Murmurs on Murdoch

There are some things in common between the eruption of Mount Murdoch in Britain over the News of The World phone hacking saga and the Niira Radia quake in India with the 2G scam as its epicentre. Chanakya writes.

india Updated: Jul 23, 2011 22:38 IST

There are some things in common between the eruption of Mount Murdoch in Britain over the News of The World (NoTW) phone hacking saga and the Niira Radia quake in India with the 2G scam as its epicentre. For starters, both have been great disaster tourism attractions for almost all of us sitting in the amphitheatres of our living rooms and seeing the mighty fall. More particularly, both cases highlight what can happen when members of the media and politicians go past trading information across the table and start splashing about in one soapy bathtub.

But there is one fundamental difference between Murdoch's tale of comeuppance and Radiagate. While in Britain, politicians are now falling over each other to distance themselves from Rotten Rupert and his cohorts, in India, it was the journalists who were wedging their way out of a narrow escape hatch so as to furiously paddle away from the political class in the aftermath of our unfortunate saga.

The 'Busting Murdoch' story - ironically played out in the public space by the media with 'tabloid' enthusiasm - has essentially been about the extreme consequences of British politicians across the spectrum being beholden to one media Caesar in exchange of gaining political currency.

Here in India, it's the opposite: journalists are usually caught bending - and not only backwards - to serve politicians for extra tips and more.

Let's take the British scenario. While newspaper circulation have plummeted in Britain over the last decade, the clout of papers to back a particular political party and thereby dictate the political agenda has remained firm. Some would argue, it grew stronger during the Tony Blair years. This is partly due to the lack of ideological differences in the parties. So in a blind test, Blair's or Gordon Brown's Labour Party was indistinguishable from the Conservative Party. Thus, the powerful figure of the media as a punter-cum-jockey in the races.

With Murdoch owning almost a third of Britain's media outlets, which party and which face of the party his papers backed mattered. From the huge selling Sun and NoTW catering to Britain's aam aadmi (read: football fans and armchair aesthetes of mammaries with a pretty face) to the eminence grise of The Times, the readers of Murdoch's papers have been really one giant votebank.

To be friends - the term in the business is to have a 'sweetheart deal' - with the editors and journalists of these publications were mandatory for political leaders. Former News International CEO flame-haired Rebekah Brooks was, till the other day, on air-kissing terms with both Prime Minister Cameron and ex-PM Brown. People are now gasping over the fact that Cameron hired former NoTW editor Andy Coulson as his communications director, immediately after Coulson had resigned from the paper when the phone hacking affair first came to light in 2007. But let's not forget that Matthew Freud, Rupert Murdoch's son-in-law and husband of his daughter Elisabeth who ran a TV franchise company now owned by News Corp, was one of Blair's longtime PR consultants.

The kind of power Murdoch wielded over Britain's political establishment till a few days ago is unthinkable in India. The Indian media establishment simply doesn't have such a concentration of power over the political class. King Rupert's papers single-handedly destroyed the newspaper unions of the 80s and the Sun's mauling of the 1992 Labour prime ministerial candidate Neil Kinnock not only kept the Conservatives in power but actually convinced the New Labour Holy Trinity of Tony (Blair), Gordon (Brown) and Mandy (Peter Mandelson, New Labour's master spin doctor) that to win power, Labour had to win over Murdoch.

The rumour is that when the Sun switched sides again and backed Cameron before the 2010 elections, Gordon Brown rang up Murdoch and said, "I will destroy you." Hubris and the belief that he and his media mobsters could get away with everything brought Murdoch to his foam pie moment. Whether the sustained Guardian campaign against NoTW's dirty tricks came at the behest of an avenging Labour Party is both unconfirmable and besides the point.

So can such a calamity of journalistic practice happen in India? It can. But not at the bidding of any media house, print or electronic. As any media man from an editor down to the beat reporter knows, the journalist here is usually more beholden to politicians than the other way round. So while there are the usual checks and balances - cross-referencing, fact-checking etc - if a paper or a channel wishes to run a campaign against a party, it overwhelmingly comes from a tip-off or a lead from a rival party member to a 'trusted' reporter that may be picked up by the paper or not, depending on the repercussions felt within the political world. The fault of the Indian media has never been overreach but underreach.

So should journalists stop hanging out with politicians? That would be downright silly. After all, political news comes from, well, politicians. What we hacks have to be wary of is turning into stenographers rented by politicians. And for that, every journo should always bear in mind that he's a journo, not a Politician Lite.

First Published: Jul 23, 2011 22:33 IST