Rupert Murdoch’s empire straddles continents. Over the decades he’s turned elected leaders into fawning supplicants desperate to win his favor.
But as his empire has faltered along with disclosures about illegal phone hacking and police bribery, onlookers are discovering the extent to which Murdoch sat at the fulcrum of money, information and raw power.
While there’s no one in the Southeast Asian media who approximates Murdoch in terms of influence and ambition, similar forces are at work in the region and Indonesia, with its vast population and relatively open media, is a good place to view the tussle between commercial and idealistic interests.
In order to get a sense of these pressures and how they shape life in a newsroom, I decided to catch up with an old friend and one of Indonesia’s leading broadcast journalists, Putra Nababan, at his office in RCTI.
Having worked at Rakyat Merdeka newspaper and Metro TV before ending up at RCTI’s prestigious “Seputar Indonesia” news show, Putra is an extremely well-known public figure. He’s also a three-time winner of the National Panasonic Best Male Presenter award.
Still in his 30s, boyish and ever-ready with an open smile, Putra comes from a prominent political family. His father, Panda Nababan, is an experienced and steely Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) legislator, who fell afoul of the Miranda Goeltom traveler’s check scandal.
I arrived at RCTI on a Friday morning and was fortunate enough to join the editorial team as they reviewed the past week’s work before charting the way forward for the next seven days.
At a time when Indonesian free-to-air TV stations are retreating from news coverage in favor of cheaper soap operas, talk shows and general entertainment, “Seputar Indonesia” is still pressing ahead with hard news. The evening show is a market leader, attracting an estimated two million viewers nationally.
The discussion around the table was robust and blisteringly frank. Different members of the team (including an assertive camerawoman) roll in and out of the conversation, occasionally chomping on curry puffs and cakes. Inevitably, Nazaruddin, the former Democratic Party treasurer turned graft fugitive, figures prominently, as does talk of the annual pre-Idul Fitri homeward migration and rice prices.
As Putra says before the meeting, “We hold these agenda-setting meetings every week. We’re a dedicated TV news station. We don’t have the luxury of lots of airtime, so we need to prioritize and focus on what’s important for our viewers.”
“Furthermore,” he says, “as news professionals we have to set the agenda. We owe it to our viewers. We have to inform, educate and challenge them. If we’re boring we should just pack up and leave.”
However, the commercial pressures are intense. Each news broadcast is rated minute by minute. With the relative impact and popularity of every news package evaluated and measured, there’s little margin for error.
I ask Putra whether news is a business or a public service. He smiles wryly before answering. “It’s very hard to say,” he says. “You can’t just draw a line between the two. We have to live and there’s very high capital expenditure involved.”
“Given the costs, you’ve got to open a discussion with your owners. They have their views and opinions but you need to educate as well. It’s a two-way flow and it takes a lot of effort,” he says.
“It’s like playing with a kite — sometimes you pull, other times you let go. You have to be smart in order to balance your idealism with the commercial pressures.”
What about external pressures?
“Well, my father was a journalist first, so I grew up in this world,” he says. “I also started work when we journalists had a common enemy — namely the Suharto regime. In certain ways it was easier then.
“I’ve seen how it all works, but because of my father’s political links I’ve had to be very fair in my coverage. In short, I’ve had to prove my worth and objectivity — indeed, even my editorial judgment — every second, every minute and every day.
“There’s an unbelievable amount of pressure at work. We have to be popular, secure exclusives and hold down the top rating position.
“What happened with Murdoch’s companies — the obsession with winning at all costs — can happen anywhere. However, at the end of the day, it’s all about balance.”
Karim Raslan is a writer who divides his time between Malaysia and Indonesia.