The Hungry Courtiers of Lutyens Media: A Trip Down Memory Lane

Oh God. So now what? What should I tell them? Tell me what should I tell them?

That iconic line of etched infamy first exposed to the public in the winter of 2010 remains to this day the epitome of the moral and ethical train-wreck called Lutyens Media. And the journalist uttering that line has since endured as the poster girl of Lutyens Media. While it was widely known by then that a number of editors, anchors, and celebrity journalists in the English media were cozy with the Congress party and had a spurious agenda to push, this expose, now spectacularly infamous as the Radia Tapes Scandal blew the lid off this toxic pit and revealed in naked glory the exact nature of and the expansive filth it contained. While the tapes also revealed other celebrity names like Vir Sanghvi, Barkha Dutt became its most infamous face.

In truth, the Radia Tapes Scandal was only the beginning. Worse followed. In passing, one can cite that other notorious episode involving the pony-tailed finger-happy Lift Intellectual, Tarun Tejpal whose sleaze-ridden celebrity career plummeted straight into hell in proportion to the ascent and descent of that lift in Goa. And as we observe today, while the fortunes and fate of these profligate eminences have waned, they seem to have learned nothing.

Lutyens Media is truly the drug-immune syphilis of Indian public discourse. It has no known cure. While largely confined to a few sprawling, marble-encrusted, opulent enclaves of ethical and moral squalor in Delhi, it has a quality of an epidemic. Woebegone anyone who partakes as much as a cup of water in these enclaves for the origins of this ailment lie in a mindset, an outlook, an attitude, a vantage, and a posture that has a fairly long history.

When you look down from the elevation of basic human decency, you spot a view of a vast court of a degenerate Sultanate where the celebrated denizens of Lutyens Media resemble a melange of hungry, petty courtiers feeding off the crumbs left over by the debauched and despotic Sultan in return for whitewashing his crimes against his own people, acting as gatekeepers of his regime’s ugly truths. Their hunger insatiable, it attaches a price tag to their conscience and loyalty and makes them plot against one another perpetually. It’s only when they sense an external threat that they close ranks.

The NDTV Empire

This prelude was essential in light of the selfsame Barkha Dutt’s extended rant of self-righteousness she published on her Facebook page yesterday (not to worry, I have taken screenshots of the post lest she “axes” it later). The sheer scale of the self-indulgent grandstanding in that piece is breathtaking. Here’s the short version: NDTV reeks of “fake liberalism” and is neither a “victim” nor a “crusader” because:

  • Her own stories were axed during her tenure there
  • She was victimised for speaking out against censorship within the channel, and that’s why she moved out
  • NDTV campaigns against the BJP in public but begs them privately for succour

Which is precisely why I called it grandstanding, self-indulgent, and self-righteous, and wrote that prelude. Credibility. Context. Memory. In that order.

Oh God. So now what? What should I tell them? Tell me what should I tell them?

First, Barkha Dutt’s newfound angst against her former employer, the same den which enabled and facilitated her rise to media stardom, needs deeper examination as we shall see.

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Second, nothing that she’s now revealed about NDTV is new.

If the Congress-led UPA Government, which inflicted a two-term Regime of Darkness upon India was the cynosure of nationwide fury, the other prime object of this fury included the chieftains of the Lutyens Media. This band was led at various occasions by NDTV that continues to face legal investigations on numerous counts of financial and other impropriety. And its protestations of being victimised fools none. Indeed, to gauge the kind of public outrage against NDTV, one only needs to check the sentiment in social media. I also recommend reading the investigative book, NDTV Frauds, which painstakingly uncovers a decades-long trail of fraud, nepotism, and sleaze, which was launched by the indefatigable Subramanian Swamy. Unless you’re living under a rock, this kind of sustained outrage against a mere TV channel doesn’t occur in a vacuum.

And it was the selfsame Barkha Dutt who in her long stint of twenty-one years, rose from strength to strength in the channel before becoming its Group Editor. And now that she’s quit it, she’s trying to don the mantle of a victim-cum-crusader.

Oh God. So now what? What should I tell them? Tell me what should I tell them?

Superstar Barkha

We can begin this examination with Barkha Dutt’s coverage of the Kargil war, which catapulted her to fame. This apart, Barkha Dutt also distinguished herself during the coverage of the 2002 Gujarat riots. On this topic, let’s jog our memory to that era.

While covering the events of 2002 Gujarat violence, Barkha Dutt identified attackers and victims of a riot as “Hindus” and “Muslims” on television, flouting the guidelines of the Press Council of India. [Emphasis added]

But more significantly, let’s hear it straight from the mouth of the one man she and her former employer, NDTV singled out for a relentless campaign of slander and calumny: former Gujarat Chief Minister and current Prime Minister, Narendra Damodardas Modi.

