Tempers ran high and heated exchanges were witnessed as journalists on Friday debated the issue of media ethics in the background of lobbyist Niira Radia's tapped conversation with leading scribes, published by two weekly magazines.
A suggestion by Editors' Guild President Rajdeep Sardesai that the magazines had violated principles of journalism by publishing raw data and his comment that the journalists concerned were guilty of "professional misjudgement" rather than "professional misconduct" came under attack from media persons gathered in the jam-packed lawns of the Press Club in New Delhi.
"Those who are accused have also done service to journalism. We must take credit that it was media that broke the story and it is because of the persistent efforts of the media persons that A Raja had to finally resign as telecom minister," he said.
Sardesai blasted the two magazines who broke the story for violating basic fundamentals of journalism. "The line between the journalist and the lobbist became blurred. They had erred in judgment and they should have admitted so. But the rot had set in three decades back. Let me tell you that if you believe that journalists could fix cabinet they are sadly mistaken. We have to find out how to curb the tendecy of the corporate houses to use journalists to get the stories planted and editors must ensure that this does not happen because the rot starts from the level of the editors," he stressed.
The basic principle of seeking a reaction of the journalists concerned was ignored which is "shock and awe" and "bad" journalism by the magazines in question, said Sardesai, also editor-in-chief of CNN-IBN.
Sardesai's comments evoked sharp reaction from several journalists, one of whom Poornima Joshi of Mail Today, told him, "I find it absolutely disturbing and disheartening that the president of Editors' Guild is not only condoning but also justifying carrying of messages from a corporate to Congress."
Sardesai said he was not making any such attempts. Among those who participated in the discussion were Outlook Editor-in-Chief Vinod Mehta, Prasar Bharti Chairperson Mrinal Pande, veteran journalist Kuldip Nayyar and Sunil Jain of Financial Express.
Mehta, whose magazine also published part of the transcripts of the tapes, replied to Sardesai saying in major exposes like Watergate and Bofors, response is not taken because evidence in the raw material is "so compelling".
"The journalist is being gullible if he ignores such evidence," he said. On the question of quid pro quo, Mehta said it will be "completely bogus" to believe that the journalist were "stringing on" their source.
"Why will she (Radia) keep on giving information knowing that her instructions were not followed," Mehta asked.
Veteran journalist Kuldip Nayyar took a dig at employment norms adopted by media houses saying Working Journalist Act insulated reporters from pulls and pressures but that is now being circumvented through prevalent contract system which prevents them from speaking their mind.
Prasar Bharti Chairperson Mrinal Pande said cases of language journalists wielding their influence in the appointment of local officials are rampant across the country.
She blamed ownership patterns in media house as one of the reasons for such happenings in media. "In English medium, editors are becoming owners while in other languages owners are becoming editors. The corporatisation of media is making it profit driven which is one of the root causes of such issues," she said.
Sardesai said that there was no proven case of quid pro quo by the journalists who conversed with Radia regarding cabinet formation in UPA-II.
Sardesai said he was talking about bigger question of how corporates have managed to subvert the system and growing proximity between journalists, corporates and politicians.
Neena Vyas of The Hindu cited an incident where a senior BJP leader had asked her to be soft on him in her coverage in exchange for information on happenings in the party.
She also said some senior leaders were using their stakes in television channels to settle their political scores.
"I did not ring him up again," she said adding that tapping that source would have made her life easy but she chose the hard way to get news.
The debate was organised by Editors' Guild, The Press Association, Indian Womens' Press Corps and Press Club of India.
Sunil Jain of Financial Express said the best way of curbing such tendencies among journalists is to "name and shame" them than discussing questions of ethics.
"You need to use your sources and not let the sources use you. These are the first lessons one gets in a journalism school," said Mehta towards the end.
Referring to the defence of one of the journalists justifying her conversations with Radia, he said the claim that political journalists have a special mandate and responsibility compared to "travel journalists", was ridiculous.
He said he did not agree with the suggestion that the episode involved complex and delicate issues saying these were simple and even a beginner in journalism will know that these violated basic tenets of the profession.
With inputs from PTI