Monday, July 25, 2011

Media becomes a calamity when it's used as a means to achieve private ends

Rupert Murdoch is a terror before whom successive British prime ministers have bowed. Tony Blair flew all the way to Australia in 1997 to propitiate him. David Cameron's current prime ministership is under pressure because of his cosiness with him. That such an almighty Lord became a whimpering apologiser before British MPs, with his close associates in jail, would have been unbelievable if the world had not seen it with its own eyes.

This is not merely a matter of the world's most powerful media empire coming to grief. It is also a matter of the world's greatest force for good, the media, being turned into a force of evil – and the world's need to confront and overcome that calamity. This is where the Murdoch tragedy has a clear message to India.

Two factors stand out. First, it is dangerous to concentrate too much power in the hands of one person or one company. Such concentration would make the person or company think that they are above the law and above common morality. That was what made William Randolph Hearst decide that he must organise the Spanish-American war to boost the circulation of his paper. When his man in Cuba cabled that there was no war, Hearst is said to have cabled back: “You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war”.

The second factor is that in the media business growth and competition do not lead to product improvement. If you want to make a mark in the washing powder business, you develop a better washing powder. If you want to win supremacy in the print/TV business, you develop gimmicks; start a war, or manipulate circulation/TRP figures, embrace Page 3 cheesecake sex, dethrone journalists and enthrone business managers.

Those issues hardly engaged the attention of India's instant pundits discussing Murdoch's downfall. They seemed content with the argument that criminalities like phone-tapping were not the Indian way.

So, is the Indian way better? Is publishing paid news without letting the reader know that it is paid for the better way? Is it better to enter into “private treaties” that make newspapers manage the news in favour of their corporate treaty partners – again keeping the reader in the dark? Is it preferable for a media baron to gain undue business advantages by misusing his minister brother's political power?

The Indian way may be different from the Murdoch way but it is just as despicable. Both break the fundamental tenets of journalism. Both use the media as a means to achieve private ends, Murdoch's end being influence and Indian Murdochs's end being money.

Journalism has a higher responsibility compared to other businesses. The reason is that journalism , for example, can incite violence in a way that washing powder makers cannot. The biggest scandal in Indian journalism is that we have owners who publicly proclaim that the only responsibility of a newspaper company is to make profit for its shareholders. Murdochism never went that low.

There is another area where the Indian reality is different. As soon as the scandal broke in Britain, the systems there went into action. Top people were arrested and top police officials resigned as they were implicated in corruption. Police investigations got under way. A judicial inquiry was ordered, the Prime Minister insisting that all aspects of politician-media-police links should be investigated.We can reasonably expect that meaningful regulatory systems will now be put in place along with tighter codes of conduct.

In our country, the worst of scandals produce action only when the judiciary or the channels force the Government to do so. Even then it's sluggish. Obviously we have people at the top who have much to hide. And we have desi Murdochs who have blithely eliminate the institution of editor and turns news into a profit-oriented product handled by marketing whizkids. If Rupert Murdoch wants to start life all over again, he should come to India.