Wrong connections

We know that the home secretary gave permission to tap Niira Radia's telephone on the basis of "specific information received" by the Central Board of Direct Taxes. We do not as yet know what and why, though as the judiciary gets involved, those questions will slowly be answered. Yet, in this age of ever-freer information and WikiLeaks, we cannot be surprised that those conversations, once recorded, were somehow leaked. And, in a simple telling of the story, that leak revealed exchanges between the media, the private sector, and political parties, causing many to throw their hands up in the air, and declare the profession hopelessly compromised. That simple story, however, conceals as much as it reveals.

The transcripts have laid bare specific cases in which professional boundaries have been blurred. A cynical and pessimistic reading would be that India's pugnacious, free, fast-growing media is universally complicit, that closeness to corrupt centres of power has corrupted it in turn. Such a reading, however, would be as mistaken as would be completely ignoring the danger signals evident in a few individuals' behaviour. The media in India is an institution with thousands and thousands of people doing an honest, competent, professional job. Half a dozen journalists, with apparently varying degrees of indiscretion, do not an institution make. For this reason, The Indian Express has a stringent code of ethics that is incorporated in the contract signed by all journalists the group employs.

This is a particularly unfortunate time for this storm, when so many of our institutions are under a cloud, even the most hallowed such as the army and the judiciary, partly as a result of media and civil society scrutiny. If the media that enabled this questioning is also seen as compromised, hoist by its own petard, then what are we left with? Those involved owe it to this great instititution to offer themselves up to the highest level of scrutiny. It is up to us in the media to show that we are clean: that is a sacred institutional responsibility. And part of the journalist's job is to ask questions. Were promises made that were carried out? Was there any quid pro quo? At the same time, who leaked these transcripts with cherrypicked conversations, and why? Ratan Tata has now asked the Supreme Court to consider the mechanics of the leak. We will all watch carefully how the court handles this balance: of our right to know how public figures, politicians and mediapersons conduct their business, versus their right to privacy. The takeaway for us in the media, specifically, should be the reminder that journalism in a modern economy, with its interlocking special interests is about one thing above all: disclosure. Transparency is essential for integrity. And not just to calm public outrage; we in the media should be able to look at ourselves in the mirror with pride.

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