The media baron and the power junkie

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ASHOK MALIKBritain’s ‘hacking scandal’ requires India’s media to look within. But are artificial and unviable boundaries between journalists and politicians the answer?

WHAT DOES the News of the World scandal mean for Rupert Murdoch and his empire, for British politics and for our media-driven age? For a start, it is important to separate these questions from the original sin: the hacking episode. Getting illegal access to voicemails of people, including by impersonating them to learn their passwords, is a criminal act. Institutionally, the News of the World has paid for this.

In the hot seat: The Murdochs being grilled by the British parliamentary committee in London
In the hot seat The Murdochs being grilled by the British parliamentary committee in London, Photo: AFP

Authorities in London are investigating which individuals were responsible. Despite the Murdochs’ defence before a British parliamentary committee last week, it is difficult to accept those at the very top of their company, News Corporation, did not know bribes were paid to policemen, dodgy private detectives were hired and phone messages were listened to.

Those acts of criminality are limited to News of the World and maybe its sister papers. Perhaps elements of such behaviour exist in the rest of Britain’s tabloid media culture, as the senior Murdoch seemed to suggest to the committee. Nevertheless there is little to say on the ethics of such methods of news-gathering. Nobody in his right senses could defend them

In the public mind, however, the hacking question, while shocking in itself, is only the thin end of the wedge. It has led to two related questions. First, just how dependent are contemporary politicians on media and how indebted are they to big news corporations (not to speak of the Big News Corporation)? Second, what are the implications for the enterprise of journalism? Has it become too close to politicians, too clubby with power practitioners, too — and there’s a simple word for it — Establishment?

It is likely the same questions are being asked in the Midlands, the Midwest and Madhya Bharat, as democratic societies everywhere, from Britain to America to India, experience a revulsion for perceived excesses of the media. In India, the acrimonious discussion triggered after the Niira Radia tapes has been renewed. For better or worse, familiar arguments and misgivings are back.

It is easy to draw analogies between the revelations in London in recent weeks and angularities of the Indian media. Of course, in recourse to parliamentary oversight and inquisition — hard, relentless and visible to the people in real time — British democracy has brought out the best in itself. In its marriage of media and politics, though, Britain leaves India far behind.

Again, there is a tradition and history to this — and even if the practices of the Murdoch team represent only its epigone, that tradition cannot entirely be discounted. In a sense politicians and journalists have always been teammates in Britain. Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook as he later became, was the country’s first great press baron. He was also a friend of Winston Churchill’s and served in his wartime Cabinet.

Murdoch bet on would-be prime ministers almost as a punter would on stocks of a start-up

Twenty years ago, Jeremy Paxman’s detailed study Friends in High Places: Who Runs Britain? pointed out the close connections — often going back to school, university or merely the same social set — between editors, ministers and senior civil servants. All three professions saw themselves as part of the class that “ran” Britain.

For most of the 20th century, British newspapers backed one or the other party or, in some cases, politician. Political philosophies and world views were zealously guarded and editorially defended. Murdoch, whatever his personal politics, extended this system to its logical absurdity. He switched preferences from one telegenic politician to another, betting on would-be prime ministers almost as a punter would on stocks of a start-up.

That Murdoch could do this was also a reflection of the anodyne politics of a post-Thatcher, postmodern Britain. There were no major ideological divides; there was no interest in the hard debates on policy options that may have had an earlier generation of Britons transfixed. Mutually interchangeable leaders had to be built as brands in increasingly presidential contests. The media’s role in shaping, marketing and giving publicity to those brands was critical. As such Murdoch was courted by first Tony Blair and then David Cameron. In turn, he used his newspapers and news channels to win concessions for his cable and non-news television businesses, which is where the revenue lay.

India is different in this regard, and yet it isn’t. The media cannot — thank heavens — deliver an election. If that were the case, the BJP wouldn’t have lost in 2004, Narendra Modi wouldn’t have won in 2002 and 2007, Mamata Banerjee would have disappeared from popular consciousness in 2006 (when she went Corporaon a fast in Singur and was laughed at by about every newspaper and channel), and Mayawati would be a perennial no-hoper. Even so the media does play a role in sculpting the political persona of an ambitious candidate.

PRIME-TIME NEWS channel talk shows are an obvious platform, but they are not the only ones. Take Smriti Irani, soon to become a BJP Rajya Sabha MP from Gujarat. She has paid her dues, having stayed loyal to the party for close to a decade. Yet she is a lateral entrant. She brings with her not a caste or community vote bank, not the resources of a business corporation, not the administrative acumen of a former public servant, but the middle-Indian appeal of a soap opera star.

By that reckoning, she owes her parliamentary seat to Balaji Telefilms as much as Blair and Cameron remain beholden to News Corp. Two prime ministers turned up at Rebekah Brooks’ wedding. Surely Irani will do a jig at Ekta Kapoor’s?

Finally, are journalists guilty of seeing themselves not as chroniclers of the gods, but as part of the pantheon itself? The superficial answer is “yes”, the deeper answer is more complex.

For the superficial answer, again, the Brooks case is suggestive. When she was appointed chief executive of News International, Murdoch’s print media company in Britain, was she the rare editor making a transition to management? Was she the new David Bell, the man who rose from the desk of the Financial Times to become its managing editor and then its chief executive?

Alternatively, was she a titular head and essentially a government relations manager, whose job was to throw parties, invite important politicians using her (former) journalist cover, and become a convenient interface between Cabinet ministers and the Murdochs? To any student of the Indian media industry, this would sound suspiciously familiar.

At another level, however, is there anything wrong with journalists forming friendships and shared-interest associations with politicians and civil servants? Journalism is a broad church. Muckrakers and investigative reporters, those who are instinctively suspicious of “the Great and the Good” and committed to stripping them of their mystique, find place in it. So do policy wonks. For them, journalism is a means to exploring (and sometimes contributing to) the process of public policy.

Both are legitimate pursuits of journalism. One can’t scoff at or mock the other. At its most noble and illuminating, journalism finds a fine balance between these two essential pillars. At its most nauseating, journalism eavesdrops on the messages of a kidnapped and murdered 13-year-old girl.

Which one should he or she be? Hang the media baron; in the end, it’s the journalist who has to choose.

Ashok Malik is senior journalist. 
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