Indian Media & Murdoch Phenomena
Our media as an institution is in the business of raking in money rather than handing it out for stories. And our politicians do not hold the media to account here. They accept that it is always supposed to be the other way around. SEVANTI NINAN on the take away for India from the Murdoch story
What is the take away for us, the Indian press and our TV channels keep asking, as they stay riveted to the unspooling of the Murdoch empire’s crimes of commission. There are facetious replies to that as well as serious ones.
First, it is unlikely to happen here because our media as an institution is in the business of raking in money rather than handing it out for stories. The hacking on a industrial scale also involved bribing or payouts on the same scale, and which of our tight fisted proprietors would authorize that? Or sanction humongous enough budgets to make it possible?
Whether it is paid news, or succumbing to the corporate blandishments of a Niira Radia, the wrongdoing is likely to be about charging or accepting, not spending. And if indeed one of our tabloids or broadloids or muckracking TV channels were to use money to get a story, perhaps by doing a sting operation, it would be small scale and finite, not such an accepted regular practice that it can get up to involving 12,000 victims. Even if we are a bigger country with a billion plus people. We are not necessarily more ethical, but more economical in our transgressions. Swashbuckling crime does not have a flourishing practice here.
Second, there is the matter of an audience with a professed appetite for tabloid fare. Difficult to imagine too many commuters sitting on metros, or on commuter trains in Mumbai openly devouring lurid stuff. As a nation we are more likely to do it surreptitiously. Such celebrity gossip as gets peddled daily is tucked into a supplement section called Page 3, rather than in the main paper on page one. So is there money to be made by investing in a culture of getting tabloid stories, no matter what it takes and what it costs? Not really. Indians would rather be seen reading more staid papers.
What else would not happen here? A parliamentary committee pursuing an investigation against media practices at all, and that too over eight years. That’s dogged. Any time Parliament has summoned and questioned journalists here, it has been a kid gloves operation. Parliament summoning newspaper proprietors to explain any kind of media behavior? Not really heard of. The only time a proprietor got into trouble with the government and fled the country to escape conviction, was for violation of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act. It was an economic offence, not a media related offence. Years later another proprietor in Andhra Pradesh got into trouble for alleged financial wrong doing. It was whipped up into a press freedom issue.
A TV channel head may have been summoned, in the case of the cash for votes scam. But that’s about it. Members of parliament inquiring into the media’s ethics in an institutional way? Unlikely. Were any of the star journalists who figured in the Radia episode summoned to explain their own behaviour? Nope. Bottom line: politicians do not hold the media to account here. They accept that it is always supposed to be the other way around. The most that will happen is that a Manish Tiwari will snarl back, but his bark will be worse than his bite.
Exceptions? Mayawati in UP and Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu, neither of whom feels even faintly intimidated by the media as an institution. The latter memorably presided over a legislature which issued arrest warrants to editors and others at the Hindu, for breach of privilege. The warrants were not executed. The Supreme Court stayed them. This was in 2003, the same year a British parliamentary committee was doing its enquiry into the News of the World’s practices.
A select committee of Parliament asks for a proprietor (and no ordinary proprietor either) to appear before it for questioning, and the system ensures that their marked reluctance is countered with a threat of arrest. So they show up for a televised hearing. Their prime minister friend does not save them from the embarrassment. Most unlikely scenario. The system in our land would allow a powerful proprietor to get away from such embarrassment. A minister here has had to resign on the grounds of misusing his office to help his brother who owns a media empire. Are we going to see the media owner brother (whose personal worth is ten percent of the worth of Rupert Murdoch’s empire in terms of billions of dollars) answer any questions from a Parliamentary committee?
If we ever do, it will mean India is changing.
There is an inquiry by a committee of the British Parliament, the members have done their homework, and are both polite and incisive, the father and son owners of the world’s largest media empire answer their questions. Its obvious that they fudging about what they knew when. Its over in three hours, except for a shaving foam episode. And a springing tigress wife. No pointless haranguing, no interruptions. No adjournments. The principle of accountability to lawmakers has been rather civilly demonstrated. As has the culpability of the media owners who were once powerful enough to repeatedly influence the country’s elections. The takeaway is that just as the breath of transgression is unlikely here, so is the demonstration of accountability to the system.
There is a scandal involving a media house, it is broken by another media house, it grows into a huge unfolding scandal, relentlessly pursued by journalists within the country and several across the Atlantic. Happen here? Recall the Radia episode, and the initial polite silence in the rest of the media. Recall the very recent Dayanidhi Maran investigation and the links to Sun TV supposedly established by the CBI. Do you see hordes of media relentlessly pursuing the story?
But its nice to end this on a positive note. Rupert Murdoch’s empire may be very large, but an analysis shows that the nature of its recent acquisitions and disinvestments demonstrate both mismanagement and nepotism. The company’s shares have been underperforming for years, return on capital employed is poor, and criminal activity has taken place under the head of the company’s watch. Yet he is not fired. Because Newscorp has two classes of shareholders, only one of which has voting rights. The Murdochs own just 13 per cent of the company’s share capital, but they control the company because they have voting rights. And they invest other non-voting shareholders’ money in questionable ways because they control the company.
Happen here? Indian law does not allow such shareholding.