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The Murdoch crisis and lessons for India's media

July 22, 2011 18:38 IST

Much of India's big corporate media has acquired a conservative and retrograde character. It faces a serious crisis of credibility. If it does not reform itself, it will find its greatest asset getting rapidly devalued and eventually vanishing, says Praful Bidwai.

What began as a limited crisis in one publication of the Rupert Murdoch media group in Britain, the now-closed News of the World, has grown into a tempest which threatens the world's greatest media empire and could politically singe Prime Minister David Cameron. The 10 arrests made so far -- including that of News International CEO Rebekah Brooks, and Les Hinton, who headed Dow Jones, the business information agency which also runs The Wall Street Journal -- and the resignation of the London metropolitan police commissioner, have thrown British society into turmoil.

The Murdoch-owned News Corporation, which also publishes The Times, was shaken by allegations that News of the World, paid the police for information and hacked into the voicemail accounts of a large number of people, including celebrities, and more deplorably, people whose relatives had suffered grave personal tragedies or died in war. The British public was outraged at this horrible invasion of privacy and dirty attempt to create sensation out of personal calamities.

The scandal's ramifications soon widened. Andy Coulson, the NOTW editor responsible for the hacking, who resigned from the paper after the scandal broke out and was employed by Cameron as his communications chief, was arrested. A former deputy editor of the tabloid, Neil Wallis, hired by Scotland Yard as public relations adviser, was also arrested for his involvement in hacking voicemail. Scotland Yard chief Paul Stephenson resigned for hiring him in 2009 and for having accepted free hospitality worth £12,000 from a luxury spa for which he acted as an adviser.

While resigning, Stephenson took a potshot at Cameron by saying: "Unlike Coulson, Wallis had not resigned from NOTW, or to the best of my knowledge, been in any way associated with the original phone-hacking investigation." This has put Cameron on the mat and highlighted the "different rules" (in plain English, double standards) being applied to the prime minister's office and the metropolitan police.

Cameron is already on the defensive because of his proximity to both Brooks and Coulson. His social meetings with Brooks last December were among 26 recent interactions between him and Murdoch's executives. Stephenson's resignation was widely seen as an honourable act. But Cameron's reputation has been dented somewhat especially after as-yet-unsubstantiated allegations that Brooks had lobbied him to appoint Coulson as the Conservatives' director of communications, even though he had resigned as NOTW editor.

Cameron's image will be further damaged if he is seen to have dodgy friends who engage in unethical or illegal activity. The Cameron group stands shaken and fears that more damaging allegations could emerge with a public inquiry into the scandal.

The crisis has moved to the top of the Murdoch empire too. Brooks is no ordinary figure. Murdoch trusts her completely and relies on her. He treats her as a loyal friend with whom he can go sailing and swimming. Brooks was the NOTW editor in 2000-2003. Journalists who worked under her describe the work as "an industrialised operation of dubious information-gathering, [with] reporters under intense pressure attempting to land exclusive stories by whatever means necessary, and a culture of fear, cynicism … and fierce internal competition".

A former reporter says: "We used to talk to career criminals all the time. They were our sources. It was a macho thing: 'My contact is scummier than your contact.' It was a case of: 'Mine's a murderer!'"

This is part of the culture on which Mr Murdoch has founded his global empire with a turnover of $32.8 billion (about Rs 145,960 crore). The culture is integral to the process of Murdochisation which has three components. First, the complete subsumption and subordination of the editorial process under the management, and total loss of editorial independence. Murdoch has no use for fanciful concepts like freedom of expression or editorial judgment. People who have worked for him say that he cannot distinguish between ownership and constant day-to-day, headline-to-headline interference in the working of his publications.

A second ingredient of "Murdochisation" is complete contempt for truthfulness and honesty. As a commentator points out: "Murdoch thought it was a great idea to publish Hitler's diaries, though he had been warned they were phony; when the hoax was exposed he shrugged it off, saying, 'After all, we are in the entertainment business'." One of his papers carried on a "cruelly irresponsible anti-science" campaign, questioning the very existence of an AIDS epidemic in Africa.

