Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Not the end of the world

Simon Jenkins
The Guardian

Britain has gone mad, or at least the tiny patch of Britain round Westminster. The Pentagon would call it a cluster-fuck , an all embracing, uncontrollable chain reaction that appears unable to cease. The new ecstasy theorists call it "whooshing" when reason loses out to passion and thought to imagination. As after the death of Princess Diana, every politician and commentator cried: "The world will never be the same again."

The world usually is. On Tuesday, Rupert Murdoch and his son were summoned before Parliament and gave an eerie performance as an ageing father who had vaguely heard his son had done something regrettable in the family woodshed. Meanwhile British Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to return from a foreign trip, like a tottering dictator called home by the politburo. The country's top policeman and top counter-terrorism cop were forced into resignation. Two government judicial inquiries have been set up. Two Commons committees are in continuous sessions. The police are everywhere. Journalists and MPs are lying on the floor,, kicking their legs in the air with glee.

Has anyone been murdered? Has anyone been ruined? Is the nation gripped by financial crash or pandemic, earthquake or famine? Are thousands homeless or millions impoverished? A squalid surveillance of the sort long conducted by the tabloid press went beyond what in this business is laughably called good taste and constituted a crime.

That everyone knew journalists and the police were engaged in petty barter does not make it acceptable, let alone legal. Nor is it edifying to know how far politicians and editors are in and out of each other's houses. But it is not the fall of the Berlin Wall or the Nuremberg trials. The downtrodden are not marching against their great satan, Rupert Murdoch. They are more likely mad at losing their favourite paper. There is a limit to how much significance any event can carry without imploding into daft hysteria.

There are some silver linings to these eruptions. The death of Diana maelstrom pulled the royal family out of its introversion. The Iraq war revealed the alarming corruption of intelligence by politics. The News of The World affair has dragged those who owns newspapers to answer for their custodianship before a parliamentary committee. There is no harm in those who dominate the media being called to account. Nor is the commercial rivalry that has driven this story inherently bad, if acknowledged. It is unsurprising that Murdoch's fiercest critics should be also his fiercest competitors, notably The Guardian and the BBC.

Already the cock-a-hoop Labour and Liberal Democrat parties are calling for statutory curbs on media ownership. Labour leader Ed Miliband wants to break up Murdoch's News International, presumably to stop owning two daily papers. He might also have to tackle the Lebedev family, which has two titles and The Daily Mail, which on one definition is now Britain's biggest newspaper group. It is hard to see what real purpose is served in, for instance, taking the Times from Murdoch. Its losses are reputedly so large it might close or be butchered by a new owner. Others may have suggested a ban on papers being run for vanity rather than profit, being cross-subsidized or foreign-owned. Any such proposal would more likely see titles close than open.

Newspaper ownership has always been crazy and eccentric, dominated by the ego and a yearning for glory. It seldom has to do with profit. If it had, the recent history of British newspapers would have been a miserable one. Murdoch's influence on tabloid journalism has been dire, though he is hardly alone in this. His influence on the media industry in general has been that of a serial innovator--confronting unions, lowering production costs, pay-for-view TV and now paywalls. All newspapers have benefited from this, loathe though they may be to admit it.

None of these excuses misleading Parliament or hacking phones. But today's storm-cloud of hysteria is a poor prelude to what could emerge from this, not a sensible attempt to redefine journalistic ethics but a back-handed attempt to restructure an industry.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

A wife like Wendi

Why can't you be like her?
You want me to dye my hair flaming red?

No darling, not like Rebekah Brooks, but like Rupert Murdoch's wife Wendi Deng.
You want me to be 38 years younger than you? But you're just 40 years old yourself?

Oof! All I'm saying is that you've never defended me like Wendi defended her husband on Tuesday when she sprung to action and landed a blow on the foam pie attacker.
But I come to your defence! Remember that day when you banged against the car in front...

Yes, dear, you did shout at the driver but maybe you could given the chap a left hook.
But unlike Wendi, I never played volleyball.

Now you're just looking for excuses. Never mind. I shouldn't say anything.
Don't be silly. You must be just stressing over your bhujiya empire going through some problems.

Yes, that must be it. Sorry. So can we now watch that scene again from Kill Bill Volume 1 where Lucy Liu as the vicious gang leader O-Ren Ishii chops the head off a dissenting monster?

