Why Indian media can’t laugh at Murdoch’s plight

SANJAY JHA writes from Bombay: Rupert Murdoch, the emperor of media leviathan News Corporation, shuttled on a transatlantic flight over a tumultuous week-end that saw a popular British Sunday tabloid bite the dust, never to rise again.

News of the World (NOTW) was founded prior to the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857, but closed with a 72-hour notice period in tragic infamy on account of startling revelations about its surreptitious hacking of private mails and messages, in a manner both macabre and sleazy.

For Murdoch, the closure was not a generous act to protect the Holy Grail but a calculated trade-off for acquisition of the more alluring BSkyB.

Greed is a driving ambition, often meeting a ruinous end.

It could happen in India too.

Despite much heart-burning and pious pontification, the Press Council of India report on paid news accumulates dust in dark dungeons, like used files. It does manifest our questionable standards, the media’s inability to smother its own insuperable demons.

While we hyperventilate to the world, our own backyard emits a sordid stench. Paid coverage is stealthy advertising, which legitimizes self-promoting campaigns on unsuspecting readers posing as dispassionate reporting. It is indeed an ethical violation of astronomical proportions, but everyone seems nonchalant, blissfully blasé about it.

Dileep Padgaonkar once famously stated that The Times Of India editor was the “second most important man in India”. That was not hubris or a silly exaggeration , it was a near-factual assessment. But today no media big gun can make such lofty claims.

Multiple channels and news publishers have made mass distribution of news our new business reality.

Once I waited every Sunday morning to read Khalid Mohamed’s review of a Bollywood blockbuster. Now several experts miserly dole out glittering stars on Friday itself, even as thousands of faceless bloggers become the new film critic.

It’s literally first day, first show.

Media is now truly democratized; so truly there are no king-makers. With Facebook, Twitter and blogs gathering high-speed on the social networking highway, media activism has also assumed formidable power to influence public opinion, so far considered the sacrosanct preserve of an elite club.

India’s subterranean media revolution is underway.

Media organizations must also frequently take core ideological or strategic positions on sensitive issues, it will enhance their quality. That’s what often distinguishes the print media from television. The snarling watchdog needs to be just that; it can’t have a shrill bark, a toothless bite and lazily snooze when Rome burns, reacting only under extreme provocation.

For instance, last year when Shiv Sena became a quasi-sarkar in threatening to black-out Shah Rukh Khan’s My Name is Khan, the conventional protocol of TV channels of giving both sides a voice was rather superfluous , even preposterous.

Even to a naïve outsider, Shiv Sena was indulging in unlawful transgressions exploiting media platform shamelessly to espouse its parochial claptrap. The worst indictment of the media is when it willingly succumbs to made for TV manufactured events.

Whatever happened to professional discretion?

Aren’t leaked reports also obtained often with at least moral illegality with an in-built clause of quid pro quo?

In a country bedeviled by innumerable scams, a deadly diabolical nexus between criminal elements, political leaders and business-builder behemoths, media is critical. But discharging that onerous responsibility is not a child’s play.

Like WikiLeaks, one foresees alternative mediums to emerge to fill the gaping vacuum created by status quo coverage these days . Investigative journalism has become comatose in a commercially dictated news content age. Something is gone missing.

Are we becoming tabloid-like, allowing any bearded spiritual free-agent, violent wife-beater or a just-released bone chopper to capture India’s attention? Can we then be so self-righteous as to take umbrage under “mere reporting”?

Oh, come on! For all the political faux pas of the government, the media should have used its own grey cells to fathom Baba Ramdev’s bona fides. The modern-media is society’s crucial “ influencer”, not a reseller of titillating tales. Media integrity is a non-negotiable instrument. We need to enforce it.

I hear several grumble ; why does the media never do a comprehensive follow-up to serious unresolved issues instead of chasing the next wife-thrashing maverick promoting his televised marriage? Whatever happened to several disproportionate assets cases against powerful CMs?

Who really covertly leaked the Radia tapes, and why?

How is Lalit Modi “ officially absconding” and purchasing large mansions in downtown London without a valid passport? Whatever happened to the Srikrishna report on the Bombay riots?

Narayan Rane had publicly stated that he was aware of powerful people who knew about 26/11 terrorist attacks—really? If so what happened? Despite singular success stories like Jessica Lal, the CWG and 2G scams, Gujarat riots and several successful petitions, paradoxically enough, media itself is losing the perception battle.

Aamir Khan’s Peepli Live! ridiculed media to atrocious levels but to appreciative applause.

In India, where our daily lives resembles a cacophonous collage of absurd and horrendous tales, news television often degenerates into infotainment category. The truth is that good news is boring.

It’s like breathing. It’s predictable, monotonous, rhythmical, but it is also bloody necessary.

Or else we have the kiss of death.

We are too often celebrating India’s unseen imminent demise, our own pornography of grief. It is time we appreciated that even thorns have roses. At least one channel has begun to share a daily dose of cheer.

