Murdoch meeting seen as conflict of interest

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 July, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 July, 2003, 12:00am

A recent meeting in New York between Rupert Murdoch and India's law minister is likely to put the government in the hot seat when parliament meets today.

Mr Murdoch's Star News channel in India has been mired in controversy for allegedly defying rules prohibiting foreign control of television news. Law Minister Arun Jaitley is to play a key role in determining Star News' future and reformulating the country's broadcasting policy.

The meeting, which took place last month, went unnoticed until the Sunday Express splashed it on its front page yesterday with the headline: 'Conflict of interest when Star application is before government?'

Mr Jaitley, an ambitious politician and a former counsel for Mr Murdoch, has tried to make light of the meeting by saying: 'We lawyers know how to detach ourselves from our clients'.

Mr Murdoch's meeting in New York with Mr Jaitley appears unexceptionable. But in a country where well-financed lobbyists often influence government policy, it is bound to raise suspicion.

Mr Jaitley's explanation that he had only 'a five-minute chat' when Mr Murdoch dropped in for a 'courtesy call' also appears weak in the context of another report that powerful Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani refused to meet the News Corp chief during his own visit to the US since such a meeting 'would have been wrongly interpreted'.

Star India has been struggling since last month to get a permanent satellite uplink licence for its affiliate, Media Content and Communication Services (MCCS) - the content provider for the Star News Hindi channel.

Star India has a 26 per cent stake in MCCS, with the remainder held by a few high-profile Indian investors. MCCS's temporary uplink licence has been given only ad hoc extensions as Star's media rivals - led by the India Today group which owns the Aaj Tak news channel - conduct a high-profile campaign alleging that Mr Murdoch retains effective control of the content provider.

Last week, Star India took out full-page newspaper ads that accused its rivals of trying 'to confuse and mislead people, and to misrepresent the facts'.

Star India chief executive Peter Mukherjea suggested that aggressive news coverage by New Delhi Television, which used to provide content to Star News, 'may have been seen as one-sided when it came to certain issues'.