Dial M for mayhem
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Dial M for mayhem

The semantics of SMS (mobile text-messaging) have always defeated me. I still don’t know what certain yellow circled faces in messages mean, or what :-) and similar signs of the ethereal Kabbala signify. Farrukh Dhondy writes.

india Updated: May 14, 2012 21:01 IST

The semantics of SMS (mobile text-messaging) have always defeated me. I still don’t know what certain yellow circled faces in messages mean, or what :-) and similar signs of the ethereal Kabbala signify.

I used to write LoL at the end of texts to my daughters until they told me that it didn’t mean, ‘Lots of Love’ but stood for ‘Laugh out Loud’. Embarrassing.

Recently I learnt that I was in good text-semantic-illiterate company. One Rebekah Wade, former editor of the News of the World, a newspaper accused of phone-hacking, told the Leveson enquiry into the antics of the press, that David Cameron regularly texted her and concluded his messages with “LoL” believing, as I did, that it meant “lots of love”. Rebekah allowed him to persist in this error, never telling him what it really stood for. This snippet of her testimony assured me that I was not the only fool rushing in where the younger generation so confidently tread.

This piece of Wade’s five-hour testimony to the Leveson enquiry was one of the highlights of the cross-examination and one every commentator alighted on because it exposed the ‘cosy’ relationship between the prime minister and an individual who was one of the chief executives of News International, Rupert Murdoch’s news and TV empire.

Should the prime minister be sending texts and e-mails to a person under investigation by the police for criminal activity and signing his communication with ‘love’?

At the time of these Cameron-Wade exchanges, there was a bid by Murdoch’s conglomerate to take full control of the TV station British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB). This bid for control of a commercial TV station had to be approved by the government through the relevant minister, Jeremy Hunt.

So on two counts, one that Wade was under investigation and two that her company was bidding for a profitable asset in the gift of his government, the prime minister should not have been in close, friendly, even intimate contact with her.

Even though Indian politics are conducted in significantly different ways, drawing a parallel may illustrate a point. Suppose for instance that Niira Radia was giving evidence to, shall we say, the Delhi High Court or to a judicial enquiry into the 2G scam and she produced texts and e-mails from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which ended with a declaration professing ‘Lots of Love’. Firstly, and in the frame of political things perhaps least significantly, Mrs Singh would not, one presumes ‘Laugh out Loud’.

We may then wonder what the prime minister was doing communicating with the likes of Radia. Even in the Indian context, now that it’s publicly known that Radia was accepted even by someone like Ratan Tata as a peddler of influence, it would be quite puzzling. Why would a prime minister need influence? He is influence! It would only mean (and please note: I am not saying anything of the sort happened, this is a mere analogy) that a connection of influence was being peddled for corrupt purposes.

The British context is slightly different because the democratic history and, therefore, the pressures and considerations are different from those that obtain in India. No Indian newspaper can claim or has claimed to have won an election. Or to put it modestly, which the Murdoch press in Britain has never had the decency to do, no newspaper can claim to have swung the vote decisively for one or other party.

It may be that a particular newspaper, in whatever language, is pro-BJP or pro-Congress, but no paper claims that it was their support, interpretation and slant on the news that decided an election.

But that is precisely what the Murdoch press claimed and claim. “It’s The Sun Wot Won It” said The Sun, a Murdoch title, in bold full page headlines when Margaret Thatcher and the Tories were elected. Ever since, the politicians of all parties have taken the claim seriously and have manifestly sucked up to the executives of the Murdoch papers and to Rupert Murdoch and his family themselves.

Indian democracy doesn’t work that way. Editorials in newspapers and the support of one or other publication don’t bring out the vote. Indian democracy relies on vote-banks and policies, promises and pronouncements being tailored to appeal to various groups based on caste, religion and regional loyalties, not to mention dynastic hangovers and the supposed ‘right’ of a dynast to a particular gaddi. The plot of the ‘kissa kursi ka’ doesn’t depend on single overarching policies. If a party tries to put together a majority using the fact that most Indians are Hindus, they reach a percentage ceiling and find they have to diversify and even reverse their appeal to attract other groups and gradations.

Western democracies also work on self-interests and prejudices but it is more than evident that when The Sun claims to have won the election for the Tories (the ‘capitalist’ and not the ‘working class’ party) it means that it has induced its exclusively working class readership to go against Labour. Its claim amounts to robbing the vote-bank.

Whether both Labour and Tory politicians were justified in believing that The Sun or the News of the World can sway an election is debatable, but they did. Tony Blair thought so when he sucked up to Murdoch and agreed to be Godfather to his daughter and Gordon and Mrs Brown thought so when they invited Murdoch and his family to a pyjama party.

David Cameron, who hasn’t heard the last of it, is alleged to have called Ms Wade up to 20 times a day. He dialled ‘M’ for Murdoch and now finds he was connected to Mayhem, LoL (Laugh out Loud!)

Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: May 14, 2012 20:58 IST