Competitive journalism is natural marketing warfare, after all, newspapers and TV channels are not in the charity trade. But intent is pivotal. Phone hacking is unambiguously unethical. Bribery pay-offs of police personnel is contemptible. Killing news to protect favoured parties is equally lamentable.

But isn’t paid news also guilty of disingenuous, distorted presentation of facts?

In the long-run , media houses that practice quintessential consecrated ethical behaviour will survive. Others will flounder.

The editor is media’s conscience-keeper, its guardian angel. They are the ones who must separate the wheat from the chaff, and ensure that the chaff does not get headline attention. But the quarter to quarter pressures of EPS for the publicly listed media companies can result in editorial compromises.

The editors need to be sacrosanct, inaccessible to advertisers and CEO’s business plans, working behind a Chinese wall. Editors should have no employee stock options, and must not be on boards of these companies either; that will eliminate conflict of interest issues.

Instead, they should be compensated by equitable fixed salaries, benefits, bonuses, and given flexibility for research projects, reimbursed higher learning expenses and encouraged to author books and take up teaching assignments.

We need to de-link organizational bottomline numbers with editorial policy.

Editorial independence is a must; they cannot be the brand managers with brains. Also, celebrity editors could do with relative anonymity . Anonymity powers the personal brand. Proximity to suave glib talking industrialists or political power-brokers can be jeopardous as was evident in the Radia tapes.

David Cameron flushes crimson on his selection of the arrested former head of NOTW, Andy Coulson. Tony Blair too is red-faced. And more is still to surface.

Every media company must make public its own independent advisory board with an ombudsman , besides an industry watchdog. Ethical workshops are needed, as young recruits can be susceptible to short-cut methods for quick career windfalls.

Press, public relations , big business and the politicians will have to tread with circumspection as there could be grave overlaps on account of the vested , conflicting interest of each. The unholy nexus is no longer a well-concealed secret. The path is slippery , shaky and serpentine. It is easy to become the news of the world. Very easy.

Good night and good luck!

(Banker turned web entrepreneur, Sanjay Jha is the founder of Cricket Next. This piece originally appeared on the website Hamara Congress)

Image: courtesy Time

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6 Responses to “Why Indian media can’t laugh at Murdoch’s plight”

  1. Objectivist Mantra Says:

    I am glad that finally Churmuri has started a thread on this subject. I was waiting for many days.

    I believe that the Murdoch story is being overhyped. The News of the World did not commit any crime, they committed a misdemeanor. So why are hounding them so much.

    We are living in a “peeping tom” society, where online phones, emails, wifi networks are so easy to hack. Everyone is doing it. Our government believes that it is their birthright to spy on everyone’s conversations.

    people are going after Murdoch’s media empire because he is a Conservative, which in the western lexicon translates into a supporter of free markets, economic reform, and a no nonsense attitude towards law and order.

    The leftist media is determined to destroy Murdoch and they are using this flimsy issue to spread all kinds of canards. The world needs Murdoch’s media empire, more than he needs the world.

    So lets not get conned by the propaganda of leftist outlets like NY Times, BBC, CNN, Guardian etc. These guys are Murdoch’s competitors in the market, so it is their vested interest to spread dirt about him.

    If such a scandal had happened in any leftist outlet,, I am sure we won’t have seen such outrage. People are such fools, they don’t have the sense to see through the propaganda. I am sick of the unjustified tirade against Murdoch.

    Lets not forget, Murdoch started the satellite TV revolution in India. Without his help, NDTV, ZEE and Star TV and few others would not have been possible.

    I am a proud supporter of Murdoch and everything he stands for.

  2. B D Narayankar Says:

    Murdoch episode has its implications for Indian media as a section of it focuses more on TRP ratings & sensationalizing stories they put out

    It’s only by punishing Coulson,who quit the tabloid to become PM Cameron’s aide,will it be clear there is no substitute for clean journalism

  3. Kanchan Gupta Says:

    Interesting read. I would like to make a couple of points:
    1. The quote ‘the editor of The Times of India is the second most important person in the country’ is (often) wrongly attributed to Dileep Padgaonkar. It was Girilal Jain who said it in a context that is best left untold; Dileep Padgaonkar reiterated Giri’s comment in a context which too is best left untold.
    2. If we in print media and readers have reason to worry, it is about ‘private treaties’ that result in publication of plugs as news. In the 1980s we would be warned against converting media (there was no TV then; ok, there was DD) into a Planters’ Raj. Some three dcades later, it is one big, sprawling Planters’ Raj.

  4. Akki Says:

    preachy article without any substance!

  5. twistleton Says:

    how much of Indian media does Murdoch own? everything’s fair in love, war and journalism.

  6. BD Narayankar Says:

    Media becomes a calamity when used selfishly

    TJS George

    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 the media baron. That such an almighty Lord became a whimpering apologist 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 for India.
    Two factors stand out. First, it is dangerous to concentrate too much power in the hands of one person or 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.

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