The travails of Rupert Murdoch and his Star TV in India and the controversial government decision in April to cap foreign direct investment in television channels jogged memories in this columnist about India’s equally controversial, early initiatives in economic diplomacy in the Nineties.
One of the best-kept secrets about P.V. Narasimha Rao’s tryst with India’s economic liberalization is the influence that the Singapore prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, had on Rao purely on the strength of Goh’s logic and the impression that Goh made on Rao, as the minority Congress government tentatively initiated reforms. There is much to write about the scintillating conversations between Rao and Goh, but this column shall only deal with it in the context of Murdoch’s current efforts to firm up his hold in India.
It would be an understatement to say that the India which Rao inherited was a mess, like the legacy of all “third force” governments. The credit rating agencies worldwide were showing India in unflattering terms and the country had a bad media internationally.
It was around that time that Goh made one of his several visits to India and conferred with Rao at length as usual, their one-on-one meeting spilling over well beyond the allotted time. The Indian television scene then was still a quarter-way house to liberalization — or less — between Doordarshan’s monopoly and the cracks in the door through which other channels, including Star TV, were trying to get in.
According to Rao’s close aides, the Singapore prime minister advised his Indian counterpart to woo Star TV as a way to repair India’s bad media image. Rao, being a Congressman brought up on Nehruvian ideology and uncomfortably familiar with Indira Gandhi’s culture of sycophancy, was only partly convinced. But Goh told him, look, Murdoch has no interest in subverting India’s political system or “polluting” its culture or traditions. Murdoch, said Goh, sees the numbers in India and China and the potential which their growing wealth represented in terms of TV and other media advertising.
To cut the long story short, on January 26 the following year, Murdoch’s Star TV covered India’s Republic Day parade live. The January 26 parade is one of India’s under-acknowledged assets in public relations terms. Its colour, its diversity and its pageantry have an appeal which New Delhi’s successive media managers had failed to exploit. Star TV’s live coverage of the parade was a spin-off of Goh’s reasoning with Rao that India needed to change the way it was being seen in Asia and around the world. And one way to do it was to work out an accommodation with a powerful global media group. When the Republic Day parade was shown live on Star TV for the first time, it was the first positive glimpse of India in many years for TV viewers in much of Asia and the Gulf. Its impact was electrifying for a country which had reconciled to bad media abroad, cursing it, as most Indian officials and others do, as “fate”. An aside to that Republic Day coverage is that the live feed for Star TV actually came from Doordarshan, which also showed the parade along Rajpath live. But while Doordarshan’s live coverage was sloppy and its transmission was grainy, Star TV did as good a job as possible of packaging it better, given the constraints under which it was doing the job.
During the last three years that this columnist has been in Washington, forceful arguments have been made during private discussions with visiting Indians holding powerful offices in New Delhi in favour of consolidating an alliance between India’s government and Murdoch. These arguments have a ring about them, similar to the ones made by Goh to Rao about a decade ago.
Let Murdoch in, open up India for his News Corporation and a substantial part of the lobbying effort for India in the United States of America will be as good as done, goes the argument. Those who campaign for such an approach maintain that this would be an effective supplement to what New Delhi is already doing in the US in alliance with the Jewish lobby in America.
The argument is not without merit and ought to be factored into any decision taken on Murdoch’s future stake in India’s media. Those who watch Fox News in the US know that on its channels, even the grain of any idea that Israel could do anything wrong is never entertained.
Those who champion this argument rationalize that there is a mountain of evidence in the US that the Pakistani leopard has not changed its spots, that the taliban continues to get succour from across Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, that almost every terrorist conspiracy unearthed in the US and across the world has at least some link, howsoever tenuous, which can be traced to Pakistan. This continues to be so to this day.
Yet, Pakistan remains respectable in the US media, it is portrayed as a reliable ally of the US and Americans are ever so willing to overlook General Pervez Musharraf’s record on democracy, human rights, even of dealing with honour killings. Having Murdoch as an ally of the Indian government would immediately neutralize a sizeable chunk of the American media — indeed, the global media — as far as any advantage for Pakistan is concerned.
Pakistan, in fact, ought to be only one small element in this strategy. If India wants to be a global power, or even a functional regional power under changing global equations, it has to network with the global media, building alliances of the kind offered by the opportunity of creating a stake for Murdoch in India.
Ask the Chinese for some advice, if need be, in the new spirit of friendship with Beijing following Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s recent visit there. The Chinese will confirm that for them, it was the BBC, not Murdoch’s News Corporation, which was a thorn in their sides during the years of negotiations between China and Britain over the future of Hong Kong. To debate whether it was BBC’s passion for truth and justice or its determination to show communist China as unworthy of being entrusted with “free” Hong Kong that prompted the network to run story after story about China’s human rights record at that time would be to divert from the subject of this column.
But the point needs to be made as some Indians take a view against letting Murdoch into the country on grounds of national interests and security that it was the global media moghul who defended the Chinese government’s interests vis-à-vis the BBC. It may or may not have been the right thing to do. It may or may not have been moral.
But what India ought to recognize as it grapples with the difficult question of Murdoch’s stake in India is that it was he who pulled the plug on the BBC in China. In deference to the Chinese government’s sensitivities, he stopped beaming BBC’s services into China on Star TV. Murdoch snapped his fingers and there was no more any BBC anywhere in mainland China. It has taken the BBC several years since then to get anything like a toehold in China. And when it happened earlier this year, the British broadcasting giant had to tie up with a Chinese company on terms negotiated with that entity on equal terms.
An argument which has lately surfaced in New Delhi against giving Murdoch much of a say in the Indian media is that he is now trying to destabilize Tony Blair in the United Kingdom because of the British prime minister’s pro-Euro and pro-Europe policies. The News Corporation is neither in favour of Britain adopting the common European currency nor does it support the idea of the UK embracing the continent. This, they say, is a case of Murdoch’s agenda.
The truth is that Murdoch has just entered the Italian TV market in a big way. He is looking for openings elsewhere in Europe. He supported Blair to the hilt during the war in Iraq. But he also recognizes that Blair may be history in the not too distant future unless a miracle can save him.
Murdoch recognizes that despite the excitement in Washington about “new Europe”, the continent is at loggerheads with Blair and George W. Bush. If Murdoch has to make headway in Europe he has to distance himself from Blair, but not necessarily dump him. Murdoch-bashers in India argue that Murdoch is setting a political agenda for Britain. He may do the same for India, they fear. But in distancing himself from Blair at this time, Murdoch is merely being practical. It is a decision which makes business sense, as Goh would have told Rao.
If only the Indian government would treat Murdoch as a businessman instead of a newsman and take advantage of what he can do for India, today’s controversy over Star TV would go away.