Gina Rinehart, an Australian mining billionaire and apparently the world’s richest woman, recently acquired a decisive shareholding in the country’s largest media outlet, Fairfax Media; coupled with unwillingness to accept the company’s charter of editorial independence. This caused much debate here. Ms Rinehart’s attempt was described by some opposing politicians as a threat to democracy, and though politicians talked up legislation to force media owners and boards to commit to editorial independence, neither major party is likely to go that far. Meanwhile, the media outlet itself hankers after a wealthy patron in a challenging media market.
But what’s in it for the billionaire? There are more lucrative investment opportunities than the overcrowded media industry with its rapidly declining revenue. Could it be just that she wants to get hold of a few major newspapers? After all she has rich compatriots who have thrived in the field, rather exceptionally.
Australian born media moghul Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation Limited controls a large number of print and electronic outlets in many countries including the USA, UK and Australia, and certainly enjoys unrivalled power, though he is currently facing government and police inquiry for unethical methods used by one of its newspapers in the UK. Rupert Murdoch built his worldwide media empire from a relatively modest inheritance, The Adelaide News, but his phenomenal business success is not revered for journalistic excellence. His newspapers are accused of having strong bias, currently for the right and for his political hobnobbing, in spite of his vehement denial of such conduct. He is even known to have installed governments in Australia and in Britain. Murdoch’s strong support for the Australian Labour Party through campaigning in The Australian nationally and The Daily Telegraph in New South Wales (Sydney) helped it to win election in 1972. In Britain, The Sun’s contribution to an unexpected conservative win in 1992 created the catch phrase ‘It’s The Sun Wot Won It’ to epitomise the influence of the press over politicians and election results.
The influence of another Australian media merchant, Kerry Packer, over the game of cricket, notably the introduction of coloured clothing and day-night cricket during the World Series Cricket in 1977 is well known to cricket lovers. The series emerged as Mr Packer confronted the cricket authorities to secure the exclusive right to broadcast the game. In a meeting in 1976 with the Australian Cricket Board, Mr Packer is famously quoted, ‘There is a little bit of the whore in all of us, gentlemen. What is your price?’ Tolerating their abrasiveness, politicians from both sides courted the Packers for generations, and continue today.
Politicians’ eagerness reinforces the importance of the media, and especially that of media proprietors. We are in an environment where relationships between big media and those in power are very strong, and media supremos carefully guard their monopoly.
The concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few is not confined to Australia, a nation that many consider irrelevant in the global context with its tiny 22 million population and the uninspiring geo-political role it tends to play. Researchers estimate that five major companies, VIACOM, Time Warner, Vivendi Universal, Walt Disney and News Corporation Limited, dominate the US media market. These companies also own a wide range of integrated telecommunications, mobile phones, video games software, electronic media and the music industry, and have the ability to shape people’s values, beliefs and decisions, particularly those of young people.
The scene in Bangladesh is not dissimilar. In the absence of truly neutral state-owned media, most private media outlets are broadly aligned with one of the two main parties and are mostly owned by large business conglomerates such as Transcom, Square, Bashundhara, Jamuna and Beximco. These groups have an unrelenting stronghold in the country’s manufacturing, trade and financial services sectors, and this condition is unlikely to change — running a media outlet is not cheap.
Then why do opinion writers bother?
There is perhaps no single answer to this, and any presumption would be wrong. Yet it is probably fair to assume that in addition to their individual reasons the writers are concerned about the wellbeing of the nation or even seeking to alter society’s perception on significant issues.
An elementary purpose of writing, whether in a newspaper/blog or even in fiction, is to link one’s thoughts with those of others, to convince readers to take up the writer’s views on particular topics. The readers on the other hand have their own views and may not be convinced. This is why it is encouraging that the readership of this newspaper is higher, along with Prothom Alo and The Daily Star. That you read opinion pieces and offer your comments suggests that you are equally concerned.
However, that puts the onus on all of us to be factual, truthful, constructive, critical and objective. When we should be positive and solution-focused rather than negative, standing our grounds to protect our sovereignty and displaying self-esteem, we cannot overlook the risk of being blinded by jingoism.
I say this noting the reactions of opinion writers in relation to two specific issues: first, the World Bank-Padma Bridge loan fiasco and second, The Economist’s political analysis of Bangladesh (published this year and also last year). I reiterate, I fully agree with what is being expressed to highlight the inconsistency, bias or in the case of The Economist’s articles, the lack of respect.
And I also understand when a government politician stated that the opposition had bribed The Economist to write such articles defaming the country (is it really?). But why the journalists/opinion writers? Can they truly deny its analysis or disagree with the discussion of the political state of play? Is it not self-delusional to think that we can ignore widespread corruption issues, often highlighted by reputed Transparency International?
Please do not get me wrong. I respect and deeply regard Bangladeshi journalists/opinion writers. They are brave and paid a miserly wage, yet they produce quality work. The majority of them are highly talented and dedicated and they face situations that neither the World Bank nor The Economist would ever fully understand.
In a nation with extremely diverse population: urban, rural, literate, illiterate, with/without TV, radio, newspapers or internet access, we ought to be more constructive and less in self-denial, as readers, especially English readers, form only a meagre portion of voters and we have a relatively small opportunity to influence a tiny population. Do we want to waste that?
Further, we need to be less self-censoring to be effective in our common purpose of writing — to analyse issues, to suggest solutions, or, to me most importantly, to hold wrongdoers to account.
Only a strong pen, if at all, will make politicians think twice.
Irfan Chowdhury writes from Canberra, Australia.