There have been fixers and lobbyists before. Few have had such touching faith in manipulating the media to achieve their ends. Will the government really view things differently because of something Vir Sanghvi writes in his Counterpoint column? Do his 'dressed up' arguments really help shape the policy that is being formulated? Or do they influence policy because they shape public opinion?
How much does the way a headline is written matter? Do Niira Radia's men need to worry so much about why the Economic Times news desk in Delhi did not headline a story as helpfully as the Bombay edition did?
Or work so hard to get a Hindi newspaper reporter to ask a senior superintendent of police in Jammu a question that will show Anil Ambani's company RCom in a bad light?
Does the country's richest man need to invest (albeit with a friend fronting it) in a news channel that is too new to count?
And if you are Nita Ambani do you really need to worry so much about what Society magazine may write about you?
Given how high the stakes are in the Ambani vs Ambani war, the answer could well be yes to all of the above. Or at least Niira Radia needs to believe it is, as she tirelessly works the telephone. The importance she attaches to the media is the only flattering aspect of how the fourth estate comes off in the latest tranche of Radia tapes that Outlook is dishing out, bit by bit. Because the image of the media as an institution just got a battering that it will take time to recover from.
The denials have already begun to come in, but the picture is as follows. This hard working lady has Vir Sanghvi, no less, reporting to her, as was suspected before. (Sanghvi reiterated to the Hindu, Dec. 13, that he was stringing her along.)She has Barkha Dutt, no less, ensuring that someone in the Congress party does something obliging, as was suggested before. (Denied afresh by Dutt, in the Hindu, Dec. 13). She decides what questions journalists ask her clients. If they do not oblige she withdraws the interview and gives it to a rival publication. She tries to influence the positioning of headlines in the next morning's newspapers. If it does not work, she darkly believes that 'they' have bought some influence at the desk of India's leading business daily. By now we all know who 'they' is. She tries to get the newsagency PTI blacklisted by Mukesh Ambani. And she works at getting a bureaucrat to give an interview that will go against Praful Patel, a minister she has a problem with because he denied her permission to start an airline.
The new tapes offer conclusive proof that Mr MDA does indeed have rather a lot to do with INX, its news channel NewsX, and its editorial head Jehangir Pocha. And that Pocha in turn has rather a lot to do with Radia. In the last batch of tapes he was heard greeting her with a 'miaow!' but there was not enough evidence there of an Ambani investment in the channel he heads. One gossipy conversation in which Pocha says many libelous things about Anil Ambani was uploaded on the Outlook site after 8 pm on November 12 and then pulled off rather quickly. When Radia says 'we' in the context of the acquisition of the INX one is presuming she is referring to Reliance, and not Vaishnavi, her own company. There is much talk of transferring creditors, paying them off, etc. In the first lot of tapes too, there were references to telling 'Jehangir' to go and meet MDA.
Is there any media house that one Ambani or the other has not bought influence in? Nita Ambani is unhappy about an interview that Society magazine has done with her, and it transpires that Nari Hira, its owner has a 'financial relationship' with Tina Ambani. Its not enough to offer Society advertising, Radia tells a colleague. 'Are we prepared to engage with Society in a different manner?' There is a passing reference in that conversation to Mid-day as being 'totally under control.'
In one of the minor revelations she and her colleagues at Vaishnavi Communciations are heard to take a dim view of Shobha De whom she believes would be dumped by the Times of India as a columnist if it were not for 'contractual issues' and the 'Vineet factor'. Vineet Jain is the younger of the proprietor brothers who own the paper. More pertinently, Shobha is not a good person to interview Nita A (or NDA) because she is competing with her, says Radia indignantly.
And in a final, telling little snipe we learn that while Nita Ambani believes that the publicity she has got in Bombay Times was genuine coverage, the truth is that it was paid for.