Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Murdoch, Media and Manipulation

Ever since he took over as Prime Minister in May 2010 it has not been a very easy time for David Cameron. Firstly, his party was not able to secure an overall majority despite an unpopular Prime Minister, even more unpopular former Prime Minister and a war-ravaged nation. In the process the Conservatives had to form an alliance with the Liberal Democrats who were totally opposed to Tory policies before and even after the election. Since then the coalition faced numerous challenges be it the cuts, NHS reforms, the AV referendum and now the phone hacking scandal which has damaged the already low credibility of David Cameron and once again brought to the fore the delicate relationship between power brokers, the media and the political class.

For all those who thought India was the only place in the world where dealmakers and the media assumed extra-constitutional power then think again. It is the same in Britain where Rupert Murdoch and NewsCorp have had complete access to the corridors or power. It began from the time of Margaret Thatcher and continued till May 2010. No party of Prime Minister has been able to capture and subsequently remain in office without the backing of Murdoch. Infact, John Major’s surprise 1992 victory was attributed to the media houses under Murdoch, specially ‘the Sun’ tabloid. Murdoch mania spread even to opposition leaders. Both Tony Blair and David Cameron shamelessly courted Murdoch while in opposition and it paid for both in 1997 and 2010 respectively. Infact newspaper reports in UK through the year brought out repeated instances of Cameron’s willingness in the BSkyB deal and his private dinner with Rebekah Brooks while in office.

At the cost of sounding prescriptive and holier than thou, I will state that this nasty relationship between politicians and the media must end as soon as possible. It is very scary to think of our voicemails, text messages, phone, and health records being tapped and used by TRP hungry newspapers and TV channels so that they attain a large viewership. The problem in India is greater simply because we have far too many TV channels, especially in the vernacular languages and a large population that thrives of the production and spread of such news. India had its own share of troubles when the Nira Radia tapes broke out. The tapes, though different in nature form the News of the World tapes bring out a similar problem that’s plagues the two countries, even more in India. It showed how vested interests, corporate rivalries and political calculations affect ministry formation. In Britain, Cameron also appointed Coulson has his close aide despite his News of the World past and his close association with Murdoch. To make matters worse, the rot is so deep that it crosses all political lines- if Murdoch jumped to prominence due to Blair and received continued patronage under Cameron, it must also be noted that Nira Radia owed her spectacular rise due to her proximity with ministers in the NDA government which only continued during the UPA reign (one does not need RK Anand to state these facts). Fixers and power brokers can easily cross the thin line of party politics and thus influence policy irrespective of the party in power. All this is aided by a completely sold media that can go till any extent if TRP and revenue collections are at stake.

Here I do not wish to compare Murdoch with Radia (it would be a great disservice to Murdoch in doing so) and nor do I wish sound prescriptive, I only seek to bring out what the problem is and how deep and consensual it has become. In all fairness, Cameron’s response has been muted and mature to the scandal. In India, the Prime Minister and the Congress President too were muted in their response but it was far form mature. It is high time they wake up and reform the Information and Broadcasting Ministry so that it passively regulates news production rather than splurge crores of rupees to remind India when Rajiv or Indira Gandhi were born.

It is also important to understand that corruption, money laundering, wheeling dealing will not end merely with safeguards in place of a tough Lok Pal as Anna Hazare would like us to believe. Nor will fraudulent Yoga training camps help remove the ill of corruption. There is no fast food service as far as corruption reduction is concerned specially in a country like ours. The Americans also realized the problem and its magnitude very early thus they developed the unique institution of lobbying and lobbyists. Though a sugar coated name to denote wheeler dealers (is Sant Chatwal any different from an Amar Singh?) what it does is institutionalizes lobbying and favour seeking. This way a Senator or Congressman can be approach by lobbies but it is done more publically- I feel doing this in India would make our MPs cautious and more guarded before they sell their soles to corporates and the fear of any possible electoral swing against them will always be on their mind. This method is notable because it recognizes the problem and indirectly minimizes the damage it can do to a system. Paralelly, India and Indians at home and abroad need to move towards a direction where policy is dictated not by the bribe you pay or the phones that are moved during cabinet formation but on basis of merit and a larger good that could benefit the weaker and marginalized.

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