July 15 (Bloomberg) -- Rupert Murdoch, it seems, may be able to defuse at least some of his troubles at News Corp. by selling his three remaining British newspapers.
But new questions immediately arise: Who will be their foolhardy buyer, given that two of the papers lose money? And what will Murdoch do with the nest egg of $12 billion he had planned to offer for an increased stake in British Sky Broadcasting?
Certainly, Murdoch could do much worse than look east, especially to India, where he revolutionized the stale news and entertainment media in the early 1990s with his satellite television channels and where he has been steadily expanding his empire.
In India, where more than 500 satellite television channels have opened in the last two decades, daily newspapers are also multiplying at an astonishing rate -- increasing by 40 percent to 2,700 between 2005 and 2009. Newspaper executives in the West can only gaze enviously at India’s 32 percent year-over-year rise in advertising spending.
There is much more growth to come. “India’s newspaper publishing market, which has 356 million readers, may expand 6.8 percent annually to $4.1 billion by 2014,” Bloomberg News reported in February. Last year, India’s largest media company, Bennett Coleman & Co., which owns the Times of India, the world’s highest-circulation English broadsheet daily, declared its global ambitions by buying Virgin Radio from the British tycoon Richard Branson; it is now planning an IPO within two years.
But India’s news media boom, like the U.K. phone-hacking scandal, is also a cautionary example, showing that when it comes to the press’s responsibility and freedom, more can amount to less, and that the supposed watchdog of democracy can quickly turn into its most insidious enemy within.
More than a decade ago, in what now seems an innocent era, I wrote in the Financial Times of the creeping “Murdochization” of the Indian news media. I meant primarily the growing dominance of advertiser-friendly infotainment in major newspapers such as the Times of India and the Hindustan Times.
Every day, and often on the front page, these once-stodgy newspapers were carrying reports of parties at five-star hotels and fawning profiles of film stars, musicians, cricketers and fashion designers, consisting of such useful information as their eating and dieting habits, romantic preferences, favorite holiday destinations, champagnes, colors and dogs.
Meanwhile, advertiser-unfriendly news such as the suicides of tens of thousands of farmers, or human rights violations in Kashmir, often went unreported or were relegated to the inside pages. “A good newspaper,” Arthur Miller wrote, “is a nation talking to itself.” And most English-language newspapers in India presented, within a few years of Murdoch’s arrival, an alarming picture of the nation’s public life.
Things have gotten much worse since then. Many more newspapers and television channels have sprouted in the past decade of rapid economic growth. But their emphasis continues to be, as the Economist put it last week, on “sensationalist, ‘Bollywoodised’ coverage of celebrities.” Also, “most news outlets are openly partisan,” featuring what seem to be many an over-eager understudy for Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann.
More disturbingly, the editorial departments in many of India’s major newspapers and television channels are now open to the highest bidder: political parties, corporations, celebrities, indeed anyone who can afford to can secure favorable coverage for themselves with a simple cash transaction. What Indians call “paid news” is not confined to a few small-town rags.
As the Financial Times reported last year, “private treaties,” the business of selling news coverage in exchange for corporate stock, was “pioneered by the Times of India a few years ago, and is now widespread in India’s national and regional press.”
In addition, a damning report last year by the Press Council of India, the industry’s watchdog group, concluded that in many cases the news media has forced politicians to pay upfront for “positive” coverage, especially during elections. (This has its amusing aspects: In the run-up to local elections last year in the Indian state of Maharashtra, three major newspapers published, under different bylines, an identical front-page article ecstatically praising the incumbent chief minister.
Yet the powerful lobby of corporate publishers who are members of the Press Council ensured that only a drastically edited version of its report on paid news was made available to the general public. (The leaked full version is now available on the Internet.) But Indians had to wait only a few months for a clearer insight into the workings of their wealthy “new” media.
Monitoring telephone calls for its own purposes, India’s income tax department inadvertently exposed a web of corrupt interconnections among Indian press, politicians and businesses. India’s mainstream newspapers and TV news channels initially tried to ignore the mountain of evidence against India’s best-known journalists, but the recordings were finally made available by Open Magazine and Outlook, two of India’s very few independent periodicals.
In one, India’s answer to Charlie Rose, Vir Sanghvi, can be heard speaking to a lobbyist for two of India’s biggest corporations, Tata Group and Reliance Industries. “What kind of story do you want?” Sanghvi asks, and then goes on to offer a “fully scripted” and “rehearsed” television interview with Reliance’s chairman, Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man.
In another recording, Barkha Dutt, a sort of cross between Oprah Winfrey and Katie Couric, can be heard offering to help the lobbyist place a politician in a high ministerial post. (The politician, subsequently appointed telecommunications minister, has been arrested and stands accused of cheating the nation out of billions of dollars by selling the mobile phone spectrum cheaply to his preferred corporate groups).
As in Britain, incestuous ties between businessmen, politicians and journalists in India have long been an open secret. Almost everyone in these circles knows who is beholden to whom, and for what. Yet little of this information gets out to the Indian public. Any news organization that thinks about violating the Indian press’s “dog will not eat dog” principle will be deterred by the severe punishment meted out by the government to the newsmagazine Tehelka. In 2001 it caught on video senior army officers, bureaucrats in the defense ministry and the political head of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party taking bribes to approve defense contracts. The government retaliated with an investigation into the magazine and harassment of its financial backers.
Small magazines such as Tehelka and the Caravan continue to break important stories about individual acts of corruption. But accounts of systemic malpractice throughout the media and the country’s political, commercial and legal institutions are rare. And self-examination is rarer still. According to the leaked version of the Council of India report from last year, the rot in the Indian media “goes beyond the corruption of individual journalists and media companies and has become pervasive, structured and highly organized.”
Sound familiar? Rupert Murdoch, abandoned by politicians in Britain, and facing uncomfortable questions in Australia and the U.S., may find no more hospitable place for his investments and his modus operandi than India.
(Pankaj Mishra, the author of “Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond,” is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Mashobra, India. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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