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Politicians often attempt to threaten press into silence

In any democracy the Press should be subject to the law but not to any power held by elected politicians. Wouldn’t such powers curtail the ability of the press to investigate and expose the crimes and the conduct of politicians? Farrukh Dhondy writes.

columns Updated: Apr 25, 2014 02:21 IST

The resignation of Maria Miller, minister for culture, arts and media, from the British government raises several Indian parallels and caveats.

Miller, a crony of David Cameron, was exposed by the Daily Telegraph as having fiddled her parliamentary expenses. Westminster MPs are allowed an allowance for a second home in London so they can conveniently attend Parliament. The British taxpayer foots the bill for the acquisition and maintenance of such a ‘home’. Miller acquired a property in London in which she housed her aged parents. Over the years she claimed, in mortgage payments from the State, a sum just short of £50,000. She then sold the house for over a million pounds and kept the money.

Following the Daily Telegraph’s exposure of what some would call deliberate cheating if not fraud, a committee of investigation, the Parliamentary Standards Committee, ruled that Miller should pay back the £48,000 she had claimed in mortgage. A further parliamentary committee, entitled to overrule the standards committee, reduced this to £5,800, which Miller happily paid, apologising to Parliament for what she tried to pass off as a petty misunderstanding of the rules.

The Daily Telegraph, which had exposed the wrong-doing, persisted in calling for her to resign and an aide of Miller’s phoned its editor and ‘reminded’ him that Miller as minister for the media was in charge of regulating the Press. It was an explicit threat and the Daily Telegraph, undeterred, duly exposed it.

David Cameron resisted calls for her resignation, saying she had paid full recompense and apologised for what he seemed to consider a minor misdemeanour. The nation didn’t seem to buy it. There was clear and open evidence that sustaining Miller in office would damage the Tory Party’s electoral standing. Cameron apparently discussed the potential damage with Miller and she quickly resigned. The PM softened the blow by expressing his regret, saying she was doing a good job and even added that she’d be back in Cabinet after a decent interval — the reverse of convicts serving their time inside.

The political episode recalled to my mind the exposure by Tarun Tejpal’s Tehelka team of the acceptance of a bribe by the then assistant of the Indian defence minister George Fernandes. It quite rightly led to the resignation of the minister even though the assistant, my dear (former?) personal friend Jaya Jaitley, who was seen on camera accepting the bribe, protested that it was doctored footage.

At the time I wrote a newspaper column urging, Jaya to admit she’d been caught out, to say, as the Brits do ‘fair cop Guv’ and to protest it was only a small amount, not destined for a Swiss Bank but to be used for a socialist party’s expenses as capitalists won’t give the party donations and the workers whom it represents are too poor to fund a modern political party. I have no idea why she didn’t take my priceless and strategic advice.

I must admit I had no idea whether the paltry sum Tehelka parted with did go into party coffers or into some Swiss account, but I thought it a feasible amelioration at the time. Miller can use no such defence. She used the expenses slush-fund to make a killing and saying it went into the Tory Party coffers would be a final nail in that half-open coffin.

The other Indo-British parallel that strikes me is Miller’s attempt to threaten the Press into silence. In any democracy the Press should be subject to the law but not to any power held by ministers or for that matter any elected politician. Wouldn’t such powers curtail the ability of the press to investigate and expose the crimes and the conduct of politicians?

Why, for instance, is the party of a politician who calls for women who are victims of violent rape ‘to be hanged’ full of alleged criminals whom no newspaper or TV channel has dared to investigate and expose? It’s true that the mafia (UPafia?) legislators have cases of murder and other crimes pending against them and that under sub-judice laws such exposure is prohibited. But there we have an irrelevant truth and a crying necessity to ignore the sub-judice law in the interests of democracy and justice.

The Indian media don’t seem to be dedicated unconditionally to either. Recent evidence demonstrates that even an enterprise like Tehelka, which began with high ideals, was subverted by less noble ones. (Incidentally, why is there no media protest against the judicial refusal to give Tarun Tejpal bail? Do the courts really believe he can intimidate or subvert the scores of witnesses the police say they’ll call? His continued detainment in custody before trial is at best Indian judicial paranoia and at worst a shameful political vendetta — er — Your Honour!)

Most worrying is the Indian media’s sudden discovery of the possible virtues of a Modi prime ministership. These may be substantial but they should not result, before or after the election result in a servility or subservience of the Press to impending, or actual power or authority. Expose and/or be damned.

Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London
The views expressed by the author are personal