“The prose is exhausted All we have is poetry— And then there’s song....” From The Book of Failure by Bachchoo
Rupert Murdoch is, in the wake of the great phone-hacking disaster, in the process of dividing his empire. Commentators say that News International, which owns Sky TV, Fox TV, film and Internet companies, will be separated from his newspaper holdings which include the Wall Street Journal and the Sun, the Times and the Sunday Times in the UK.
Rupert also owns the publisher Harper Collins whose UK branch has published several of my books and whose Indian subsidiary currently publishes four of my titles with a few more in hand. I have wondered if that amounts to my “working for Murdoch” — something my son and some friends would not approve of, though my excuse is that the link is not editorial and I am willing to legally declare that none of the material in my books was obtained through phone-hacking.
Rupert’s American shareholders now publicly wonder why they own and lose money and invite scandal through the ownership of newspapers. They see them as Rupert’s toys, but with the American justice department getting involved, these toys may become an unwanted liability.
I don’t know anything about shares or the mechanisms of capitalism. The only share I ever had was 47 per cent of a biscuit that my mother entrusted my sister Zareen to divide equally between us. As for business, I was once on the “board” of a dotcom company that subsequently failed and sat through meetings in which I was asked what my favoured “exit strategy” would be and could only think that I would head for the window if her husband returned home unexpectedly.
Nevertheless, it is clear to newspaper readers in the UK that the Sun, unlike the Times, is a profitable venture. It may be stretching the definition to call the Sun a newspaper. It is a printed cheerleader for those who don’t like sustained paragraphs. Its headlines and news are delivered in sloganeering capsules.
So when in some past election the Tories got a majority, the Sun’s headlines claimed the victory: “IT’S THE SUN WOT WON IT,” it claimed with characteristic and proud disregard for spelling. And memorably when in the Falklands conflict British fire-power sank the Belgrano, an Argentine ship that was retreating from the theatre of war, the Sun’s front page was dominated by one word: “GOTCHA”.
Though it runs to several pages, the selling point of the Sun is its Page 3. Now I know that in India “Page 3” is a by-word for the socially vain who get their photographs in the papers for attending parties and functions. In the UK it means naked or semi-naked women featured in the Sun.
It has full-length portraits of one each day with some mind-numbing or punning slogan under it. It is a statistical fact that a majority of the paper’s readers would not buy it if this feature were eliminated. There have been various attempts by feminists and parliamentarians to try and ban Page 3, but like the monarchy there are arguments against such abolition and these have prevailed.
It’s a little difficult to understand why, with so much nudity on TV and with pornography available on the Internet, thousands continue to crave their daily nude. It must be an addiction the supply for which should have been supplanted by more advanced technology — the super-availability of naked ladies on the small screens of the world.
There is in my memory a distinct example and precedent for such a technological supersession. In my childhood in Pune there was a trade in illegal betting on the last decimal number of the price of a bale of cotton on the New York share market.
The price of cotton in New York would vary by a few points but the opening and closing final decimal digits were more unpredictable than the results of any horse-race and couldn’t be fixed. Punters in remote Pune would bet on these figures in the morning and wait for the sun to rise on New York.
At some time in the evening, as the dark crept over Pune and the street gas lamps were lit (Only kidding, we had electricity by then!), the urchins carrying a single sheet of a “newspaper” called the Bhonga, a bugle in Marathi, would run through the street selling it for an anna.
The cry they set up as they ran was not “Bhonga”, but “Wo-punn-i-ing” to mean the “opening” figures of the New York share market which had been telegraphed through. The headlines of the paper were daily police reports about robberies, ratcatcher’s statistics or the collapse of some house, but these weren’t the selling point of the single sheet. It was the little box with the opening figures of the New York cotton market that sold the paper.
Then the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite. The rumour spread among the bookies and cotton-figures punters that this was a device by which the results of the cotton figure trade could be disseminated prematurely. It was a technological fix. The cotton-figures betting trade died.
It would be ironic now if Rupert’s TV and Web interests gradually eroded and ruined the trade in pictures of naked ladies in the Sun — one tribe of his creations cannibalising the bread-winner of the other.