Fatal sting in the media tale

If Pranab Mukherjee thought that he is the only finance minister being “bugged” he should be relieved. George Osborne, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, has recently been told that he might have been a victim of phone hacking as well. The only difference is, in his case it was a sting organised by the tabloid News of the World (NOTW).

Today as NOTW pays a very heavy price of closure for its wrongful and reckless reconnaissance, questions are being asked as to what lengths the media will go to grab the top spot. And is phone hacking only the next natural step after hidden camera operations? To what extent do the ends justify the means? And what regulations are required to monitor the media?
This story will probably have global ramifications concerning media ethics and privacy as well as about the responsibilities of the proprietors.
From being a champion of the people, known for its explosive exposures of the corrupt and leading social campaigns, the paper has come to being shut down amid squalid revelations of the misdemeanours of some of its staff.
In one of the biggest media scandals to engulf Britain has come the revelation that the 168-year-old NOTW was probably employing private detectives to illegally tap the phones not only of politicians but even of the families of the July 7, 2005 bombings among others. The list of people whose phones had been tampered with is worryingly long, which includes victims of sexual assault as well as their families. The bereaved relatives of soldiers were not spared either. And all this for the sake of a scoop! The paper known for its stories, which “named and shamed” culprits, had journalists pay police officers for stories and hiring investigators to help them get evidence that would make front page news. In a very competitive environment these determined efforts kept the popular Sunday tabloid ahead of the pack.
Of course, many of the scoops dealt with sex and scandal of celebrities among other more serious issues. It is this newspaper, for instance, that broke the story of the “match fixing” that indicted three Pakistani cricketers. It is also the same newspaper that revealed how Sarah Ferguson was using her access to the royal family, especially her estranged husband, Prince Andrew, to make money.
But now it is the newspaper, instead, that is making the news.
Though the fact that phone hacking was routinely used by the paper has been discussed for a while, it was only recently when the real list of its targets was revealed that public opinion began to change, especially on social media such as Twitter and Facebook. A campaign by readers was launched to persuade leading corporates advertising in the Murdoch-owned newspaper to pull out, which many of them did. That in turn led to a fall of nearly three per cent of the stock price, wiping off nearly $1 billion from the News International shares.
However, Mr Murdoch was already ahead by two steps. He knew that the loss of reputation would also begin to hit his other proposed acquisitions — primarily his interest in television in Britain. Thus, he took a harsh decision of abruptly shutting down the newspaper with its tainted brand, causing more than 200 journalists to lose their jobs. This Sunday will be the last edition of NOTW. There has been a collective gasp of horror throughout the country, as much of the team at present working with NOTW was not implicated in the phone hacking. To add to the misery of the sacked staff, the management, which perhaps was responsible for sanctioning and authorising the phone hacking, has been left unscathed. Though there is talk that the other popular Murdoch paper, the Sun, will now begin a Sunday edition to cater to the readers of NOTW, the closure reeks of cynical manipulation and has left the media and media analysts appalled.
But the bonfire from this is beginning to now singe even Prime Minister David Cameron who had hired a former editor of NOTW, Andy Coulson, as his director of communications. Even though Coulson has quit Downing Street, he might face arrest for perjury. Many more arrests are likely. This has given the Opposition Labour Party a rare chance to put Mr Cameron on the mat.
But there is an Indian connection, as apparently there has been an attempt to destroy evidence stored as emails in an HCL warehouse in Chennai. So hopefully Scotland Yard will get there before the emails vanish completely unless some enterprising Indian news crew can hack into them…

Meanwhile, last week it was wonderful to meet Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar in London for a special celebration of the autobiography Kaifi & I, written by Shabana’s mother, Shaukat Azmi. It is a powerful tale of a very interesting life: Shaukat Azmi is not just a great theatre actress (I still remember her magnificent role as the madam of a bordello in Salaam Bombay!), she is also a marvellous raconteur — recounting her life with Kaifi Azmi with a gentle humour.
After a very moving reading by Shabana and Javed, made special by a recitation of a poem written by the latter on his father-in-law, Ajeeb aadmi tha voh, we rounded off the evening with dinner at Indali, the “health food” restaurant set up by Dr Kartar Lalvani, also known as a “macrobiotic mystic”! Over “butter-chicken-without-butter” it was good to catch up with friends, including Gurinder Chadha, as she leaves for Los Angeles to work on an animation film about monkeys in Mumbai, with glimpses of the Ramayana in it.

The author can be contacted at kishwardesai@yahoo.com

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