Columns, Tehelka

The Murdoch Mudsplash

IF REVENGE is a dish that tastes best when it is cold, media purists will be having a belated chuckle. Of course, it is not entirely clear if chuckles can be pyrrhic, but the victory over Rupert Murdoch and his way certainly is. For regardless of what happens to his empire, journalism has changed decisively under his watch, and it is unlikely that things can go back to the way they used to be. This is particularly clear in India where the Murdoch footprint had restricted itself, for most part, to entertainment and where his direct influence on news gathering has been low. But his unapologetic view of media as business and the consequent legitimising of any and every means possible to boost readership, ratings and advertising revenue, finds an echo in the way most media conducts its affairs in India.

Fundamental to this view is the casting of news as a leveragable asset and the dismantling of the sanctity that surrounds the possibility of fair and objective reportage. The codes of news and advertising have blurred, particularly on television, with every news item resembling product that needs to be framed and packaged. What becomes of paramount importance is not what the news is, but what readers and viewers want to hear. Like advertising that begins with a set of facts about the product and chooses which ones to embellish and by how much in order to sell the product, news in India is beginning to follow the same approach.

In doing so, traditional notions of evenhandedness, the ideal of checking facts rigorously, waiting for a story to ripen before it is ready to go out, qualifying the story with disclaimers and exercising restraint in making unverified assertions, explicitly separating fact from opinion, have all taken a knock. Stories are full of hyperbole, personal reputations are routinely besmirched without adequate evidence, opinion frequently masquerades as news — the tabloidisation of news in India is its dominant face today. And of course, while being hypercritical of any and everybody, media is markedly uncritical of itself, refusing to introspect or subject itself to any meaningful scrutiny.

The question at the heart of the debate thrown up by the Murdoch view of the world is whether media deserves to wield the power it does if it is, after all, only a business. The glib use of a business frame to justify the way media works — it is what people want to hear — ignores the fact that media gets a licence that no other business does. Its freedom is enshrined as a pillar of democracy and thus, unlike other businesses, media needs to offer society something in return for the special privileges it enjoys. What we saw in Murdoch’s case is the misuse of this freedom for specific personal gain and this pattern is being repeated, arguably with greater finesse, by Indian media houses.

THERE IS one important difference between India and the West. Rupert Murdoch wields power and has been in a position to influence successive governments because of the control he has over public consciousness through his media empire. In India, far from exercising control, media is being controlled by a combination of political and business interests. For all its noisy sabre-rattling and its posturing, it exists in tacit and cosy partnership with the powersthat- be. That is perhaps the real tragedy — that Indian media has learnt a lot from Murdoch but not his ability to disrupt the status quo every now and then.

Tehelka 30July 2011