Indrajit Hazra may be a journalist by profession, but his book The Bioscope Man confirms what others have suspected for long - that he needs a day job. Currently a Consultant Editor of Hindustan Times, he writes the fortnightly music column Rock'n'Roll Circus and the sometimes satirical, sometimes not satirical at all Sunday column Red Herring. When no one's looking, he writes in other publications too.
What’s Your Drug? Zee, Jindal?
As any smart ex-drug addict and his doctor will tell you, methadone treatment is an effective method for de-addiction. Methadone is a synthetic chemical belonging to the same family as diamorphine – or heroin – and it shares many of the harmful drug’s qualities. What it essentially does when used as treatment for heroin addiction is knock the craving for heroin out of a system and replace it with itself. It’s like a ball pocketing another ball on the billiard table and taking its spot. Both methadone and heroin, the “cure” and the “disease”, are addictive drugs. It’s just that the former is less damaging than the latter.
With the head of Zee News, Sudhir Chaudhary, and the head of Zee Business, Samir Ahluwalia, sent to police custody till November 30 for allegedly trying to extort Jindal Steel and Power Ltd (JSPL) – one of the companies whose names cropped up in the Coalgate scam – it can be assumed that we are now being made to undergo a methadone treatment. After being applied the “heroin” dose in March in the form of a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) draft report accusing the Central government of allocating coal blocks in an inefficient manner between 2004 and 2009, the nation’s dose of methadone comes with the shocking news about the two crooked senior journalists in the mainstream media.
One easy – and unhelpful – way of reacting to the news of JSPL filing an FIR against the two Zee editors (as well as against Zee News Chairman, Subhash Chandra and Zee News Managing Director, Puneet Goenka) on October 2 would be to think that “senior members of the media” were “framed” to let the government and supposedly errant companies out of the spotlight, if not off the hook. I’m afraid this is a kind of binary “if one party’s guilty, the other party’s innocent” kind of lazy, bunkum thinking. Going by reports – and the tell-tale “sting operation” CD that Jindal took to the media – about the two Zee editors approaching senior officials of JSPL and demanding Rs 100 crore in exchange for suppressing news reports about the company’s involvement in the coal allocation scam, I reckon the Zee lot did unfurl a dodgy media business revenue model called extortion.
There is no doubt that this “cash-for-no news” approach has dented the image of the mainstream media. Media corruption directly involving money (rather than the shadowy fixing-networking-“stringing along” of the “Niira Radia tapes”) was, till now, seen as being confined to the regional media where covering “positive news” as well as withholding “negative news” are sold for a price. But “paid news” and “paid withheld news” are still avoided by most media houses mindful of their reputation and credibility. In any case, scrapping or playing down news that may upset “friendly quarters” continue to be conducted for free and for the express purpose of oiling the tracks on which the media-political parties-business houses train runs smoothly and without impediments. Usually, such decisions are indistinguishable from “editorial judgment”.
So I’m not one of those who will get all teary-eyed or protective when the rot in certain quarters in the media gets exposed. Zee’s lawyer maintains that the meeting of the editors with senior members of the Jindal Group took place at the latter’s behest in which the steel company was exploring methods of withholding “negative publicity”. The whole affair, according to the lawyer, was aimed at bullying Zee so that the channel wouldn’t air any news against JSPL. This is something that the courts will have to sort out for all of us.
But this “methadone show” hardly means that the original Coalgate heroin should be receding into the background – or, as the government will probably say now any moment, that it “never existed”. Naveen Jindal has complained about the CAG’s description of his company (and that of others mentioned in the CAG Draft Performance Audit, Allocation of Coal Blocks and Augmentation of Coal Production by Coal India Limited) as “beneficiary”. But the fact of the matter is that the Jindal Group – along with many other companies did benefit from what the CAG had described in its draft report as “lack of transparency”. (“The guidelines for allocation of coal blocks for captive mining were modified in 2006; however, the process of allocation suffered from an element of subjectivity, opaqueness and lack of transparency.”)
And it is here that the whole issue pertaining to the alleged coal allocations scam gets entangled with criminal (in the rhetorical sense) ineptness of the government that, in turn, makes space for the possibility of financial crimes (in the literal sense) to take place with “traditional” ease. It was only after the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) had ordered an inquiry into the irregularities in the allocations by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) that the coal ministry formed an inter-ministerial group (IMG) in June to decide the status of the coal blocks that had been earlier allotted with great mystery to various companies. Which means that without the CAG report -which at no point actually points to any act of corruption conducted by the “benefited” companies or the “beneficiary” government – no one would have bothered to investigate why coal allocations were made well below expected prices and without any visible criteria.
There is nothing that bars a fat man from calling another fat man fat. There is nothing that stops his statement from being true either. But our way of thinking is such that many of us find it ridiculous that a fat man can be deemed fat by a fellow overweight. What is true for fatness is true for corruption. So there is nothing wrong in suspecting the Zee editors of being crooked and at the same time suspecting that some companies “benefited” from the government’s invisible coal allocations policy.
And who knows? The real harm may not be caused by either the grubby-handed media or the frankly-greedy industry, but by the “We-do-business-our-way-so-what-is-it-to-you?” government. The news of the government’s opaqueness in policies such as coal allotments – this opaqueness, in turn, providing fertile grounds for a myriad of greasy-palmed transactions – may just be the addictive substance that remains masked by the regular intake of sundry “heroin” and “methadone” news.
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