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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 48, Dated 03 Dec 2011

    Q&A - Vir Sanghvi, Editorial Adviser, Hindustan Times

    ‘Now I have been vindicated. I can hold my head high’

    LAST NOVEMBER the infamous Niira Radia tapes shook the media. Several reputations were scorched as the tapes seemed to blow the lid off an insidious collusion between corporates, political parties and the media. One of the journalists singed by the tapes wasHindustan Times editorial adviser Vir Sanghvi, who appeared to be tailoring his prestigious column Counterpoint to suit corporate lobbyists.

    Sanghvi had claimed then that the tapes were doctored. Now he says he has proof. Recently, in an article in Outlook — the magazine that had first published the stories — he detailed how three international forensic labs had ruled that the tapes were doctored and his voice tampered with. Two of them are labs the FBI and US attorney’s office consult; the third is highly reputed in the UK. Here, Sanghvi talks to Revati Laul about his learnings from this damaging episode

    Vir Sanghvi

    Photo: Shailendra Pandey

    The day the Radia tapes story broke, what in those transcripts made you feel they were doctored, that this is not the conversation you had with Radia?
    I knew this stuff was floating around. It had been around for about 4-5 months before it actually appeared in print. And I was reasonably convinced it had to be fake because I had never lobbied for former telecom minister A Raja, whom I didn’t know. My problem was this: Niira Radia had called me. And she had asked me to convey a message. Similarly, the conversation about allocation of spectrum did take place. So when I heard the tapes, I said — it sounds like me; but I don’t remember saying these things. The transcript I was reading seemed to bear very little relation to the conversation I’d actually had. So my reaction was one of confusion. Followed by deep depression. Because there is something very violative and invasive about tuning into a website and finding your voice and conversations you thought were personal, on it.

    I put my position on record the following Sunday in Counterpoint. And then my reaction was to withdraw the column for a little while. Until I decided what to do next. I was confident then, perhaps naively, that because I was convinced these tapes were doctored, that I could take them to audio experts and get proof of it. The problem was that they said it’s very difficult to do anything with a phone conversation.

    People may find it difficult to believe the tapes were doctored. Why would someone want to doctor tapes to frame you?
    I have heard many theories but would not like to comment further on that until I have proof of what I believe.

    Were you the subject of questions by your own office?
    It’s possible that people in my office had problems. But I said to my employers I felt the tapes were doctored. And they believed me. Which was a great relief.

    Why did you feel the need to withdraw the column and from political journalism?
    Because the allegation was that I was handin- glove with the Congress and that I was willing to offer Counterpoint to industrialists who wanted me to write things about them. These were damaging allegations. There are two ways to react to it. One is to say they are fake and I will ignore them. Or there’s my way. Which is to say they are fake and until I can prove they are fake, I will not do anything because I think it’s only reasonable that I go away and prove my innocence. I took the second approach.

    Are you going to revive the column?
    Yeah. Once I finish shooting the two television shows I’m working on.

    Newsweek’s Chris Dickey said at THiNK 2011: ‘Journalism is the art of seduction and betrayal.’ When you get close to a source, there is some amount of empathy and seduction involved in getting them to speak. So when you are dealing with people in power and are close to them, how do you draw the line, to tell the truth?
    It’s funny you mention that. Because in one of the debates I had on a television channel afterwards, people said, ‘Do you lie to sources?’ And I said, well if I feel my sources are lying to me, I’m quite happy to lie back to them. Your loyalty is ultimately to your readers, not to your sources. And if to get the truth for your readers you sometimes have to lie, seduce, flatter, cajole — that’s part of journalism. But it worried me that most people didn’t realise this in the debates we had about this.

    There’s been a lot of talk in the aftermath of this scam of how the media should be regulated or self-regulated. What do you think of that and the lowering of credibility of the media this has resulted in?
    I think a lot of the controversy that surrounded this storm was created by the media and I think there was an element of irresponsibility in the way journalists played this up in an enthusiastic effort to condemn some people. And I think that’s backfired on the media as a whole. In a sense, the media began the process of signing its own death warrant.

    Now when you look back at all of this, without the Radia tapes haze, what does the 2G scam look like to you?
    I think it’s ironic that this should have happened. Because I kept writing at the time about what a crook Raja was. I remember writing much before this controversy, that one of the tragedies of this government is that it didn’t have a telecom ministry. That it had installed a giant ATM machine — this was my phrase — from which the DMK made frequent withdrawals.

    Can you take us through what you have had to live with, until the lab reports have come out endorsing your view?
    The problem with me is if you feel that the world believes you haven’t lived up to the standards you claim to stand for, it’s a very deeply humiliating feeling.

    ‘We have carried tapes when HT was launched in Mumbai, which were later shown by a laboratory to be fake’

    Why was it essential for you to prove you were right through lab reports?
    It was necessary only for my own conscience. The conflict was always an internal one. It was important for me to know that I can hold my head high and that the claims I made initially have now been vindicated. Was it necessary for other people to do it? Perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps we should learn to treat all this ‘evidence’ as stuff that keeps being generated by vested interests with access to technology. I don’t know. But what intrigues me is that we still don’t have a debate in this country on how we will treat this kind of stuff. We just take short cuts. It’s a nice juicy story, put the tapes on the website.

    I won’t be self-righteous about others. I’ve done that. We have carried tapes when Hindustan Times was launched in Mumbai, which were later shown by a lab to be fake. I’m as guilty of this as anybody else. But after that happened, I took a conscious call that I would be suspicious of all such evidence. And I have been. I’ve never once run anything based on that kind of evidence. You can’t divorce the motives from the evidence. Now more than ever, when it’s possible to generate fake evidence.

    The larger questions that emerged from the controversy around the Radia tapes is whether the media gets too close to its sources to be able to be objective. In hindsight, do you think you could have done things differently?
    What I did revisit was the space of how much you should listen to sources, how much you should have a relationship with them and to what extent are you obliged to tell them the truth. And having revisited that space, I have to say I haven’t rethought my positions, I think I was right to begin with.

    But did you introspect about the dangerously close relationship that exists between the media and corporate houses?
    Sure, I introspected deeply about that. Of course, some journalists do get too close to their sources. Not just corporate houses but politicians, all kinds of sources. And I thought about that and concluded that I was right all along.

    Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
    [email protected]

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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 48, Dated 03 Dec 2011



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