Peter Mukerjea is one of the best chief executive officers (CEO) I have known in the Indian media industry. Not just because Star India turned around under him to become the jewel in parent News Corporation's (now 21st Century Fox) global crown but also because he was a good leader. Almost every person on his senior team has gone on to head some media firm or the other - Raj Nayak at Viacom18, Ajay Vidyasagar at Sun TV and then YouTube (Asia Pacific), Jagdish Kumar at Reliance Industries (media and entertainment) and now Hathway, Sameer Nair at Balaji Telefilms, Tarun Katial at Reliance Broadcast, Tony D'Silva at Sun Direct and now Hinduja Media - among others. He had the reputation for hiring good people and then letting them be.
When I started covering media in 2000, my first cover story (for Businessworld magazine) was about Star's rise from a down-in-the-dumps English channel to the hottest media company on the back of Kaun Banega Crorepati among other shows. There were two more featuring Mukerjea on the cover - one in 2003 and the last one in 2006. Star had stumbled after six solid years of leadership ceding ground to Zee and Mukerjea had been sidelined. Soon, he left. In 2007 he formed INX Media and later left that too. Then we lost touch except for the odd email, reacting to something I had written.
So my shock at seeing him and his wife Indrani Mukerjea splashed across newspapers and news channels because of a murder she is accused of committing has been intense. I have never met Indrani but this is a bizarre case. It makes sense to wait for the police to do its job before forming any conclusions or judgements. However media developments around are beginning to look similar to the Aarushi Talwar case. Then, this column had focussed on the ugly face of Indian news media and exhorted the industry to fix structural issues. It has been seven years since Aarushi and clearly things haven't improved.
Note three things about the Indian news media and the ecosystem within which it operates going by the coverage of this case.
One, everyone - on social media, in newspapers and otherwise - is rightly, making fun of how media is making a fool of itself with headlines like 'Indrani ne sandwich khaya (Indrani ate a sandwich)'. Yet Indian audiences remain riveted even by this pathetic reportage or by the bilious stuff coming onto social media if ratings, likes, favourites and retweets are any indication. Madhu Kishwar's tweet, "Indrani Mukherjea crime getting more bizarre every hour. Seems more & more likely that Peter had an affair with Sheena which led to murder," was retweeted 91 times and favourited 57 times. And some of the really unsubstantiated stuff many more times. Where then does that put us as consumers of this murder saga?
Two, it is interesting that news channels do not get notices from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting for second guessing both the police and judiciary like they did in the Aarushi case or in this case, but they do get them for presenting different points of view on the Yakub Memon judgement. If news channels are guilty of poor quality then the logical thing to do is arm-twist them into improving standards. This can be done, and I repeat for the umpteenth time, by forcing transparency on news media ownership, setting Doordarshan free, giving teeth to the Press Council of India and the News Broadcasters Association and increasing the limits for foreign investment in news media from 26 to 49 per cent. The combination of these things will force poorly-run private news channels to either clean up their act or die. But no government, past or present, will do it. In a twisted, cynical way an inept media suits everybody.
And that brings me to point three. A poorly-run media becomes its own guillotine. If and when the axe falls, there might be very little protest from the public. Would people sign away their democratic right to a free media because they believe, based on current evidence, that media is inefficient?
It is fashionable to dislike Jawaharlal Nehru but hear what he said as a counterpoint: "I would rather have a completely free press with all the dangers involved in the wrong use of that freedom than a suppressed or regulated press."
It is a thought worth remembering in these times.