The video is self-explanatory.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OR5tdSQSOys

Oh, and remember Chyetanya Kunte? The same Barkha Dutt who today uses words like “hypocritical” and “self-righteous” against her former employer, not too long ago had intimidated a little-known blogger named Chyetanya Kunte who wrote a piece critical of her coverage of the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Scared by the legal notice that she had sent him through a lawyer, the hapless blogger took down his post and then wrote a post apologising for critiquing her. One still remembers the extent to which she was panned and lampooned on the Internet for her high-handedness. It would also be of interest to note that this incident found its way to Wikileaks, which sums it up thus:

The post represents an important consensus in the minds of the Indian Public that some journalists are irresponsible while reporting…After the demands, the blogger posted the following…settlement. It is unlikely the blogger believes the statements made in the notice, rather they were strong-armed into making them.

And today, the same Barkha Dutt talks about censorship at NDTV.

Oh God. So now what? What should I tell them? Tell me what should I tell them?

Radia Media

And now for the mother of all Lutyens Journalism: The Radia Tapes Scandal. One can read the commentary of Hartosh Singh Bal, on the affair. Bal was then working at Open magazine which first blew open the lid off the aforementioned Lutyens toxic pit.

Newspapers, bar The Hindu, have restricted their discussion [on Radia Tapes] to the editorial rather than news pages, and again without naming Vir Sanghvi and Barkha Dutt — the equivalent of discussing the allotment of 2G spectrum without naming A Raja. This closing of ranks betrays one of the weaknesses of the media in this country: eager as we are to hold others up to scrutiny, we shy away from the truth where our own are concerned…

Let us consider the scenario most charitable to Barkha, where, contrary to the evidence of the taps, we accept her claim that she may not have made the calls she promised to in the course of the conversations. Even so, hers is a damning admission. It confirms what the transcripts clearly indicate, an exchange of information between her and Niira Radia… 

The context in which Barkha was talking to Radia is important. Negotiations were underway between the DMK and Congress for places in the Union Cabinet. Barkha makes the claim that Radia was a valid news source for the DMK camp. Among the portfolios on offer was telecom, and Radia was the top PR representative of the Tata Group of Ratan Tata, which has a major interest in the telecom sector via its firm Tata Teleservices Ltd, and also of the Reliance Group of Mukesh Ambani, which had a direct interest in the sector via Reliance Infocomm before the Ambani brothers split.

For any political journalist worth her salt, the alarm bells would have gone off at this stage, and should have led to one of the biggest stories related to government formation in this country: ‘Tata telecom PR chief handles negotiations for telecom portfolio.’ Did you happen to see this story on NDTV? [Emphasis added]

Equally worth reading is the commentary on this vile affair by Manu Joseph, then the Editor of Open, who must be justly commended for his courage as well as for the acid retort when he sums it up.

As long as the information is authentic, a journalist has every right to use the material. When NDTV’s reporters go to treacherous war zones under the protection of the Indian Army, surely they know that the Indian Army has a motive in taking good care of them. [Emphasis added]

But there’s a small and even more disgusting epilogue of sorts to the Radia Tapes Scandal. Let’s not forget that it was the same NDTV that shielded Barkha Dutt in the aftermath of the scandal standing rock solid behind her even as its stock price imploded overnight. The same Barkha Dutt who now talks about censorship at NDTV would’ve probably read the December 2015 cover story on NDTV in The Caravan magazine which notes the following about the Radia Tapes episode:

Within the NDTV newsroom, however, there was no discussion on the matter. “If you were part of the NDTV newsroom, you did not know it happened,” said Kajori Sen, who was part of the editorial team in 2010, and quit last year. She and several others who were with NDTV at the time told me that, internally, the Radia tapes episode was ignored, with no communication from the top about what the Roys thought of it.

People who were with the channel then heard that an ethics committee had looked into the matter, but were given no details of what went on in its meetings. Eventually, the group decided to back Dutt. [Emphasis added]

In hindsight, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to completely bar access to the media was a spectacularly astute move. Indeed, if a credibility-free Barkha Dutt, the ultimate insider of NDTV, the very channel that gave her stardom but for which she wouldn’t have received the Padma Shri, could this to it, just imagine the possibilities…

Ultimately, the underlying point is neither NDTV nor Barkha Dutt but the note about the hungry, petty courtiers whose skulduggeries have completely come undone because the reassuring hand of the Sultanate no longer has the power to both quell internal dissent or to protect them. It is this that one should always bear in mind, and not harbour dangerous illusions that some of these courtiers have turned a new leaf or whatever. It’s their dirty linen and one must leave them to their devices whatever that maybe.

But perhaps the best denouement of Barkha Dutt’s latest outburst against NDTV comes from a comment on it:

Chaitanya Kunte is having a quiet laugh somewhere in India, after reading this hypocritical, pompous, turncoat piece.

Such comments emanate from the common man, and are typical reflections of what the average honest, taxpaying citizen thinks of the same journalists who had so far arrogated to themselves the right to speak on his/her behalf.

Oh God. So now what? What should I tell them? Tell me what should I tell them?

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Sandeep Balakrishna
Writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. Author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore," "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History," and "Seventy Years of Secularism." He has translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.
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