The Leveson hearings into the ethics, practices, and British media’s relationship to the country’s politics have so far been cathartic. Rupert Murdoch and James Murdoch, the father and son team that has run the News International and News Corporation affairs, had to finally answer for every action they had taken over the last four decades.
The inquiry itself, so far, has progressed with clinical objectivity. The amount of background research that is backing the cross-examination is remarkable. Whatever the outcome of the exercise, the process is exemplary. The line of questioning is methodical and done with an intention to get at the truth under oath, which till now was buried under quick denials, public rebukes meted out to the editors when in a tight corner, peddling sleaze while paradoxically occupying a moral high-ground about “public interest”.
Should this episode in British media history say something to us in India?
First, let us look at the similarities. The News Corporation is one of the biggest in the business. It is now emerging that its growth, at least partially, is attributable to unethical professional practices and unholy political nexuses with conservative politicians across the globe. The market leader, instead of setting benchmarks for conduct was revelling in its clout in the market place and was also breaking laws with impunity.
What were the laws broken? Bribing public officials, including the police top brass, to get personal information of individuals, unauthorised phone tapping, wining/dining/influence peddling with the political who’s who to develop a nexus of interest that facilitates market domination and to literally control the political fortunes of nations. However, the News Corporation was spending heavily to get access and news. There are so far no instances of anyone bribing the journalists to manage news. It was the journalists who were doing the bribing.
In India, in the “paid news” affair, again it was the market leaders who have been named as the major violators. The news organisations also could put pressure on the Press Council of India (PCI) to prevent publication of the Thakurtha-Reddy report and to keep their names out of public knowledge.
What was the crime? Some major newspapers and journalists were either offering package deals for coverage or taking individual payments to ensure favourable coverage during elections. The PCI-sponsored report on paid news estimates that the unrecorded money earned this way could run into several hundred crores. The newspaper giants involved were earning big illegal bucks for providing favourable coverage. Neither the tax departments nor any other investigative body in India has been asked to look into this affair where there was a secular openness and willingness to accept payments from anyone who is willing and to promote the payers’ cause for the money taken. It is the same newspapers that lose no opportunity to hold forth editorially on democracy and criminalisation of politics.
But then, is this a debate on the merits and demerits of spending vs earning?
This debate is on the pervasive corruption in media practices in India that are no longer seen as corrupt practices. For instance, the television channels routinely showcase movies and movie stars just before a major release, host special talk shows on the theme of the film, and expect us to believe that the show is being done pro bono in public interest. There never is a disclosure about the status of the programme. Is the hour-long discussion paid for or is it gratis?
The other take-home is the courage and perseverance of some media houses such as the BBC and The Guardian in cracking open the nexus of corruption and influence-peddling that was spreading wide in British media. In India, so far we have not seen any knights in shining armour coming to the rescue of the beleaguered Maid Media. It is interesting to see the omerta that prevails among the media houses about the affairs of their peers.
We have seen how the professional bodies dealt with the Radia tapes case. Last week, when the Bofors case reopened via Chitra Subrahmaniam’s interview with Sten Lindstrom carried on The Hoot, there was a spate of discussion programmes on English news channels. In one of the channels, when Chitra mentioned her former employer, a major newspaper, there was a stunned silence from an otherwise peppy anchor. There were no follow-up questions, only a hesitant offer to Chitra to add to what she has said. She let that pass.
The pattern is pretty much the same with other major issues concerning the conduct of other media houses. No one is willing to cast any “stones” apparently because all perceive themselves to be living in glasshouses. When a media baron is on the verge of being arrested, a lightening phone call would go to all the media houses and the story is killed and the arrest managed. When a CBI charge sheet is filed on a media house, it is buried deep under the spike, even as CBI charge sheets against all and sundry are dissected and individuals are tried and convicted in ten-minute studio discussions.
Well then, are we unhappy that our media houses are grubbing money and not primarily chasing power instead? Is spending better than earning? Since there is no real answer to this ethical dilemma in India, one would like to exit with a fond possibility: Murdoch and his offspring may be praying that they be born in India in their “agle janam”!