Will Indian media learn the Murdoch lessons?

A media magnate being grilled and a prime minister called into question. As the drama unfurled in London and millions watched News Corp chief Rupert Murdoch and British Prime Minister David Cameron explaining their stance on media ethics and government accountability, questions were asked whether there were any lessons in it for Indian media and their growing influence over the nation’s public life and polity.

When Murdoch’s News of the World (NOTW) unceremoniously exited from the world tabloid space after it was found that some of its journalists hacked phones of a dead 13-year-old girl and 9/11 victims – all for some heartfelt stories – outrage followed. What also followed in quick succession were apologies and resignations from top police officers and others.

In India, with its long tradition of a free and vibrant media, the questions that followed were inevitable. Innovative stings and advanced techniques of phone tapping were still virgin territory for much of the media, struggling with low budgets, but the larger lessons were the same.

What is needed is some self-introspection, said veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar. He believes the situation in Indian media is not as bad as in the West, “but the press is not that free because of corporate ownership of media houses”.

Bias, lies, paid news, plagiarism, political leanings and corporatisation are increasingly entering the public domain. And they all came together with the disclosure of the Niira Radia tapes that gave an insight into the symbiotic relationship among journalists, corporate, politicians and public relations managers.

The transcripts, released in November 2010 by Open and Outlook magazines, relate to conversations corporate lobbyist Radia had with a series of people, including journalists Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi, raising questions about media ethics and the cosy relationship that journalists often enjoyed with politicians.

But the fact that no action was taken against the reporters in question “is a typical example of how nothing really happens in the end in India”, said Sashi Nair of Chennai’s Press Institute of India.

“…Barkha Dutt never really went away. Sometimes, we must apply the same yardstick to ourselves by which we judge politicians,” Nair said.

“Except N. Ram (editor-in-chief of The Hindu) mentioning that had it been the NYT (New York Times) or the WSJ (Wall Street Journal) or the Guardian would they have tolerated such behaviour, nobody else really said anything significant,” he added.

As the world witnessed the rare spectacle of a media tycoon being ruthlessly questioned under public scrutiny in London, it’s difficult to say that the press can be ever held accountable like that in India, say experts.

“I don’t see it happening… We don’t have a system of televised hearings, and I don’t think we have media barons who think they owe the public an explanation for what their papers or channels do,” media analyst Sevanti Ninan, who runs a media watchdog The Hoot, said.

Sashi Nair agreed, saying India was not mature enough for the kind of transparency one has seen in Britain.

However, Aniruddha Bahal, who launched the Tehelka website with Tarun Tejpal and introduced India to sting operations by exposing match-fixing and graft in awarding defence deals, had a slightly different take.

“Well, grilling is a common phenomenon in India as well. I was grilled by both the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha over our cash-for-questions story in 2005. The only difference is that it wasn’t telecast live,” said Bahal, now the editor of online investigation portal cobrapost.com.

The cash-for-questions case, or Operation Duryodhana, a Cobrapost-Aaj Tak investigation, busted 11 MPs accepting monies for asking questions in parliament.

The jury is also still out on whether sting operations are a legitimate practice.

While Ninan believes they are justified “only in a situation where there is substantial public interest at stake”, Nair is completely against it.

“Let the media get stories done by reporters in the normal course. Sting operations can be done by government or investigative agencies when required and as per law,” he said.

Ninan cites the examples of “NDTV sting operation in the BMW case or the tapping of corporate lobbyist Radia’s phone which showed that corporate were seeking to influence ministerial appointments” as the perfect examples in the legitimate category.

The NDTV sting alleged collusion between the prosecution and defence counsel to help Sanjeev Nanda, accused of killing six people with a BMW car in a 1999 hit-and-run case.

Bahal also draws the line between stings and phone hacking. Phone tapping, he said, is illegal as it “implies a third party interception of a conversation between two people using illegal means”.

In a sting, “the reporter is shooting a conversation or scene in which he is present. He is there with an editorial intent exposing something which would be in public interest”.

The jury is out on that one too. By Mohita Nagpal