Accountability Lesson

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The manner in which the phone hacking controversy as well as its retribution is unfolding in Britain is interesting for more reasons than one. The media in the country is being pilloried in the open, and deservingly too, for crossing its limits of journalistic propriety and democratic accountability. To put it in a nutshell, the investigation is about how journalists of one of the best selling tabloids of country, News of the World, used phone hacking (phone tapping) widely and indiscriminately as a newsgathering strategy, in the mad race to be always scoops ahead of their rivals. The scandal has already resulted in some top heads of the media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s News International rolling, including that of its chief executive Rebekah Brooks. Even Rupert Murdoch and his son James Murdoch, chairman of the company, along with Brooks, were grilled in the British Parliament, the entire proceeding of which was televised across the globe. Murdoch it may be recalled owns an estimated 176 media organisations across the globe, some of which are amongst the most prestigious in the business. The latest of the big time purchases he made is the respected American newspaper The Wall Street Journal. What is also loudly evident is the storm of public outrage the issue has raised in Britain.

Even as the public trial of the scandal unfolds in Britain, the contrast with which a similar scandal was treated in India, cannot escape discerning observers. We refer to the ongoing investigation into the 2G scandal. While the scandal rocked the country and literally shook up the government establishment, resulting in even in Union ministers having to pay the price, a good section of the media which was also implicated, perhaps not directly in bribe taking or deal making, but in actually facilitating the key players in the scandals, virtually went with little or no penalty. Public outrage too sooner than later died down, and those implicated are back as the media stars they were before their involvement in the scandal became known. Nobody, not even those exposed to intense public scrutiny resigned or were relieved from their jobs, and nobody, not the least the general public, seem to mind this either. Does this in any way say there is a difference in public ethical standards between the West and here? In the run up to the Commonwealth Games, when construction of portions of the village was found to be incomplete and filthy, a similar statement that there was a wide difference in the hygiene standards between Indian and the West was made by a top official in charge of the construction of the Games Venue, scandalising many. Many of the top officials in this scandal too also indeed have had to face severe retributions. The question then is, why were all those in the media charged of complicity in the 2G scam spared altogether? Equally, it must also be said, along with the media, corporate houses implicated in these scandals did not also get the same treatment under the law as government officials caught in the act.

This is time for the media in the country to reflect. While it cannot be denied that the Indian media has done commendably well in bringing to book the government for many wrongdoings, it has always somewhat treated itself as the beyond ordinary law or public scrutiny. This self righteousness is what must be purged for the media to not only gain public respectability but strengthen its own moral standing. At this moment, even mainstream broadsheets have introduced elements of tabloid sleaze and although it is true this has boosted the sale of these newspapers, media observers are now predicting a backlash sooner than later. In many of the discussions in the Indian media that followed the phone hacking scandal in Britain, the nostalgia for the media or yore which commanded public faith and not just the market shares was clearly felt. True there can be no a U-turn now. The times have changed and lifestyles have transformed unrecognizably in the face of a liberalised, globalised economy. News today must also be laced with entertainment, especially when it comes to the visual media, for it to still catch eyeballs, but this does not mean every value which form the foundation of the media must be abandoned. One of these is public accountability, and there seems to be a shortfall of this quality at the moment. There is no gainsaying this does not have to be abandoned anywhere anytime, as the unfolding trial in Britain, of the world’s most powerful media organisation, lead by the world’s most iconic media mogul, is demonstrating.

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