Politicians put media in dock

The Rupert Murdoch saga gets more and more murky with each passing day, and one wonders how far the ripples will spread. All his efforts at damage control so far (shutting down News of the World, buying back his shares) have not been too successful. Already some shareholders in the United States have lodged a legal case and the

Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating if there was any hacking into the phones of the victims of 9/11. There would be severe repercussions if the latter had taken place, leading to a deeper erosion of the tycoon’s fortune and credibility. Will the disenchantment with Mr Murdoch spread to his Asian empire as well? Just as the banks provided the tipping point for the recession — is this going to lead to a global media meltdown? The questions are piling up every day.
Two decades ago, as a TV professional, I still remember the excitement when the Murdoch brand arrived in India and the possibilities it had generated for private players who queued up to partner him. The country experienced a dizzy freedom as it was finally released from the shackles of Doordarshan. Economic liberalisation finally meant globalisation of the media stakeholders as well. Murdoch continues to do well in Asia, and it seems that his empire over there is unscathed by the controversies in Britain and the US.
But in Britain, right now, the Murdoch brand is tainted (even though he may not have personally endorsed phone hacking) and in the last one week, any residual respect or even adulation has rapidly evaporated. Of all the recent scams in Britain this is probably most “wholistic” as it involves not only the press, but politicians and the police as well with more, and more disturbing details pouring out.
The most shocking part of the tale continues to be the revelations of the alleged close relationship between the UK police and the News of the World, which was shut down last week. Moreover, while we examine the cosy nexus between them we must remember that this is not unusual as in India, where we hear about corruption of all kinds. But the events here should definitely make us question the oft-repeated assertion that people are corrupt when they are poorly paid; those who are advocating the introduction of a “facilitation fee” to stop sleaze should rethink that facile solution, as events here
unfold and demonstrate that corruption does not originate in poverty.
In Britain, the blow to police trustworthiness is more severe because Scotland Yard is lauded as a benchmark of efficiency and investigative propriety, and even the metropolitan police is considered largely above suspicion. Now, all that is rapidly changing.
The stories spilling out, almost in an embarrassing avalanche, indicate alleged payments by journalists to the police, who chillingly and casually revealed private details of individuals they should have been protecting. From the Royals to the politicians no one was spared. Despite vehement denials from senior members of the police force to a parliamentary committee this week, there is a growing realisation that the police has shown no interest in unearthing the rot within their own system.
The latest arrest of Neil Wallis, an executive editor of the News of the World, has added further grist to the mill. He was apparently even employed by the metropolitan police as a public relations consultant. Similarly, it has now been revealed that even while the police was conducting a previous inquiry into phone-hacking allegations, top cops were enjoying lunches and dinners with scribes from the Murdoch stable. This, too, could have led to incomplete investigation. Coincidentally, one of the police officers involved eventually became a columnist for a Murdoch paper.
The interesting thing is despite British Prime Minister David Cameron being allegedly accused of favouring the Murdoch press, no one from the government has tried to block the multiple inquiries (in pleasant contrast to the fuss over the joint parliamentary committee and the Public Accounts Committee in India!).
Even though both the demands for teaching the Murdoch press a lesson and the call to revoke his bid for BSkyB has come from young Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, the government has sensibly and quickly acquiesced. A pragmatic Cameron may have understood that by resisting the inevitable he would face enormous flak for a longer period. The behaviour of the coalition government and the Opposition has, despite the rancour, actually upheld the values of democratic debate and transparency.
In fact, as the witnesses are called to depose before various parliamentary committees we will see them being grilled live on TV. So this week we have watched powerful policemen fumbling to explain their behaviour and next week it will be interesting to see Mr Murdoch and his son James defending their actions before the media culture committee. This is better than any reality show with a built-in penalty. Perjury can land a jail sentence. This entire televised deposition supports the argument that the Indian Parliament must and should also televise the proceedings of their select committees.
However, the atmosphere in the UK Parliament is extremely febrile at present: akin to when the stories of the MPs expenses were reeling out. At that time Mr Cameron was the Leader of the Opposition and he forced the hapless Prime Minister Gordon Brown to march to his tune, taking the moral high ground. In this case, it is Mr Miliband who has suddenly (much like Colin Firth in The King’s Speech) found his voice and gravitas. He ensured a three-hour debate in Parliament this week on the Murdoch scandal and almost certainly saw the end of the BSkyB deal, which would have given the media tycoon a larger and more profitable empire here. All that is history.
Unsurprisingly, politicians who have often been the target of a hyperactive press are having a grand time putting the media in the dock. But there are many inter-related issues of ethics and journalism. For instance, one of the most-celebrated stories of recent years — WikiLeaks — also came from hacked data. Similarly, the story of the MPs expenses had emerged from an illegally obtained CD for which money had been paid by the Telegraph. Thus, as everyone debates the phone-hacking issue, some guidelines will have to emerge on how press integrity can be maintained without compromising its freedom.
This is a multifaceted story that will probably run for at least a year. Ironically, its high ratings would have thrilled the canny investor in Mr Murdoch were he not starring in it.

The author can be contacted at kishwardesai@yahoo.com

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