Journalism The Murdoch Brand
The whole question of press freedom—some would say power of the press—has been rekindled with the closure of Robert Murdoch-owned British tabloid News of the World. Following a telephone-hacking scandal, Murdoch has been forced to close the 168-year-old weekly, claimed to be the largest-selling English language newspaper in the world, with a circulation of 2.7 million in a nation of 50 million. It is said that the tabloid hacked the phone of a missing teenage girl, later found to have been murdered.
This particular hacking had been done way back in 2002. But then it was not an isolated incident. In fact, in 2009, the Guardian newspaper of London claimed that the News of the World journalists had hacked the phones of up to 3,000 celebrities, royal family members, politicians and sports stars. It also transpires that in this unethical practice of intruding into the privacy of individuals, the reporters concerned took the help of the Police officials by bribing them. Senior editors of the publication as well as the owners are believed to have encouraged the practice, though Murdoch and his family are claiming now that they did not know this despicable act and therefore went for the self-inflicted punishment by closing down the publication on July 10.
The whole episode underscores some important points. First, how should one evaluate Murdoch-brand journalism? Here, his critics say that he came out with the formula that the stories should stress sex, violence, crime and communal discords. After all, stories on them sold and Murdoch built a huge media empire that was really global. He became a cult figure for the proprietors of print-media all over the world, including those in India. I am strongly convinced that the titilisation of media in India through cheap profile journalism of “Page-3” variety became respectable because of the success of Murdoch-brand journalism in the UK and the United States. In fact, it is he who influenced the thinking of leading Indian media barons, who openly asserted that media was first a business and then a social service and that newspapers were brands or products to be “made” like any other commodity.
Personally I am very uncomfortable with commoditisation of journalism. But then the fact remains that it sells and earns bulk of the revenue for media houses. The point is that there is a demand from the public for such type of journalism too. Besides, it will be unfair to say that Murdoch only dealt with sensational journalism. His media empire also consists of television channels, web-news, radio and quality newspapers such as the Australian (Sydney), the Times (London) and the Wall Street Journal (New York). Thus, it will be unfair to brand Murdoch’s journalism as inherently evil as is being made out by his innumerable critics.
Similarly, I am not also impressed by the second criticism of Murdoch that he is too powerful because of strong connections with the political class. Critics say that Murdoch knew not only how to use his empire to advance his ambitions and ideology; he knew also that newspapers could do the trick. For instance, Mudroch’s influence has been credited with helping to elect Rudy Giuliani as New York’s Mayor and George Pataki as the Governor of the New York State. He is supposed to have helped even Hillary Clinton. As in the US, where he has ties cutting across both the Democrats and the Republicans, in Britain too, he has had access to the former Labour Prime Ministers like Tonny Blair and Gordon Brown and the present Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, not to speak of his old friendship with the indubitable Lady Margaret Thatcher.
However, whenever one talks of relationship, it is always a two-way street. One cannot blame Murdoch for having a relationship with a powerful politician as one can counter-argue that it is the powerful politician who might have sought Murdoch’s help to promote his career. After all, it was Murdoch who was instrumental, through his publications of course, in making the Lady Thatcher a huge phenomenon in the British and World politics. The relationship thus has been mutual. Moreover, as long as one can remember, media and politics have always enjoyed a love-and-hate relationship. Both need each other. No wonder, why all over the world, particularly in a democratic world such as the United States, Great Britain and India, journalists have been Presidents and Prime Ministers, and that too highly successful ones.
Be that as it may, I will not approve of that aspect of Murdoch-brand journalism which justifies all means to get news. Murdoch says that he loves competition and wining it. In the process, he has not bothered about hurting the dignity of others and of respected institutions. Unfortunately, we are witnessing this sad phenomenon in India too. We know how news channels are not hesitating to show bedroom scenes. In fact, a leading news channel had shown some time back the live pictures of a man being bitten to death and an accident-victim dying for the lack of medical help. Here, the journalists and cameramen did not even bother to intervene and save two lives. More important for them was the “exclusivity of the news” to march over their rivals.
Does this mean that the phenomenon of “scoops” should be avoided in journalism? It is a very difficult question to answer. For instance, how does the phone-hacking scandal at Murdoch-owned News of the World compare with the release of classified information by Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks and his partners at the New York Times, the Guardian and other newspapers? Similarly, how should one view with the release of Radia-tapes in Outlook and Open magazines? In all these cases, secret information, initially obtained by illegal means, was disseminated publicly by news organisations. In all these cases, the laws of the land were violated. Then why is it that the Murdoch-brand is drawing brickbats whereas in the other two cases one is hearing only accolades? One cannot get away by saying that in the latter two cases, the news involved “public interests”. After all, by revealing the names, the WikiLeaks have endangered the lives of thousands of American soldiers in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, one could legitimately argue that highlighting of scams by some media houses has less to do with public interests and more to do with denigrating their business rivals. The whole episode of phone hacking by the Murdoch publication had been kept alive by the relentless campaign by the rival Guardian newspaper, which, after tasting victory over the News of the World, has decided now to take on another high-circulated London tabloid, the Daily Mail. Similarly here in India one has been noticing over the last few days the overdrive of one television channel in showing a rival channel in a very poor light for its role in the much talked-about cash-for vote scandal, involving the Manmohan Singh’s previous government in the wake of the withdrawal of support to him by the Left parties over the civilian nuclear deal with the United States.
Considering all this, the final question is whether time has come to regulate the press freedom. Unfortunately, the way a section of the British media is going hyper over the correctness of the idea of resuscitating a long-dead system of government control over the press is loaded with dangers. It may sound alright now to “clean up” the papers and to regulate the “improper press”. But who will do that? The government of the day may be to your liking, but what if the future government does not like your editorial content? In that sense, the media is turning the worst enemy of itself. The solution, therefore, lies not with the government intervention but in effective self-regulation. The need of the hour is to strike a balance between the means involved behind a story and its intended targets.
By Prakash Nanda