Sevanti Ninan

Media Matters: No room for morality

Protesters outside News International's headquarters in London.  

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 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.

Thinking big

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 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. And 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 big. 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 pressurise 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 that politicians needed Murdoch more and were happy to use him.

Consumer formula

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 the 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. And then they bounce back when it looks like the company will ride out its troubles. In case of the 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. And just days after Dayanidhi Maran quit in disgrace, Sun 18, a distribution partnership venture between the Sun TV Network and Network 18, was announced.

Moral of the story? Those who get to the top by fair means or foul have built truly diversified empires which will keep going, criminal charges notwithstanding.

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Printable version | Jul 31, 2021 2:52:29 AM |

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