Why would AgustaWestland pay journos?

On the defence beat, journalists walk a fine line between being courted and being irrelevant

WrittenBy:Saikat Datta
Date:
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In today’s day and age, Euro 6 million is a lot of money, especially to poorly paid journalists who hunt around the corridors of power in Delhi, looking for their one big story.

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Social media outrage followed after the disclosure made in an Italian court that Indian journalists had been paid off.

The furore may have missed the forest for the trees. Many saw this scoop as a validation of their theory that journalists were rolling in ill-gotten wealth, while being paid off by vested interests. If that really was the case, then media houses would be rolling in money and journalists would be running the country.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the reality. So what are the issues that this disclosure raises?

In 2005, the influential New York University professor of journalism, Jay Rosen, pointed out that the greatest story of investigative journalism in the US wouldn’t have happened if the two reporters – Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein – had access to the corridors of power.

Rosen’s point was simple. If the reporter is an “insider” then she/he will invariably lose the real story. When Woodward and Bernstein worked on the seminal ‘Watergate’ story, they were rookies who had not been sucked into the inner circle of Washington DC’s power elite. That helped them dig on till they got the whole story. If they had been given access to the inner corridors, then they would have never broken the story that they did.

Those principles apply a great deal when you cover a “tight” beat such as national security. In India (and especially in New Delhi, which is not really India), national security reporting can be divided into three main categories – the military, internal security and the intelligence agencies.

Naturally, for journalists on the beat, it is virtually impossible to establish sources and get the story. In the Ministry of Defence, in South Block, journalists are forbidden to meet anyone and are usually restricted to the official spokespersons. Clearly, granting “access” to journalists is the preferred tool of the establishment to keep them in control.

So how is all this relevant to the Euro 6 million that was allegedly paid to journalists to “influence” the AgustaWestland deal?

Everyone in the Ministry of Defence and those who cover it appreciate that information is power. The harder you try to control it, the more power you wield in the corridors of power. On occasions, it creates a symbiotic relationship between some journalists desperate for information and arms dealers who serve as brokers between the ministry and the international companies desperate to bag orders. The middlemen, already armed with political and bureaucratic linkages become the arbiters of information, passing on documents and tip-offs to journalists, who, willingly or unwittingly, become the conduits to publish the planted information in their publications and news channels. This serves the middlemen in various ways.

First, it helps them address a wider audience relevant to a prospective defence deal – the politicians, the bureaucrats and the military, in that order. Second, it helps them nix a deal that could go to the competition.

During the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime, I remember witnessing a journalist landing at the Indira Gandhi International airport in Delhi, returning from a trip that was sponsored by a major Russian combat aircraft manufacturer. The Russians were desperate to sell more planes and every scrap of favourable stories was welcome. This particular defence correspondent rushed home to take a shower and then returned to the airport to leave for a trip to the United Kingdom, this time sponsored by a British defence manufacturer. The joke amongst us defence correspondents then was that the “true worth” of a journalist was measured by the number of visas on the passport – trips paid for by some arms manufacturer or the other.

Such sponsored trips for journalists was keenly debated on social media with a prominent former editor claiming that it was all right if the publication or the channel made adequate disclosures.

I couldn’t disagree more. In my book it is never right to accept such trips, for several reasons. It shows that media houses are not keen to fund trips for their defence correspondents, unless an arms company sponsors them. This ensures a very lopsided quality of reporting on national security issues. But what is of greater concern is the compromise on institutional ethics that is a cause for much greater concern. Disclosures become the proverbial fig leaf and foreign trips become tools for the editor to distribute to his/her favourites.

But trips are just one part of the story. Arms companies court journalists for other reasons as well. Once, I arrived at a lunch hosted by an American arms manufacturer, in a fancy hotel in Delhi. They were hosting a bunch of journalists to fathom how the ceasefire between India and Pakistan, declared in November 2003, was shaping up. Obviously, they were concerned that too much of peace could be bad for their profit margins.

But did the journalists really peddle much of an influence, if the disclosures in the AgustaWestland case are to be believed? The answer is highly unlikely. Of course, journalists can and are instruments to peddle influence. A few years ago, a systematic campaign carried out by some media houses ensured a regime change. The incumbent Navy chief resigned and soon after, the officer heading the prestigious Western Naval Command also put in his papers. The reason for the “campaign” carried out by the two newspapers was the spate of accidents that had dogged the Indian Navy that year. However, when accidents continued to occur even after a new Navy Chief had taken over, the hostile reports virtually evaporated.

It will never be known if the “campaign” carried out by the journalists, in some cases using the same paragraphs, on the same day of publication, was a planned move to bring about a regime change. Of course, the media houses weren’t aware that this was happening.

Yet it is also a fact that journalists are nearly inconsequential in the elaborate defence acquisition process. When compared to the influence that politicians, the bureaucracy and the military wield (in that order), journalists can be quite insignificant. Unless, of course, they have agreed to nix a deal. A series of “exposés” before the deal is inked could throw a significant spanner in the works. But chances are if the political leadership is determined to go ahead with a purchase, then nothing will stop it. That is a significant detail that can’t be ignored in any defence purchase.

It has also been argued with some justification that the AgustaWestland case and the allegations against journalists are a means to “bully the media”. There could be some truth to that claim, but this argument missed a fundamental aspect of journalism. The fact is journalists become the intermediary between the governing and the governed because they have credibility. The day that credibility is lost, it will open up journalism to manipulation.

That said, it still doesn’t address the real issue raised by the AgustaWestland allegations – which is, the systematic and deliberate denial of information to journalists. Nearly a decade ago, when the Ministry of Defence was getting ready to sign an Rs 18,700 crore deal, it ensured that information was selectively leaked out to chosen journalists. Anyone who questioned the popular narrative was disbarred from attending press conferences, official releases or even off-the-record briefings. For many defence correspondents, dependent on the office of the spokesperson, this could be disastrous. Most chose to follow the popular narrative, while a tiny minority of correspondents continued to ask the tough questions.

Such incidents show that there is a deliberate attempt to ensure middlemen can influence deals at the bidding of arms companies, politicians, bureaucrats and the military. Greater transparency is a threat to their rent-seeking ways and this cannot be compromised. After spending nearly two decades on the national security beat, I can say this with a reasonable degree of confidence that there is a limited need for secrecy from an operational and national security perspective. Instead, people are secretive because they understand the power it gives them to manipulate the system.

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