In conversation with phone tappers

I was a cub reporter in the mid-to-late Eighties when I learnt my first – and most enduring – lesson on telephone conversations.

It was the era before mobile telephones and I was living in a working women’s hostel in those days. I did not have a telephone line to my name but I used to be on one of the two telephones my aunt had all the time. My aunt was socially pretty well-connected and a lot of colourful people passed through her Drawing Room in those days.

Among those I met at her place was her niece’s `boy-friend’, an American, posted at their consulate in Bombay. One evening I had to call it a night pretty early and as I left her dinner party, he asked me, “Where are you off to?’’

“I have to leave early morning. Am on assignment.’’

He easily extracted the information from me – that I was off to visit the jungles of Andhra Pradesh for a tryst with Naxalites.

He remembered I usually spent the weekends with my aunt and the moment I was back, he called me at her place. He wanted to know all about my jungle safari. Now, the only reason why I didn’t tell him was because I was working for a news agency at the time. My aunt knew a lot more journalists who she invited regularly to her place and I was afraid that he would spill the beans to one of them and they might scoop me out on my story – the wire services teach us to be close-mouthed about our reports until they are actually on the wires. And that’s all that I was doing.

The American then began to cajole me into parting with more information. He told me he had been a stringer before joining the diplomatic service, shared anecdotes from his journalistic days with me – clearly he expected me to do likewise. But I continued to be close-mouthed and after almost an hour-long telephone conversation, there was little that the man could get out of my interaction with Naxalites.

Boy, was I glad I hadn’t said anything to him! For, a few days later, an Intelligence Officer related to my aunt walked into her home — with a stern warning for me.

“Do not develop a friendship with the man,‘’ he said. “Otherwise you will get a file opened on yourself a mile long — like we have on … (he named my aunt’s niece).’’

“You are tapping my phones!’’ said my outraged aunt.

“No. Not yours. His. And any one in conversation with him gets automatically recorded.’’

The man said he was breaching protocol by warning me. “But I noticed that there was only much innocent prattle on your side though he tried hard. Keep it that way. Do not tell him anything. Better still, cut him off.’’

He was pretty brutal about some things: he told my aunt that the only reason the American had befriended her niece (not me, his girlfriend) was because she was a social butterfly and could take him places. Places, that is, where he could meet exactly the kind of people he needed to without attracting attention – like my aunt’s Drawing Room frequented by politicians, journalists, businessmen and even some Bollywood types.

“Why does he want to know about Naxalites? How does that help him in giving visas? And why should he be asking you out to a coffee? He is not attracted to you, only to the information that you possess as a journalist – he’s not interested in what you write and put into the public domain, he can read the papers for that and doesn’t have to treat you to a coffee. He’s tapping you for off-the record information and hoping you would let out classified stuff that he won’t get hold of so easily,’’ he told me.

And to my aunt, the Intelligence Officer said, “Why does he want you to take him to a Durga Pooja celebration? That is a public event and he does need you to accompany him. But you are a conduit to the bureaucrats among your friends who attend those celebrations and an introduction from you as his friend is the best means of lulling them into a false sense of security.’’

Both my aunt and I were horrified. Of course, she dropped the American like a hot potato; I was not available for his calls after that and my aunt banned her niece from her home as long as she was a friend of that American.

That episode has fashioned me into what I am today – very cautious about parting with sensitive information to anyone I don’t know, keeping certain facts close to my chest, never talking about a potential story to anyone but my editors until the pages are rolling on the machine. But the most important lesson I learnt was never to be indiscreet on the telephone and never say anything that could be pulled out of context and used against me and my friends.

Some years later, I was glad that I had developed that natural caution (its almost second nature to me now) when I sourced a top cop in Bombay. I was working on a follow-up of the Hansie Cronje tapes in the late Nineties in the wake of the cricket match-fixing scam. He had a wealth of information and shared with me transcripts of conversations of a host of cricketers including iconic Indian ones in communication with various dons.

“How and why were you tapping their telephones?’’ I asked him.

“We were not tapping their phones. We were tapping those of the criminals. The cricketers got caught in the net by chance.’’

That brought a sense of déjà vu to me from my rookie years and reinforced my caution about telephone conversations.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that most of my phone conversations over the years are so much inanities, I wonder — if I were ever important enough to be tapped — what indiscretions might be on those tapes. Because, despite my natural caution, I cannot say I have never been garrulous, or never bitched about friends or family (sibling rivalry, exposed, can be very embarrassing!) or never indulged in salacious gossip about friends, fellow journalists, politicians and other sources.

It is like The Economist said over the Wikileaks last week: “What you tell your boss about anything can be entirely different from what you to tell your spouse about the same issue.’’

And if either of them got to know what you told the other, it could be pretty damaging and destroy relationships. But – and this is my interpretation — what you told your boss could be as correct as what you told your spouse. It depends on which side of the prism you are looking through. So context is very important to get things right.

Now the Niira Radia tapes have taught me another lesson: even comparatively innocent prattle – like mine all those years ago — can be pulled out of context and made to sound so falsely ominous!

But does that mean we should stop talking?

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