with the advertising deal on its own to stop the TV coverage of JSPL’s role in the ‘coalgate’ scam. JSPL purported to show the Zee editors pointing out in the course of negotiating the deal that it was not unusual for media outlets to strike similar deals.

India, during the days of the freedom movement and the early years of Independence, the field of journalism, in general, and the media, in particular, comprised editors and publishers who were nearly equal in stature and professional and personal integrity to the heroes of the freedom struggle. Some of freedom struggle heroes were themselves editors of newspapers as well. There was mutual respect between them. The tale of National Herald editor M Chalapathi Rao often standing up to then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru also chief trustee of Associate Journal Limited owning the newspaper is a legend young journalists used to be fed almost compulsorily.

But, there has been a precipitous fall in the quality and calibre of both individuals and institutions in all spheres of activity. It is unrealistic to expect in this situation that the media will be an exception and somehow will live up to the exalted standards that it stood for once.

There is, however, one factor which distinguishes the media from the other institutions even today. It appropriates for itself the lofty role of a conscience-keeper, custodian of norms, and guardian of the rights and entitlements of the citizenry, insisting on propriety and integrity in public life, upbraiding in harsh language those who do not shape up in these respects.

It is only right for people to expect that such self-appointed mentors keeping a critical eye on the conduct of everybody else should themselves excel in their sense of accountability and trustworthiness and be exemplars to the other sections of society.

Unfortunately, the black sheep in India’s media are leading people to believe that its scruples and principles are inversely proportional to its pretensions and claims. Even a lay reader’s eye is often able to spot where its product — whether in the form of a newspaper, journal or TV programme — does not meet the strictest tests of accuracy, fairness and responsibility.

Radia Radar

The point about the Nira Radia tapes is not just that they provided stunning evidence of some iconic anchors and columnists being ready and willing to act as political power-brokers and go-betweens; they also laid bare the tendency of the black sheep to emulate the worst types of politicians in aggressively seeking to extricate themselves with specious pleas. In similar circumstances, if some others outside the media were involved, it would have bayed for their blood.

“The complete blackout of the Radia tapes by the entire broadcast media and most of the major English newspapers paints a truer picture of corruption in the country,” wrote G Sampath, then deputy editor of the Daily News & Analysis (DNA). The then telecom minister, A Raja sold mobile telephone licenses at incredibly cheap prices, costing the Indian government a whopping Rs 2,58,812 crore while pocketing huge commissions. As part of the investigation, Income Tax department tapped the phone of a corporate lobbyist Nira Radia whose clients were global business tycoons like the Tatas and Mukesh Ambani.

In October 2010, recording of the phone conversations was published by Open magazine. The transcript depicted India’s prominent journalists, Prabhu Chawla, Barkha Dutt, MK Venu, V Shankkar Aiyyar, Vir Sanghvi besides others, lobbying to get Raja the job of the telecom minister after the 2009 general elections.Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, an independent journalist, believes that the notion of such a power was merely an apparition. He said, “Journalists suffer from what psychologists call, ‘Delusion of Grandeur’. They meet the rich, powerful and strong. Just because they meet influential people, they tend to think that they are as influential as them.”

The public-spirited elements in the media know who the black sheep among them are and what they are up to. They should remember that by not exposing and condemning the black sheep, they are only making willing accomplices and abettors of themselves.

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