In the last few weeks there have been three events that should set journalists thinking.

First came the news that the Delhi Police and the Intelligence Bureau had caught lower rung officials of the petroleum ministry smuggling out classified documents at the behest of a few powerful corporate entities.  Among those questioned – some were later arrested – were executives of Reliance Industries, Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group, Essar Group and Cairn India. Also in the police net was a senior journalist who ran a website.  The probe widened to cover the power and defence ministries as well. Corporate espionage suddenly became the buzzword.

Hot on its heels came the sensational revelation, courtesy a whistle-blower, that the  Essar group had  dished out favours to  Union Minister for Road Transport, Highways and Shipping , Nitin Gadkari; former coal minister, Sriprakash Jaiswal; senior Congress leaders Motilal Vora, Digvijaya Singh, and other politicians. The list of beneficiaries included three senior journalists of whom two have resigned and the third has been suspended pending an enquiry.

If this was not enough, came taped evidence made public last week to expose Aam Aadmi Party  leader Yogendra Yadav’s  “anti-party activities”. The phone conversation with Chander Suta Dogra, a senior journalist  then with The Hindu, was secretly recorded on August 19, 2014 by Bhibhav Kumar, now secretary to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.  In it, Dogra was pointedly asked by Bhibhav Kumar about the identity of the source of her off-the-record information that AAP would not contest assembly elections in Haryana.

She said she had been briefed by Yogendra Yadav at a breakfast meeting in Chandigarh that the AAP decision to pull out of the polls was at the insistence of Kejriwal.  Some other journalists were also present at the meeting.

A reliable journalist

One of them has since blogged that he does not recall Yogendra Yadav making any such statement. I am not going to sit in judgement.  Dogra reported to me for nine years in Outlook and I know her to be a conscientious and reliable journalist who would not spin outright lies. Perhaps she was rattled or intimidated by Bhibhav Kumar’s call and had revealed her source. Such things do happen – to fob off a hot-headed and persistent official or a minor party functionary, one does throw in a name. No journalist expects such a casual conversation to be recorded and then produced as evidence, that too six months later.

I recall being badgered by calls from the underworld after I did a story on Dawood Ibrahim’s global network in the late 1990s. After the story appeared in Outlook, some of the don’s henchmen wanted to know the source of the story. I refused to part with names although I said my information came from the Intelligence Bureau, Central Bureau of Investigation, the Mumbai police and the Research and Analysis Wing.  I refused to give names despite veiled threats of dire consequences. Perhaps, I may have given in. But I did not, thanks to some of my colleagues who told me not to pass on the information. One of them even handled the calls on my behalf. But, I believe, our exchanges over long distance, were never recorded.

With sting journalism here to stay, reporters run the risk of being at the receiving end. So, they have to be doubly cautious. With a recording device on, any casual remark can be presented as evidence. I remember my former editor, Vinod Mehta, telling me how politicians aspiring for a ticket would ring him up and ask him to recommend their names to Sonia Gandhi. “I will do the needful,” he would say to cut short such calls. He once jocularly remarked that if someone tapped his phone he would possibly be branded as the greatest ticket fixer in town. He was only joking but in today’s world his conversations would constitute evidence in certain quarters.

Even a decade ago, one wouldn’t expect a politician’s aide to record conversations with a journalist. A reporter in turn would not secretly tape off-the-cuff remarks made by a neta or his flunky. That rule seems to have been broken by Kejriwal’s aide. The fear is that others may take a leaf out of his book.

Corporate espionage

But more than journalists being stung is the possible fallout of the corporate espionage case. The question that looms large is whether the case will encourage the government to closely monitor any information being covertly passed on to the media by officials in key ministries. The authorities cannot be blamed for being on guard given the flow of secret documents to corporate houses and that too through a journalist running a website who was allegedly part of the espionage network.

Will this further narrow the access to the government? Ever since the BJP-led NDA government came to power it has made it sufficiently clear to bureaucrats as well as its ministers to be very careful in passing on information to the media. As a result there have been very few unfavourable stories about the present dispensation. The media target has largely been the loony saffron fringe and MPs who wear their saffron on their sleeves and make obnoxious statements about minorities and women. The only ministry which has attracted a bad press so far has been the HRD ministry and its minister Smiti Irani. Nitin Gadkari has also been in the news for the wrong reasons but more of that later.

As the law stands, most documents, including excerpts from cabinet notes and confidential intra ministerial communication can be classified documents, possession of which could attract provisions under the draconian Official Secrets Act. This provision has so far not been freely exercised although there are indications from the highest echelons of the security apparatus that the government could use it to plug information leaks, including those to the media.

Eliminating paper

According to reports, to stop the leakage of documents the government proposes to put all cabinet notes on Kindle. This will eliminate the use of papers and files. The possibility of documents leaking will thus be reduced since there would be no photocopies to be shared. As far as journalists are concerned, documentary evidence is what most editors today demand as proof for sensitive stories. Either that or audio recordings of quotes – it does not matter if they are off-the-record comments. Minus these, it is believed, such reports would  be normally trashed.

Old fashioned journalism based on carefully cultivated sources is out and has been replaced by document journalism and reporters are often guilty of sourcing documents for their scoops from corporate and political lobbyists and indirectly serving their vested interests. What’s worse the newshound of the old school has been edged out of the race by the “document journos” who are quick in coming back to the office with a sheaf of papers.

Though, much is being made out of the latest corporate espionage case, it is nothing new. In 1998 Dirubhai  Ambani’s residence in Cuffe Parade, Mumbai and offices of Reliance were raided by the Delhi police and the CBI while investigating an underworld related case. During the search and seizure operations a petroleum ministry note marked secret and a clutch of classified documents were recovered from the office of a senior company executive. It made a splash in the media at that point but nothing came of it and the case faded from public memory.

Clash of interest

Emails exchanged between Essar executives made public last week by a whistleblower exposed the links between politicians, journalists and PR men. There is no denying that taking freebies from a corporate entity one reports on is not a virtue. There is an obvious clash of interest. The politicians named, including Nitin Gadkari who went on a holiday to the South of France with family and friends in the company yacht, dug their heels in and said they were not guilty. The three journos who figured in the emails have had to pay the price.  It must be said that they are not the only ones who are guilty of similar if not worse demeanors.

Ever since India opened its economy and big business began booming, a section of journalists have enjoyed the fruits of being aligned to one corporate lobby or the other. One has heard of reporters being on the payroll of business houses. They are the ones who get worked up if a particular story on the business page is not played up. Editors, unfortunately turn a blind eye to this and even play along. As for managements, they cannot be expected to rein in such “hired” journalists when they themselves are guilty of promoting paid news.

It is indeed a vicious circle from which only principled, value-based journalism can offer an escape route. Sting operations and a stack of documents handed over by a lobbyist cannot.