Do say: Some media barons have all the luck.
Don't say: James Murdoch has one hell of a Tiger Mother.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Quiet a while

Barkha Dutt

For those of us who still believe in the political process and the idea of India, these are lonely times. On one hand, sundry and smarmy interlopers have hijacked the political discourse and trivialized it with their hyperventilation. But on the other side, the absolute surrender of the robust, honest leadership by the government--and the fact that it appears to have totally lost its way--has thrown open the highway for freelancers and self-styled Robin Hood figures. The problem now is that no matter who you hitch a ride with, you end up in a place that isn't your choosing.

So yes, while we can--and do--cite the huge voter turnouts in the recent Assembly elections to make the point that the sweeping anti-politician sentiment is still an elitist, urban phenomenon, the bare truth is that the UPA has not done anything to restore the country's sense of confidence. So, if you an Anna Hazare acolyte and you are exasperated by the lethargy of this political leadership, who do you turn to? And what do you believe in any longer?

Why is it--I asked former Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan--that though the UPA has secured the resignations of more ministers and high-profile politicians than perhaps any other ruling coalition, the overwhelming impression is still one of paralysis and ineffectiveness. She conceded that at least part of the problem was being on the losing side of the perception battle. And yet in a week when the world's most powerful politician just wrapped up his first "Twitter townhall", the Prime Minister's team continues to regard the very notion of direct communication as an airy-fairy, new-age concept that has no real relevance, except to the English media.

Sophocles first warned that silence only strengthened the "accuser's charge". But it was French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, an inspiration for the French Revolution, whose words captured the depth of its damage when he wrote "absolute silence leads to sadness. It is the image of death."

Indeed, two years into its tenure, the UPA has begun to resemble a drowning man who is barely managing to come up in air. The Prime Minister, despite his essential decency, has come to be perceived as a sad and listless caricature of himself. When the government did accept the overwhelming criticism of being seen but heard, it reacted in an extraordinarily tepid manner that took the shape of the Prime Minister meeting a handful of senior newspaper editors. Quite aside of the botch-ups that made their way into the official transcript released after this meeting, was this mediated and controlled interaction really the best way to reach out to the people of India?

All right, the Prime Minister may think Twitter is banal and TV even worse. But across the world, leaders have other ways of reaching out. The use State of the Nation broadcasts or regularly drop in on their favourite radio show, or better still, work their way into a crowd, clasping the hands of their constituents in a perfect Clintonian moment of communication.

Here, culturally, politics remains trapped in a "Mai-baap" template of patronage by the powerful for the poor. Our leaders sit aloof on a stage that stares down at an impoverished but eager sea of people, kept at suitable distance from them behind wooden barricades and gun-toting, safari-suited security officials. Rahul Gandhi's padyatra politics is finally a more informal and friendly attempt at mass contact. But even he restricts himself to the villages of Bharat, ignoring for the most part, the ordinary of Middle India. However, even by Indian standards of stodgy communication, the Prime Minister is bewilderingly silent. Even inside Parliament, his interventions are irregular and mostly triggered by political crises or assaults by the Opposition.

It was agricultural expert YK Alagh who first famously called Manmohan Singh an "overestimated economist and an underestimated politician," a line that self-described "loose cannon" Digvijaya Singh would repeat in the course of several TV shows. But where is the political dimension to the Prime Minister buried today? Does he appear unassertive because he is invisible? Or is he invisible because he does not have the freedom to be assertive? Is the sense of disarray his government conveys a losing his control or a by-product of the intrigue within his team that has pitched minister against minister in barely disguised turf-wars? It's probably the combination of all three.

But the Prime Minister--known to be a reflective man--must ask himself a tough question. During his first tenure as the head of this government he was willing to resign than see a nuclear deal he had invested his legacy in all by the wayside. If he is unable to come out and take charge of an unravelling situation, are the reasons to preserve his legacy not far more crucial now?

While we are on the subject of America--why can't the PM borrow a lesson or two from President Barack Obama? Come and talk to us--your citizens--and admit that mistakes were made. Concede as he did that you have got a "shellacking" or two and promise us that you will now lead from the front and not hide behind the opaqueness of coalition politics. Do not be a stranger to your own people.

