As British Members of Parliament united against Rupert Murdoch last week, the most revealing quote came from one of his advisors who ruefully said, “Not even Saddam Hussein managed to unite the Commons like he did. Talk about revenge being served cold.”
Faced with such unanimous and unprecedented political opposition, Mr Murdoch has retreated but the scale of the public fury raises an interesting question: how could a media baron ever become so powerful? And could it happen in India?
Every politician likes a friendly press but what we are seeing unravelling in Britain is something special in the usual media-politician equation. Incredibly, media reports of the parliamentary proceedings have described a new kind of euphoric freedom among MPs.
If one didn’t read the names or the details, it would almost be like they were shaking off the yoke of a Mubarak-like dictator in a new British Spring.
The reason why Mr Murdoch has been the Darth Vader of politicians’ imaginations is simple. Ed Miliband, the British Leader of Opposition, explains the fear saying, “many people have believed that you can’t win without Murdoch, you can’t win without The Sun.”
It is a fear that dates back to 1992 when the Conservatives won a close election that Labour’ Neil Kinock had been expected to win in opinion polls.
The Sun ran a vigorous campaign against him, culminating in telling its readers on voting day: “If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights”. When Kinock finally lost, the paper ran a banner-headline that has come to epitomise the Murdoch era: “It’s The Sun wot won it”.
This is why Tony Blair, when invited by Murdoch to Australia in 1995, when he was still aiming for Prime Minister-ship, said when you are invited into “the lion’s den, you go, don’t you.”
So, could this happen in India? Can one imagine a media baron wielding such power in this country? It seems an unlikely prospect.
India today has the highest newspaper circulations in the world and also the most expanding TV market anywhere.
There are all kinds of equations between media owners and politicians at the central level and in the states. Indian media owners do have influence but Murdoch’s special place in the British polity grew from the extent to which his media outlets could influence voting patterns, or at least be perceived to be doing so.
In a small, relatively uniform country like Britain, a mass circulation paper like The Sun is a powerful vehicle for direct political mobilisation. In a diverse country like ours, it is a totally different story.
At the national level, our vibrant English language press, for instance, influences the middle classes and opinion-makers but is of little relevance to the vast majority of voters.
The influence of the press in Hindi and other languages is specific to their regions. Geographical and linguistic diversity by itself dictates a plurality of media voices and it is this basic but underestimated feature of our polity that mitigates against the creation of a one-size-fits-all vehicle to reach voters.
A good example is Mayawati who won a majority in UP without ever courting the press. In fact, her political strategy deliberately excludes the national and regional press on the assumption that it is biased against her anyway and in any case, it never reaches her voters.
If anything, the politician-media nexus is skewed in favour of the politicians. In Andhra Pradesh, for instance, 11-12 of the state’s 14 TV news channels are indirectly or directly controlled by politicians or their proxies. From Tamil Nadu to Orissa, politicians control cable TV distribution networks and their own TV channels as well.
With Murdoch himself, in early 2003, just four days before the new all-Hindi Star News was to launch, the Vajpayee government changed the goalposts by ruling that no foreign company could own more than 26 per cent of a TV news company, bringing them on par with the rule for newspapers.
That by itself was a bad decision: it meant to keep out foreign influences in news but ignored the fact that much of the muck we see in our press is home-grown, not foreign. Yet, it underscored the reality of the name Rupert Murdoch meaning different things in different countries.
His influence in Britain is unique, across party lines. It is a country where, he signifies an “avatar of power in its purest form” as one newspaper put it. His role is completely different in the US, where he symbolises the voice of the Right, as embodied by the hugely profitable Fox News. But in China, he has often been in the position of a supplicant, in order to get more access to the market. Nothing symbolised this better than his politically loaded comment on the Dalai Lama in 1999 as “a political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes.”
In India, the political class might have been full of suspicion in the glory days of the 1990s when his satellite TV networks were bringing down the monopoly of Doordarshan but in the end, News Corp has been like a ‘normal’ media company – large and influential but nowhere near being the sinister force it is seen to be in British politics by its critics. Just like other big domestic media groups.