The Barkha Dutt-Manu Joseph Smackdown
Last night, NDTV hosted a special edition of The Buck Stops Here, turning the tables on host and group editor Barkha Dutt. A panel of male journalists—Open magazine’s editor Manu Joseph, and senior journalits Swapan Dasgupta, Sanjaya Baru and Dilip Padgoankar (Outlook editor Vinod Mehta declined to be part of the panel)—got to interrogate the visibly agitated Dutt, who looked like she wanted nothing more than to lunge across the table and sock Joseph in the face. The 47-minute uninterrupted, unedited segment about the fallout of the leaked 2G tapes was possibly the most entertaining thing we’ve seen in journalism in a while. Here a breakdown of what happened:
The Issue NDTV Thought This Was About
Poor Sonia Singh. As host, the managing editor of NDTV had to have known that pitting Dutt against her detractors in public would be a tad uncomfortable. But even she couldn’t have guessed quite how many times her panel would descend into a shouty, blathering mess. The rest of the panellists were merely icing on an already quite nutty cake, with the good stuff coming courtesy of Dutt and Joseph who spent most of the segment taking snide pot shots at each other. To recap, Joseph ran a cover story on the scandal, where among other things it was suggested that Dutt acted as a mediator between political parties and somehow also championed the appointment of A.Raja as Telecom minister. The putative issue, then, and the reason for this panel being assembled, was to consider whether Dutt had crossed the line by talking to lobbyist Niira Radia in the manner she had. In reality, this was NDTV’s cleverly staged version of a Spanish Inquisition, ingeniously angled to show that by throwing Dutt to the wolves, they had a) nothing to hide and b) were the only media outlet brave enough to tackle the issue head on.
The Issue Dutt Thought This Was About
Dutt, who seemed deeply incensed to be asked to defend herself to the all-male panel she later called misogynistic, went on the offensive almost immediately, neatly sidestepping journalist Padgaonkar’s first question about whether she had crossed an ethical line, and launching into a heated defence of her reputation. “In 16 years of my career, no one has cast doubt on my reputation,” she said. “And then two magazines come along and do so with impunity.” Dutt was the very model of passive aggression, making it abundantly clear that she thought Open and Outlook (whom, peculiarly she refused to name, calling it just “one magazine”) the journalistic equivalent of toilet paper. Her main contention seemed to be that both magazines used raw, unedited material without verifying it or calling to get her side of the story. Dutt said she texted Joseph when the story first broke, saying it sounded like a smear campaign, to which Joseph responded by assuring her that she had nothing to worry about as the tapes contained nothing embarrassing about her. Several times, the panel tried to get Dutt to admit she made a mistake, but the closest they got was a terse admission that she had made an error in judgement talking so freely to someone (Radia) she didn’t know very well. Everything else, Dutt maintained—namely her coverage of the cabinet shuffle—was done within the bounds of journalistic ethics.
The Issue That Joseph Thought This Was About
We have one suggestion for Joseph: stick to print. On television, he appeared incoherent and a little silly when he asked Dutt why she didn’t think that a corporate lobbyist mediating between two political parties was a story worth writing about. A valid question, but one that loses heft when it becomes the main thread of a seemingly vaster and more important story about media ethics. Dutt answered his question by saying she didn’t think it was much of a story, and that it was her judgement call to make. Either Joseph was mentally prepping for his next attack or zoning out because he spent the rest of the show heckling Dutt about not answering the question. For a man who wrote an impassioned op-ed about his decision to run the tapes and why he didn’t contact Dutt for her side (which, incidentally, he did not explain on air), Joseph seemed weirdly fixated by the most minor aspect of the whole issue. In the end, he finally admitted that all journalists have motives, and that he put Dutt on the cover to sell more issues.
What The Other Panellists Thought This Was About
Bless their old-school hearts, but it didn’t really seem to matter. Dasgupta wanted to know why Radia had chosen Dutt specifically (a weird question given the fact that Radia had spoken to more than a dozen journalists). Padgaonkar thought Dutt should distance herself from those in power, while Baru thought she should apologise to her viewers. Like we said, this was the Dutt and Joseph show, and rest were just there to pad out the panel.
Did It Work?
Partly. In so far that it showed NDTV to be the only media organisation serious about addressing the accusations in public, it probably did (even if Dutt at one point, a tad ludicrously, claimed that NDTV would never have aired the raw tapes had they gotten hold of them). Dutt also partly exonerated herself when she wasn’t getting huffy about having her integrity questioned by two magazines whom she clearly seemed to detest. You wanted to believe her when she said she had never heard of Radia before she called her, and that she really was just playing to get more information, but the methods and means still seemed dubious. Dutt ended the segment by saying that she should not be called upon to answer for every journalist, and we’d be apt to agree. What do you think? Believable or a bunch of hooey? Watch the show here, and tell us in the comments section.