Otherwise, Manmohan Singh needs to remember that tears in a fabric can be held together by safety pins only for long. After a point, when the threads start coming loose, it's sometimes best to get yourself a new set of clothes. The problem with the UPA is that it doesn't seem to want to fix anything, unless it is broken beyond repair.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Exit: Red Riding Hood

Janine Gibson
The Guardian

Since she was made editor of the News of The World 11 years ago, there has been almost no briefing against Rebekah Brooks. Before she got the big job there were some attempts to dismiss by reducing her to ambitious woman cliches but afterwards the shutters came down. She was tight with everyone, everyone wanted her favours and she circled every administration, every agent, every rising star, every imploding career.

That is, until Thursday (14th July 2011), when her close friend Elisabeth Murdoch was quoted telling friends that Rebekah had "fucked the company". Rebekah Wade, as she then was, was Elisabeth's friend from the moment she arrived in London. They holidayed, worked, played and networked for more than a decade. News International is an empire built on personal loyalty and clannish defiance. As an indication that it was all over, it was brutally efficient.

By now plenty has been written on Rebekah Brooks, her hair, her hippie-like charm and her husbands. But the key to her rise and fall is none of these things. It's her membership of a very select group who have nothing to do with Chipping Norton. She is the archetypal red-top tabloid editor. People who have known her very well for a long time, whose relationships with her began professionally and developed into friendship are baffled. These are not blind loyalists--they describe a warm, generous, "good" person who they cannot reconcile with the crimes committed. But they don't believe she could have not known either.

The thing about Rebekah is that she may have looked very different from those who came before, but you can draw a connecting line through two generations of tabloid editors and see the evolution of the species. Kelvin MacKenzie, Piers Morgan, Andy Coulson and Rebekah Wade. Tabloid editors are ruthless and funny, arrogant and sometimes breathtakingly empathetic, monomaniacal yet inspiring leaders---and form cults around their personalities. MacKenzie essentially raised them all: puppyish Piers, Andy the professional and Rebekah the velvet glove. They were a generation of editors who grew out of the Sun's Bizarre column and the ability to work both sides of a story--be snapped with your arm around a celeb while simultaneously stitching them up.

We have been so busy exorcising the culture of fear and corruption that we have forgotten that while politicians and celebrities have always been scared of tabloids, they were often enthralled by them. At their best these editors were fantastically intuitive, but the fatal flaw of the tabloid is overreaching. Morgan tried to be a City whizzkid, played the markets, got caught and ended up the subject of a DTI investigation into insider trading. It was allegedly fake photographs that brought him down, but it was the Viglen affair that put him in the last chance saloon.

Mackenzie, oddly, was felled by his own ambition to be a mini-Murdoch. After a brief stint in management at BSkyB and the Mirror Group, he wanted to be the proprietor and tried to achieve mogul-dom with Talk Radio. Now he's back in the tabs, a voice of the people columnist.

Rebekah Brooks had ambitions to run the show. Her supporters were pitching her as Les Hinton's natural successor as News International chief executive almost from the moment she became editor of the Sun. But, having got the job, she was out of her depth. Tabloid editors aren't strategists, they are instinctive; they don't run businesses, they run campaigns, or feuds. The only truly successful one with longevity is Paul Dacre of the Mail and he's never ventured anywhere near the share price.

Rebekah Brooks was not brought down by innate evilness, nor fragility, nor some dreadful father-daughter dynamic with Rupert Murdoch. She wasn't even brought down by the crime, however thin the "I-knew-nothing" defence is wearing. She was brought down, like many a chief executive before her, for bad handling of the crisis. For failing to anticipate a public mood. Which, for a tabloid editor, is the worst sin of all.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Media Matters

Sevanti Ninan
The Hindu

The last fortnight has been a fresh learning in why media morality and media power have become progressively incompatible. It has seen a reinvoking of the famous Citizen Kane fable. Two media scandals unfolded in different parts of the world--here a Minister resigned after the Central Bureau of Investigation said they had enough evidence on how he had used his office to help his family's media empire. In London, the Murdochs, father and son, tried hard to contain the damage after their hugely successful tabloid News of The World stood accused of sustained criminal activity--hacking private telephone records. They shut down the newspaper.

Can morality afford to matter for a big-stakes media player? You do not become really big, influential and seriously wealthy by being a stickler for rules and regulations. At least not in a business like media where tickling the popular imagination is your ticket to success and the bigger your canvas and the more daring the experimentation, the better. Notwithstanding existing regulations. Spectacular success requires an imagination that is not limited by boundaries. Such boundaries as are created by law, fairness, propriety and ethics come in the way of imagining a soaring media empire.

