The News of the World a few years ago did a scoop in India, in Bollywood’s Tinseltown Mumbai. Their star undercover reporter Mazher Mahmood, the “Fake Sheikh”, tried to buy the Slumdog Millionaire child actor Rubina Ali from her father for £200,000.
I worked with Mahmood on a couple of follow-up stories throughout the sting. I reported on the police investigations and the mother’s reaction. I found Mahmood very professional and passionate about his work. News of the World was known for its investigations, though it often received criticism on ethical grounds.
The story made headlines across the globe. Indian media also reported it but I found the journalism fraternity on the defensive. “Why it that the foreign press only sees Bollywood, slums and corruption in India?” asked my colleague at Indian broadcasting channel NDTV. My answer was simple: “It sells.”
This was a perfect story for the British press. Slumdog Millionaire was a hugely popular film that did a rather exaggerated job of portraying Mumbai as a city of acute poverty, illiteracy and crime – though perhaps an improvement from the snake charmers and street elephants the country is most remembered for. The News of the World stories fit in perfectly with this theme and most importantly created the shock factor to attract readers.
And this is what the “Murdochisation of news” is all about. It’s simply a shift from doing hard-hitting news laced with details to soft news packaged in a short crisp manner, attracting viewers through shock and awe.
No doubt, most of the reports from the UK in Indian media also revolve around celebrities, high profile events, crime and controversial policies affecting the Asian diaspora. While the popular “foreign news” from the UK would feature the Royal Family, the Beckhams or Madame Tussauds.
The focus here moves from public interest to profits. But in this mad rush by media organisations to create titillating news to impact the bottom line, mistakes are often made.
Few journalists can forget the closure of the News of the World last year on allegations of phone hacking – many of those journalists once trusted the newspaper. Betrayal is hard to forgive and public outrage did not spare the paper.
It also beckoned a time for an awakening in the media, particularly in those outlets that have found themselves “Murdochised” in recent years – and that’s probably most media. Rupert Murdoch not only owns media conglomerates that span the length and breadth of the globe but is also a trendsetter in the media landscape wherever he goes.
In India, Murdoch’s Star News, a Hindi news channel, focuses its energy and resources on Bollywood and crime news – both big sellers to TV audiences. With Star News climbing the popularity charts, others began to replicate it. Now the ratings war dictates the style and content of most Hindi channels in India.
Experts argue that this has led to a culture of dumbing down of news: editors assume that audiences have a narrow vision, so local glamorous stories take precedence over serious global issues. It’s not surprising that tabloid-isation of news is the norm now, with broadsheets also carrying a tabloid supplement to reach wider audiences.
But in the haste to find exclusive news, sometimes ethics are sidestepped, rules are ignored, phones are hacked, people are stalked, paybacks are dealt out and trust is broken. So what is sometimes done in the name of journalism is nothing but theatrics.
Murdoch has revived the News of the World through The Sun on Sunday. But to revive the spirit of “real” journalism, perhaps it’s time to de-Murdochise the news?
Ruhi Khan has worked as a journalist in Mumbai and London in both print and broadcast media (including NDTV, Mumbai Mirror, Hindustan Times). A Jefferson fellow and recipient of the Mary Morgan Hewitt Award for Women in Journalism in 2008, Ruhi currently lives in London.