Murdoch has no use for things like taste or morality. His practice of censorship would embarrass even dictators. His Star TV once beamed to China BBC broadcasts highly critical of corruption there. He pompously claimed that satellite TV posed "an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere". But Chinese leaders didn't want the BBC programme. So Mr Murdoch simply reoriented the satellite and killed all BBC broadcasts beamed to China!

Third, "Murdochisation" involves political lobbying and influence-peddling, with blatant market manipulation through anti-competition practices, such as pricing one's publications below its cost to capture the market. Murdoch has shamelessly paid money to political leaders, transforming the notion of what is acceptable in news-gathering.

Like Murdoch's brash style, the distinguishing feature of News Corporation is pure aggression. As a not-too-critical Economist puts it: It "combines the heft of a big company with the scrappiness of a start-up", and believes "competitors are to be crushed". News America, another News Corp subsidiary, is a good example of the methods Murdoch executives use to inspire their staff.

News America has been headed by Paul Carlucci, who, according to Forbes magazine, used to show the sales staff the scene in The Untouchables in which Al Capone beats a man to death with a baseball bat. Carlucci continues to lead News America. News America Marketing recently spent $655 million to suppress embarrassing charges of corporate espionage and anti-competitive behaviour.

Murdochisation, regrettably, has become a worldwide phenomenon and afflicted newspapers, magazines and TV channels in India. The only difference is that the Murdochisation here is without Murdoch. But many of our major media groups practise the model. They obliterate the distinction between the editorial and business functions of newspapers. They dumb down editorial content to frivolous and trivial tittle-tattle, and play down news or views which are relevant to understanding this society and the world.

So long as news is titillating, it should be sold.

If it cannot be sold by normal means, use predatory pricing to drive out the competition. Selling newspapers for Rs 2, which cost Rs 10 to produce, is the preferred tactic of many media conglomerates which have dozens of editions and deep pockets. They are less interested in professional journalists than in shopkeepers who double as reporters, and offer deals on cooking utensils to their subscribers.

Much of our media is no longer geared to report on the reality of Indian society or inform the public on the socio-economic and political processes at work, including shifts in the balance of power between different groups -- leave alone promote comprehension of the complex dynamics that are shaping decision-making structures and India's changing relations with the rest of the world.

The mainstream paradigm in the Indian media, with a few honourable exceptions, is shockingly insensitive to the real concerns of flesh-and-blood people, especially the poor and underprivileged. Its principal -- and matter-of-factly stated -- aim is to "pump sunshine" into the life of the consumerist elite.

There is a major lesson for the Indian media in the crisis besetting the Murdoch empire. Murdochisation will not work, and cannot succeed commercially, beyond a point. It won't be a surprise if News Corp is subjected in Britain to restrictions on its news-gathering and business practices. Ultimately, Murdochisation will be damaged irreparably by its crisis of credibility. There is simply no substitute for the basic values of journalism -- truthfulness, accuracy and relevance in reporting pluralism in the expression of views, and functioning with a sense of social responsibility.

In the British case, the exposure of News Corporation's serious wrongdoing was driven strongly by public outrage and revulsion at NOTW's involvement in sleaze. In India, middle-class conscience has not been outraged enough by the illegitimate interaction between corporate interests, mainstream politics and journalists, exposed in the Radia tapes. Most of the journalists implicated in that episode have had to pay a very low price for their power-broking activities.

Much of India's big corporate media has acquired a conservative and retrograde character. It faces a serious crisis of credibility. If it does not reform itself, it will find its greatest asset getting rapidly devalued and eventually vanishing. Robbed of authenticity, reliability and credibility, the media will no longer matter to large numbers of people except as a source of cheap entertainment.

Journalism will then cease to be all that makes it worthy and socially relevant: an honest, investigative, analytical, public-oriented and ethical enterprise. That would be a grave tragedy and a terrible disservice to democracy.

Praful Bidwai