Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

The obvious question not asked was that even after related matters had been investigated a few years back (though then closed) and a whistle blower from NOTW is now dead, the Big Three knew nothing, asked nothing.

Public Trust Betrayed

The UK Parliamentary Committee failed to press home the advantage and let the Murdochs and Brooks off. Elsewhere the soul searching begins.

By B G Verghese

New Indian Express, 24 July, 2011

The jingle goes something like this: Thank God you cannot bribe or twist/ The sturdy British Journalist./ But considering what the man will do un-bribed / There isn’t any reason to”.

The News of the World scandal has been worse. The Murdochs, father and son, and their confidante and CEO Rebekah Brooks, could not answer anything and seemed like amateur Artful Dodgers. They had seen no evil, heard no evil, and done no evil, but were very sorry for the terrible errors committed by persons they trusted who had trusted persons they in turn had trusted and so down the line. Rupert Murdoch said he took full responsibility but then disclaimed accountability on the ground that he (his son and the CEO) had been let down by persons unknown and he was the best person now to clean up the mess.

The Parliamentary Committee did not do a particularly brilliant job. They asked some searching questions but failed to press home the advantage and let the Murdochs and Brooks get off with pleading that what they said should not prejudice the parallel criminal proceedings being conducted by Scotland Yard. The obvious question not asked was that even after related matters had been investigated a few years back (though then closed) and a whistle blower from NOTW is now dead, the Big Three knew nothing, asked nothing. This surely betrayed an arrogant contempt for the truth or total incompetence on the part of the world’s largest media magnate, or possibly both. Should not the Committee have questioned that if this indeed was the case, how could Murdoch be trusted to continue to run his global media empire as though nothing had happened, no one had been wounded and public interest had not been gravely harmed by employing private detectives as news sources, bribing the police, hacking voice-mail , invading privacy and private grief, NOTW editors getting post- retirement police sinecures, intimidating office staff (as we now learn) , and influence peddling.

Surely, the media, especially large convergent conglomerates, are not merely commercial empires entitled to make a legitimate profit, but something in the nature of public trusts and thereby trustees of the reading, listening and viewing public. The instant and global media of today is in some ways not just the Fourth Estate. It now leads the pack in terms of information, immediacy, and in shaping public opinion that bears heavily on the executive, legislative branch and judiciary. None can escape its influence. Hence the high importance of media responsibility and accountability.

The British people are not too happy with existing media regulation and self-regulation and one fall out of the NOTW scandal is the appointment of Lord Justice Leveson to examine media practices, assisted by a panel of independent experts. The panel will investigate all information-related crimes, including hacking into e-mail and phones and more will unfold.

There are lessons here globally and certainly for India which has a vibrant, convergent and fast-growing multi-dimensional media but without the corrective of a public broadcast system. Broadcasting content and practice is scarcely regulated by law and the Independent Broadcaster’s Association regulatory body is still in its infancy and limited in its reach and range. Legislative regulation has thus far been resisted on the ground that it is unnecessary and would be an assault on media freedom. This is a mistaken view. The present open-house, anything goes policy has led to grave misuse of power and blatant irresponsibility - media trials, invasions of privacy and grief, sensationalism, some atrociously chauvinistic and provocative anchoring, loss of civility and trivialisation through bogus claims to breaking news and story impacts. The result is that what should be serious discussion alternates between rowdy exchanges and invective and a circus with verbal stuntmen taking over. The only straight news regularly available is on Doordarshan. The rest is for the most part highly opinionated.

The print media has taken the lead with dubious practices such as paid news, private treaties and partisanship. Editors, though legally responsible for everything published, have ben dispensed with or enfeebled. The Press Council met its Waterloo over is paid news inquiry. Prasar Bharati has been emasculated. This is not a happy situation and little is being done about it. The last Press Commission was a disaster, full of ideological bombast and no understanding of the role of the media and a vision for communication for a 21st century emerging India. Yet, it may be time for a new Commission with sensible members and sensible terms of reference and required to report within six months.

Meanwhile, the UK House of Commons inquest into the NOTW scandal has evoked comparisons with parallel Indian hearings/meetings of standing committees, select committees, the PAC and JPCs. The question being asked is why such hearings ad meetings should not be open to the media since parliamentary proceedings are televised. There is much to be said for transparency but a caution is in order. Though there certainly are good debates, what members say in Parliament generally follows the party line and is not without a lot of grandstanding, boycotts and charging into the well of the House in order to impress audiences back home in their constituencies. If committee hearings were televised, the process would be repeated to the detriment of much frank discussion that takes place behind closed doors.

In closed meetings the party whip is often set aside and members offer frank and valuable comments that find place in a largely consensual report that is tabled in the House. This procedure has much merit. But, the critic will exclaim, this does not happen in the House of Commons. Maybe. But nor does the House of Commons see members creating bedlam, defying the Speaker, hurling abuse and blocking all proceedings, sometimes for an entire session. Work cultures differ. For the same reason, the argument of the popular sovereign’s right to information can be pushed too far. Too much revealed too early in the decision making process can impede and distort the process and outcome and drive real discussion and decision making underground to the detriment of good governance and true accountability.

Finally, a word on Indian participation in seminars hosted by Ghulam Nabi Fai, recently arrested in the US for unreported funding by the ISI for his Kashmir American Council, a known pro-Pakistan lobby based in Washington. Those accused of selling the country at Fai’s seminars include such honourable men as Rajinder Sachar, Kuldip Nayar, Dileep Padgaonkar, currently a J&K Interlocutor, and others drawn from the media and academia. Even if these men and women had known that Fai was ISI-funded, something they did not know at the time, they expressed an Indian point of view. Paranoia over the episode is uncalled for and ignores the fact that many critics too attend meetings funded elsewhere by front bodies for other intelligence and special-interest groups (environmental, human rights, etc, ) to win friends and influence people. It is not so much where you go but what you say and do that matters.

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