For anyone obsessed with the quality of journalism in democracies, the last two weeks in the British media were fascinating. The famous 168 year old tabloid, ‘News of the World’, run by the News International closed down on 10 July 2011, preceded by an admission of ‘mistakes’ by James Murdoch, the Deputy CEO, and followed by an apology from none other than Rupert Murdoch himself. Taking pride in their ‘commitment to journalism and a free press’, they closed a still successful paper with 2.7 million circulation and retrenched some 200 employees who have not had anything to do with the unfolding events. This, one could say, was an inevitable consequence of their persistent union bashing since the 1980s, which destroyed print unions in the UK and silenced any journalist who would dare to challenge their practices*.
The News International is under the relentless scrutiny of the regulators. Andy Coulson, a former editor of News of the World was arrested, and finally this week, another former editor of the paper, Rebekah Brooks also resigned bowing to intense political and public criticism and has now been arrested as well. This was the fall-out of a phone-hacking scandal, where crime victims’ phones were allegedly hacked into by reporters and the organization allegedly authorised payments to policemen and some families in an effort sometimes to buy information and sometimes to soothe the sense of outrage felt by victims of hacking. Phone-hacking and bribery are believed to be widespread practices among the ‘News of the World’ journalists.
Some 4000 cases of intrusion are believed to include celebrities, politicians and ordinary folk among others. This has been the ‘whatever it takes’ strategy for newsgathering authorised by the bosses (it is believed) to keep the pages sizzling. However, a critic comments that Rebekah refused to carry the MPs’ payments reports because there was not enough sex in it. The scandal has been unraveling under the relentless pursuit of ‘The Guardian’ and the BBC.
From 1969 onwards, the expansion of Mr Murdoch’s news empire across the United States and Great Britain and its ability to propel conservative politics to power has been phenomenal. Alongside this, the success of the news organization in riding rough shod over regulatory bodies and emasculating professional journalism and replacing it with sensationalism has been viral, gathering many admirers on the way. Foxification has become a synonym for sensational, right wing journalism, with Fox News’ twin, Fox TV, peddling sleaze as well.
Media consumers here in India are seeing in the events in Britain a reflection of the changes that have taken place in the ecosystem of news.
When television began to expand in India in the 1990s, the state-run broadcaster Doordarshan was nowhere as confident of its professional worth as BBC has been, thanks to the confused tinkering with policy by the Information and Broadcasting ministry. Between the too-willing regulators in the ministry in league with the aspiring corporates, the news industry has been successfully driven into a quagmire of haphazard growth. By late 90s, the Murdochian model of journalism that took hold internationally was welcomed in India too. Like the self-replicating virus Mr Smith of the movie, The Matrix Reloaded, every other television channel and newspaper in India has modelled itself on the news values of the Murdoch empire.
As is being amply illustrated in the ongoing expose of the empire and its strategies, sleaze in journalism poses multiple threats to the readers/viewers. We all feel it is fun to peek into celebrity affairs, because they are in public life. We also love to trash the personal lives of the politicians because they too are in public life. But to get us our ‘fix’ of news as entertainment, the organizations break the laws, form corrupt and unholy nexus with those who can trade information.
Secondly, every story has to be sexy and personalised to make the target squirm and give us the kick of voyeuristic pleasure. This sexing up is done cleverly. On the one hand, it pretends to provoke moral outrage in us against such behaviour; on the other, it stokes our prurience and gradually naturalises it instead of making us think responsibly about it. Thirdly, once the strategies are set, there is no guarantee that these will be used only against celebrities and politicians and will not be used against you and me. This is precisely what happened in the UK. Phones of dead soldiers’ families and crime victims have been hacked to dish out sensational stories to the public. Intrusion into the private lives of ordinary people can be seen on many of the English and regional language channels in India as well.
Finally, and far more importantly, a corporation like the News International (UK) is a publicly listed company. The reading/viewing public with or without their consent have investments in these corporations (partly also because of faulty state policies that have been pushing for investment of even pension funds in the market). In his attack on the BBC at the MacTaggart speech on 29 August 2009, James Murdoch said, “I know people say 'its (BBC) not the state. Stop saying that.' It is. It's a public institution owned by taxpayers." But then, this is as true of corporations which are essentially running on public money either through investments or through bank finances, all of which ultimately comes from individual incomes. It is ironic then that when the corporations violate individuals’ right to privacy to increase their sales and market power, it is in the interest of the victim-investor to support the corporation if one does not wish to lose one’s life savings invested in such severely discredited corporations. It’s a choice between moral vs financial hara-kiri for the individual. The injury of financial loss will be added to the insult of violation of rights of the individual.
Over the last week, there has been a rapid decline in value of the News Corporation stock as speculation of FBI investigation in USA got added to the investigations already underway in UK. It is to the credit of the British public that they made their displeasure known as consumers by refusing to buy the paper and to the credit of the advertisers who refused to support the enterprise.
Here in India, the response of the consumer is not so well crystallised yet. As for the role of other media houses like the BBC and The Guardian which took on the News Corporation and withstood market pressures without losing their core values, there is hardly any parallel (perhaps with the exception of Outlook and Open magazines) in India. The major media houses and senior journalists in India have closed ranks and kept their silence in the case of paid news, private treaties and Radia-tapes controversies.
In the paid news scandal, some of the biggest media houses are involved, but with the exception of a few edit page articles, major news organizations that are not involved have not really bothered even to insist on the publication of the full report of the ‘Paranjoy Thakurtha report’ (while getting on the bandwagon of Wikileaks, which didn’t reveal much of consequence).
While the Indian consumer is unable to send a message of outrage to the news mandarins, the Indian corporate advertisers too appear to be unaware of their responsibility for the content they are helping disseminate. The same MNCs, which can show solidarity with the public opinion elsewhere, will think nothing of showering the erring media with support here. The Indian Murdochs will not apologise. Nor will the Indian Rebekah Brooks resign. Mr Smith has spread rapidly in Indian media. There are no Neos here to challenge him.
* Barry White, a NUJ London NEC member, in a letter published in The Guardian, 8 July 2011, p 39, ‘Wapping legacy of derecognition’.