The wheel’s still in spin…

Sanjay Kapoor

Earlier this year I got a sheaf of papers carrying some intercepts and analysis of Delhi lobbyist Niira Radia's telephonic conversations with politicians, businessmen, bureaucrats and journalists. Clearly, I was not the first choice of the anti-Radia lobby for the publication of this scandalous report. I learnt that nearly all major news outlets had refused to report on the documents that found their way to me. 

Among the documents was a covering letter from a CBI officer, Vineet Agarwal, to Milap Jain, Director General of Income Tax (DGIT), informing him that his agency was probing allegations of a nexus between public servants and some private persons in the grant of telecom licences in the year 2007-08, and sought the Income Tax (IT) department's help in gathering information collected through "different methods of surveillance including telephonic surveillance". 

The IT department wrote to CBI that Radia's phones had been put under the scanner after obtaining the home ministry's permission, and that she had some role in the award of telecom licences, besides guiding a new telecom operator on the need to delay the inflow of funds from the overseas investor so as not to give an impression to the government of any 'windfall' profits. 

These documents were photocopies of faxes sent from a number that belonged to a powerful corporate house, which seems to have procured these intercepts from the IT department. My journalistic caution and fear of carrying stuff that was defamatory was stopping me from carrying a 'scoop' in our magazine without corroboration. Government sources denied the documents' authenticity as they claimed that departments do not trade 'telephone surveillance' reports with each other. 

Despite these denials, there was a clear ring of authenticity to the IT reports. An analysis sent by the DGIT to Sudhir Chandra, Member (Investigation), Central Bureau of Direct Taxes, revealed that Radia played a role in mediating a telecom licence for Unitech group. There is also mention of an "advance" for Unitech from the Tatas. Did the Tatas make provision for Unitech's telecom licence? 

In the absence of corroboration, we ran the story of the scandalous telephone intercepts of an unnamed lobbyist and how they detailed the corrupt nexus behind the 2G spectrum sale. 

After a few months, the Radia intercepts acquired greater meat after they were carried first by a news channel and later by some weekly publications. Now the focus was less on the real culprits behind the spectrum sale scam and more on how media persons were reporting and doing errands at the behest of Radia. Journalists like Vir Sanghvi and Barkha Dutt of NDTV were shown helping Radia get A Raja the telecom ministry again after the UPA returned to power in 2009. There are other journalists, too, from important publications, who give an impression of executing Radia's agenda. 

The lobbyist's cozy relationship with journalists has created a fire storm in the media and civil society. Lynch mobs seem to be trawling the net baying for Sanghvi's and Dutt's blood - no one is buying the duo's explanation of innocence. 

Indeed, only a reporter can realise what it takes to earn the trust of a source. So competitive and lonely is this pursuit that one needs to cultivate sources to stay ahead of others, which means humouring your assets and playing along at times. Every time a journalist gets into a big story or an exposé, it's like getting into a chakravyuh or a maze replete with enticements, blandishments and distractions. Without a fierce commitment to the basic journalistic ethic of reporting the truth as objectively as possible, no reporter can emerge clean out of this labyrinth.

Detractors of Sanghvi have pointed out that his Hindustan Times column carries the imprint of a briefing from Radia. In the case of Barkha Dutt, it is stated that she promised to call Ghulam Nabi Azad for garnering support for Raja, and also displayed great proximity to corporate honchos. Dutt denies this charge. Personally, I would not hang any of them till there is manifest evidence of quid pro quo. Were they paid off in any manner? Available evidence gives no such indication. However, the documents that came my way months ago claim that favours were extended to journalists "through cars, expensive gifts and holidays". I think it's time to wait for the next episode of Radia tapes.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2010

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