Neither Rupert Murdoch nor the Marans got where they are today by thinking small. One began in Australia, with two inherited newspapers and has subsequently founded a $33 billion empire, going across continents and a range of media technologies. When his citizenship came in the way of further ownership, Murdoch smartly changed it. Across the world, partnerships were entered into and gotten out of, governments influenced by lobbying or placated by dumping an irksome news channel or the publication of a book. If acquiring control of BSkyB is denied today, other ways of getting there will surely be explored.

Kalanidhi Maran founded Sun TV when regional satellite TV was an idea waiting to be executed and quickly jumped into cable when it became evident that carriage was crucial. Once he was in carriage and also in politics, the family wasn't going to let propriety stop them from leveraging one for the other, so Sumangali became a powerful political tool. Once you are in media with an appetite, you don't stop at one kind of media. If politics opens up other possibilities, you grab them. Conflict of interest is such a stuffy notion, no one--neither the giver of ministries (the UPA) nor the seeker (the DMK)--was going to let it come in the way of a pragmatic partnership. As one said before, media morality and media power begin to diverge when the stakes are high. So you go from TV to cable, to radio, to newspapers, to film production and DTH till your founder has a net worth of $3.5 billion. A bigger canvas requires more investors and if you have to make some not-so-nice moves to get them, you make those moves.

Sometimes though and here is where the twin fables converge, you meet your match. Dayanidhi Maran as Communications Minister was accused of trying to pressurize the Tatas and Murdochs to give the Sun Network equity in the Tata Sky DTH venture. And did not get his way. (Ratan Tata referred to this history in April this year when he deposed before the Public Accounts Committee.)

In the UK, Murdoch operated in a regulated environment but until now that did not cramp his style. The Marans can merge politics with media because this country's laws permit it. Britain limits political ownership of media, but that only meant politicians needed Murdoch more and were happy to use him.

A media empire acquires scale when it has both entertainment and news. The first to rake in money, the second to garner clout to protect interests. Neither Sun TV nor Murdoch's Star TV (or his other media properties) have got themselves audiences by giving people what is good for them. Media success brooks no rigid morality. Because the consumer is equally relative in his or her morality. Both the ones who devoured salacious stories the News of The World put out and the ones who lapped up the raunchy videos of a frolicking swami that Sun TV telecast.

Nor is the shareholder governed by any absolute morality. Shares fall when there is bad news. Then they bounce back when it looks like the company will ride out its troubles. In the case of Sun TV Network and one of Kalanidhi Maran's companies, SpiceJet, the shares fell when Dayanidhi Maran resigned, but bounced right back.

Though Carl Bernstein was predicting darkly last fortnight in Newsweek that Murdoch's current crisis could see his interests in other parts of the world begin to unravel, that is unlikely to happen. Just days after Dayanidhi Maran quit in disgrace, Sun 18, a distribution partnership between the Sun TV network and Network 18, was announced.

Hence, the moral of the story is those who get to the top by fair means or foul have built truly diversified empires which will keep going, criminal charges notwithstanding.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Breaking News, Breaking Lives

Much has been written about the inevitable and impending demise of the newspaper, "News of The World", especially in the West. None of those oft-repeated reasons for going out of business will, however, apply when the 168 year old News of The World shut down after its last edition on July 10th. A weekly tabloid whose infamy and fortune have always depended on its muck-raking skills, the Britain based newspaper sold 2.6 million copies every week and was generally regarded to be the parent company News Corporation's most profitable venture.

The end of what was undoubtedly a dream run, given these tight times, came from the newspaper's rapacity for bolder, raunchier scoops that led its journalists to outsource the hacking of voicemail messages on mobile phones to a private investigator. The revelations of the identity of these targets shocked all: a teenage girl who was murdered in 2002, relatives of British servicemen killed in Afghanistan and Iraq and survivors of the July 2005 terrorist attacks on London.

The propensity to get mileage out of other people's misery caused widespread revulsion and disgust, with advertiser pulling out as a mark of censure and a reader's boycott on the cards. Given the predatory, ruthless and avaricious reputation that NewsCorp CEO Rupert Murdoch has earned over his life and career, it was expected that he would bear much of the ferocious backlash. And yet even while he was being accused of pulling a fast one by closing the paper instead of fixing the guilt and responsibility where they lay, sending his staff as the proverbial lamb to the slaughter, other British tabloids remained largely silent, almost as an admission to their complicity in using similarly dubious methods to unearth new sensations.

