In the wake of accusations of political lobbying and inappropriate behavior for a reporter, Barkha Dutt, often described as India's Christiane Amanpour, defended herself before a panel of journalists in a first-of-a-kind grilling on Indian television.
In recent weeks, leaked government tapes of conversations between a corporate lobbyist, Nira Radia, and several Indian journalists have led to allegations of political lobbying and power-broking in 2009 when the current administration was being put together following the victory of the Congress party.
However, there was hardly any talk of political lobbying or corruption during the one-hour session on Tuesday, which were the reasons why the media scandal shook the nation in the first place. "Can I understand what am I being accused of," Dutt asked.
"Have you conceded first that you're not accusing me of lobbying, power-broking and corruption," she persisted, when speaking to Manu Joseph, editor of Open Magazine, which broke the story.
Dutt, whose prominence made her butt of the censure, has maintained that she was stringing along the lobbyist to pump her for information and dubbed the scandal as a "smear campaign."
"Oh God. So now what? What should I tell them (Congress)? Tell me what should I tell them?," is the line from Dutt that has rattled the media and the public.
Before the panel on Tuesday, she slammed Open and Outlook magazine for framing the debate to make her look like a go-between for the lobbyist and the Congress party, which she is often perceived to being too close to.
She also blasted Joseph for not speaking to her to before making her private conversations public. Several questions have now arisen about the government tapes--who leaked them and why?
Joseph, however, repeatedly raised the question that if Dutt knew Radia was trying to influence who got key positions in the government --then why didn't she report on it. "This is a corporate person who is trying to mediate between two political parties," he said.
Radia represents two global business tycoons Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani. She is now caught up in a $40 billion corruption scandal involving the telecommunications minister A. Raja who recently resigned.
While explaining the how and why of her conversations with Radia, Dutt did not quite answer Joseph's question, which was reiterated by other senior journalists on the panel.
Dutt responded by saying that she didn't think there was a story in it and couldn't be blamed for the stories her channel decided to skip. "She (Radia) is representing Mukesh Ambani and Tata," Joseph said, incredulously, referring to it as the "biggest story of the decade."
"I am just pointing out the shifting goal posts...first the allegation was corruption, lobbying, power-broking and now its why didn't you report the story," Dutt said.
The only thing Dutt conceded was an "error in judgment" when talking someone with a vested interest like Radia, and asserted that the instead of attacking her, the debate should have been more broadly about the rules journalists need to follow.
"I doubtless belong to the old school but we never ever allowed any PR (public relations) person to come near the editorial room," said a senior journalist on the panel.
Another panelist pointed out that in this instance lines of what a journalist can and cannot do had been "blurred."
"I was not careful," Dutt said. "I will not apologize for anything beyond that."
The discussion was sprinkled with bouts of open hostility. With Joseph saying that Dutt could have a point of view since "it's your office" and Dutt saying that at least her news organization, NDTV, had the "courtesy" of inviting him for the discussion.
At times, it was difficult to hear anything above the din. Dutt's combative style and Bill O'Reilly-esque shouting down of panelists will probably not win her any brownie points with an already pissed viewership.
As one Huffpo reader commented, "Some bs about ethics for printing the conversation transcript without getting her response. She was emotional and wanted to salvage her image. No time she felt any remorse for any wrongdoing - mainly pretending to be objective when clearly closer to one political party."
(First of four parts)
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