Wednesday, 20 July, 2011

The Murdoch effect

Phones have proved to be the nemesis for Britain’s oldest newspaper — News of the World (NoTW) and the news of the world is that the symbiotic relationship between phones and journalists has become cancerous. That the latter cannot exist without the former has been the joke in the journalistic world for long. Talking on phone is easier than trudging up to meet somebody in person. It also saves time. Once cultivated, sources usually divulge the big news on phone and stories carrying information about one part of the world can be written sitting in another. But all is fine as long as we tread within the ethical domain and do not turn news gathering into eaves dropping, or worse.

NoTW, which published its last edition on 10 July after 168 years of existence, did just that. In its zeal to be on top of news it got inextricably enmeshed in the process of creating news. It hired services of investigative agencies which would hack into voice mails of people to gather information. In the case of a then kidnapped teenager Milly Dowler, the hacking of the voicemail box led her parents into the false belief that she was alive when she had already been murdered. Stories of the dirty tricks being adopted by NoTW reporters had been doing the rounds since 2005. But it was a whistleblower on the Dowler case published in The Guardian on 4 July that did NoTW in.

The paper had already been incurring losses. The immediate reaction of Rupert Murdoch folding up the paper initially looked like a tactical move by the media mogul to save the chances of being able to buy a lucrative television channel BSkyB. It never came to that. The public outrage over the revelations was so great that Murdoch had to withdraw the bid. Several conciliatory and remedial steps were subsequently taken but to little avail. The damage had been done.

The Murdochisation of media (read: thinking only of profits and treating the newspaper not as a medium of social communication but as a product which can be and has to be sold at any cost just like shampoo and soaps) has not left even India untouched. Though so far no media organization has been accused of tapping phones for the sake of getting stories, that being the preserve of the government and the intelligence agencies here, there have been enough cases of journalists being caught on tape discussing ministerial berths and passing information from one party to the other with obvious implications.

There have been very many other instances as well of Indian media houses entering into unethical barter deals and ‘creating news’ for money or planting biased reports in return for favours. The issue is not of journalists tapping phones but a broader issue of ethics. NoTW used phones to pry into the lives of people for the sake of stories, Indian journalists have been schmoozing with corporate brokers for the sake of personal gains. Some may argue that this is worse than trying to collect information for the good of the paper or making sales grow.
Amidst wide-spread condemnation of the tactics adopted by Murdoch and sons for the sake of sensationalism, there are also some voices of dissent which say he brought life to British media and revived its fortunes. This can also be said for one of the most successful media empires in India. But Indian media still respects the privacy of people’s lives to a large extent and doesn’t stoop to the level that tabloids in Britain have.

The NoTW case also brings to light the inevitability of news gatherers going to extremes for the sake of unearthing something different. In the age of Facebook and Twitter when everything and every information is available at the touch of a button, how does one create content which is exclusive? Cut-throat competition legitimises going to any extent for the sake of a scoop. Reporters are hounded endlessly by desperate editors to bring something different. Discussing private lives in public is what we have learnt from social networking. Is it any surprise then that a media house resorted to tapping phones of ‘news worthy’ people? What would have they learnt by tapping the phone of Afghan war veterans possibly what kind of excesses were being committed by both the sides on war front. That would be both sensational and interesting. And if in turn it helps bring to light injustice done in the name of war, probably no harm in it either. But the same thing becomes unacceptable if it destroys somebody’s reputation or jeopardizes somebody’s life. As happened in the case of Dowler. If the girl had not been murdered or if the tapping had led to the murderer, probably it would all have been for a good cause.

Media houses which engage in sting operations take this risk all the time. It is the ultimate thrill for a reporter to be present at the scene of ‘crime’ while it is still being committed. There would have been nothing better for the ‘rogue’ NoTW reporters, when they were eavesdropping on phone conversations, than getting the story from the horse's mouth. Even if they had been able to see the outcome of their actions some years later, it is unlikely that any of them would have liked to trade their places with someone else. It is only when a sting goes badly wrong that everybody's wrath turns on the third person who had been trying to pry too deep rather than on the actual culprit. There is ultimately a thin line between right and wrong here.

(Aside: Etymologists would find an uncanny similarity between Murdoch and murder. Co-incidently, the name is also close to Mordor: the fabled dwelling place of the evil one Sauron in JRR Tolkien's mythical universe of Middle-Earth in Lord of the Rings).

- Shalini S Sharma

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