Lessons for our media
What began as a limited crisis in the Rupert Murdoch-owned and now-closed News of the World (NOTW) tabloid in Britain has grown into a tempest which threatens media behemoth News Corporation.
The 10 arrests -- including that of News International CEO Rebekah Brooks and Dow Jones head Les Hinton -- and the resignation of the London Metropolitan police commissioner, have shocked British society and could politically singe Prime Minister David Cameron.
The crisis was triggered by allegations that NOTW paid the police for information and also hacked into the voicemail accounts of celebrities and people whose relatives had suffered grave tragedies. Soon, Andy Coulson, the NOTW editor responsible for the hacking and Cameron's communications chief, was arrested, as was former NOTW deputy editor and public relations adviser to Scotland Yard Neil Wallis.
Scotland Yard chief Paul Stephenson resigned for hiring him in 2009 and, while resigning, said: "Unlike Mr. Coulson, Mr. Wallis had not resigned from NOTW, nor … been in any way associated with the original phone-hacking investigation." This compromised Mr. Cameron and highlighted the double standards being applied to his office and the Metropolitan police.
Mr. Stephenson's resignation was considered honourable. But Mr. Cameron's reputation has suffered, after as-yet-unsubstantiated allegations that Ms. Brooks had lobbied him to appoint Mr Coulson as the Conservatives' communications director.
This crisis has reached the Murdoch empire's apex. Journalists who worked for Ms. Brooks, NOTW editor (2000-2003) and close Murdoch confidante, describe the work as "dubious information-gathering, [with] reporters under intense pressure … to land exclusive stories … and a culture of fear, cynicism … and fierce internal competition."
A former reporter says: "We used to talk to career criminals all the time. They were our sources. It was a macho thing: 'My contact is scummier than your contact.': 'Mine's a murderer.' "
This culture of Murdochisation is the foundation of News Corporation's $32.8 billion global empire. Murdochisation has three components. First, the management subsumes and subordinates the editorial process. Mr. Murdoch spurns concepts like freedom of expression and editorial independence and interferes in his publications on a day-to-day, headline-to-headline basis.
Second, truthfulness is held in contempt. One commentator said: "Murdoch … publish[ed] Hitler's diaries, though he had been warned they were phony; when the hoax was exposed he shrugged it off, saying, 'After all, we are in the entertainment business.' " One of his papers carried on a "cruelly irresponsible anti-science" campaign, questioning the very existence of an AIDS epidemic in Africa.
Mr. Murdoch's practice of censorship would embarrass even dictators. His Star TV once beamed to China BBC broadcasts highly critical of corruption there. When the Chinese objected, Mr. Murdoch simply killed all BBC broadcasts to China!
Third, Murdochisation involves political lobbying, influence-peddling, and blatant anti-competition practices such as pricing one's publications below cost to capture the market. Mr. Murdoch has paid money to political leaders, transforming the notion of acceptable news-gathering.
Like Mr. Murdoch, News Corporation is distinguished by pure aggression. As the not-too-critical Economist puts it: It "combines the heft of a big company with the scrappiness of a start-up," and believes "competitors are to be crushed."
An example of this aggression is provided by Forbes magazine's account of how News Corp subsidiary News America head Paul Carlucci inspires sales staff by showing Al Capone beating a man to death with a baseball bat in The Untouchables. News America Marketing recently spent $655 million to suppress charges of corporate espionage and anti-competitive behaviour.
Murdochisation, regrettably, has spread worldwide. Many major Indian media groups practise that model -- only without Murdoch. They conflate the editorial and business functions, dumb down editorial content to tittle-tattle, and downplay news and views relevant to understanding India, South Asia and the world.
So long as news titillates, it should be sold -- through predatory pricing if not by normal means. Many Indian media conglomerates with dozens of editions and deep pockets sell newspapers which cost Rs.10 to produce at Rs.2. They are less interested in professional journalists than in shopkeepers who double as reporters and offer deals on cooking utensils to their subscribers.
Much of India's media is not geared to inform the public on the socio-economic and political processes at work in the country, including shifts in the balance of power between groups -- leave alone promote comprehension of the dynamics that are shaping decision-making structures and India's changing relations with its neighbours and the world.
The mainstream paradigm in the Indian media, with a few honourable exceptions, is shockingly insensitive to flesh-and-blood people's concerns, especially of the poor. Its principal -- and matter-of-factly stated -- aim is to "pump sunshine" into the consumerist elite's life.
There is a major lesson for all of South Asia's media in the Murdoch empire's crisis. Murdochisation will not work, and cannot succeed, beyond a point. It won't be a surprise if News Corp is subjected in Britain to restrictions on its news-gathering and business practices.
Ultimately, Murdochisation will be damaged irreparably by its crisis of credibility. There is no substitute for the basic values of journalism -- truthfulness, accuracy and relevance in reporting, pluralism in the expression of views, and functioning with a sense of social responsibility.
The exposure of News Corporation's serious wrongdoing was driven strongly by public outrage and revulsion in Britain. In India, middle-class conscience has not been outraged enough by the illegitimate interaction between corporate interests, mainstream politics and journalists, exposed in the Radia tapes. Most journalists implicated in the tapes have got off lightly.
Much of India's big corporate media is conservative and retrograde, and faces a serious crisis of credibility. If it does not reform itself, it will lose all authenticity, reliability and credibility, and matter only as a source of cheap entertainment.
Journalism will then cease to be all that makes it worthy and socially relevant: an honest, investigative, analytical, public-oriented and ethical endeavour. That would be a grave tragedy and a terrible disservice to democracy.