The market craves an endless supply of sleaze, longing for a vicarious peek into the bed-chambers of the rich and famous and these were but ways and means of satisfying that insatiable appetite. And yet the means employed by News of The World to stay commercially afloat--phone hacking, covert filming or using agents provocateur--are disturbingly similar to what unfolds all around us under vastly different circumstances.

In 2010, Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University student who was secretly filmed by his roommate during a sexual act, jumped to his death, unable to bear the public spectacle that an intensely private moment had become. Closer home and earlier that year, Shriniwas Ramachandra Siras, a professor at the Aligarh Muslim University, was hounded out of his job and eventually committed suicide after being caught on camera, having sex with a rickshaw-puller. Long ago, the prying eyes and ears of modern technology had deemed our lives and actions to be fit fodder for public entertainment. Through our mass acquiescence, we have precluded all possibilities of settling that account.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Mumbai's Yesterday, Once Again

The evening of 13th July 2011 brought back a strong sense of deja vu for the people of Mumbai and for most of us in India as the news channels beamed gory visuals of three blasts which took place at diamond district Zaveri Bazaar, Dadar and Opera House. The shocking blasts once again bring us to the fundamental question, "Are we really safe after 26/11?"

The morning after the blasts, news channels showcased the cliched and famed resolve of the residents of Mumbai who do not dwell on tragedies and their will to continue with their lives in spite of the adversities, to commute, work, party, shop etc. It is not really the resilience that works all the time. The residents of Mumbai are resilient by force and not by choice. As I write this on a rainy Thursday morning, the city is agonizingly limping back to normal. A city trying to find feet on the ground. The resilience has not died down but is under massive duress. The city of Mumbai cannot afford to shut down and the recent blasts are enough to shatter the confidence in the system.

For an ordinary layman, terror and its consequences of heightened security and a sense of fear come on top of daily horrors that they have internalized as a way of life. Violence being one of them apart from having to claw their way into overcrowded commuter trains, to steel themselves against wading through filthy, flooded roads, to drink contaminated water and to live with squalor and stench.

I have never been in a war zone or in the scene of a terror attack. The whole idea of a terror attack takes me back to a scene in Mani Ratnam's Tamil film "Bombay" where the main protagonists Arvind Swamy and Manisha Koirala frantically search for their twin boys as the city burns in the wake of the 1992-1993 communal riots. The hypnotic background music by AR Rahman silences their helpless voices.

The failure to detect movements of suspected terrorists as well as terrorist organizations before their diseased minds could execute their dangerous designs is the greatest tragedy. It essentially points out to the failure of basic policing and to the utter destruction to the network of informers. The Mumbai Police lost their strong network of informers' after the 1992-1993 communal riots and did not bother to build it again.

On a rational note, we need to be realistic and make our proposed sea links less ambitious and make high-speed as well as elevated rail corridors a dream that best remains on paper. Instead, we should concentrate on paying attention on paying more attention to our policemen by giving them more facilities and a better pay package so as to make the job lucrative. At the same time, we must also try and fill up the existing vacancies and improve their self-esteem. In this critical juncture, we do not really need high-speed rail corridors but a shared sense of purpose.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Second-hand Death

Ritika Narayanan

I've heard it whispered,

I've heard it said aloud,

I've heard it passed around
a thousand times.

I've heard it in my mind,
Dissolving all sense of reality.

I've heard it repeated,
Echoing hollowly.
The subject ceased existence.

It hurt me, every time I heard it.
It hurt me more, when I feigned relaxed.
Gut-wrenching pangs, not of grief nor anger,
Hurt me every time I remember
That sweet face that now sleeps tranquil.

But my pain is second-hand
-it doesn't belong to me-
It's owner and bearer
Is hurt more than I can imagine.
I have tried and failed to imagine, though.

I do wish this pain had never come,
Not to the bearer, nor to the sharer.
(And may it not happen to the sharer in actuality.)

Coward, I am, who cannot face the fact
Of death, all pervasive intruder
Into normalcy.

Though I grieve as the one no more
was one of my own,
Nothing could compare to the grief of the one
Who grieves because it was one's own.

My grief is second-hand as is the death.