Enough vibes been going around the press about the regulation of media, i am posing the views published in the prominent daily The Hindu and invite all members for a constructive and professional discussion.
If red lines can be drawn for the legal and medical professions, why should it be any different for profit-making newspapers and TV channels?
I have not read the Private Member's Bill on media regulation that Meenakshi Natarajan was scheduled to move in Parliament last week so I am not in a position to comment upon it, but I am certainly of the opinion that the media (both print and electronic) needs to be regulated. Since my ideas on this issue have generated some controversy they need to be clarified.
I want regulation of the media, not control. The difference between the two is that in control there is no freedom, in regulation there is freedom but subject to reasonable restrictions in the public interest. The media has become very powerful in India and can strongly impact people's lives. Hence it must be regulated in the public interest.
The media people keep harping on Article 19 (1) (a) of the Indian Constitution which guarantees the freedom of speech and expression. But they deliberately overlook or underplay Article 19 (2) which says that the above right is subject to reasonable restrictions in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, State security, public order, decency, morality or in relation to defamation or incitement to an offence.
Thus, while there should be freedom for the media and not control over it, this freedom must be exercised in a manner not to adversely affect the security of the state, public order, morality, etc. No right can be absolute, every right is subject to reasonable restrictions in the public interest. The reason for this is that human beings are social creatures. No one can live in isolation, everyone has to live in society. And so an individual should not exercise her freedom in a manner so as to harm others or society, otherwise she will find it difficult to survive.
Media people often talk of self-regulation. But media houses are owned by businessmen who want profit. There is nothing wrong in making profits, but this must be coupled with social responsibilities. Media owners cannot say that they should be allowed to make profits even if the rest of society suffers. Such an attitude is self-destructive, and it is the media owners who will suffer in the long run if they do not correct themselves now. The way much of the media has been behaving is often irresponsible, reckless and callous. Yellow journalism, cheap sensationalism, highlighting frivolous issues (like lives of film stars and cricketers) and superstitions and damaging people and reputations, while neglecting or underplaying serious socio-economic issues like massive poverty, unemployment, malnourishment, farmers' suicides, health care, education, dowry deaths, female foeticide, etc., are hallmarks of much of the media today. Astrology, cricket (the opium of the Indian masses), babas befooling the public, etc., are a common sight on Television channels.
Paid ‘news' is the order of the day in some newspapers and channels where you have to pay to be in the news. One senior political leader told me things are so bad that politicians in some places pay money to journalists who attend their press conferences, and sometimes even to those who do not, to ensure favourable coverage. One TV channel owner told me that the latest Baba (who is dominating the scene nowadays) pays a huge amount for showing his meetings on TV. Madhu Kishwar, a very senior journalist herself, said on Rajya Sabha TV that many journalists are bribable and manipulable.
The media claims self-regulation. But by what logic? How can the News Broadcasters Association or the Broadcast Editors Association regulate TV channels driven by profit motive and high TRP ratings? Almost every section of society is regulated. Lawyers are a free profession, but their profession is regulated inasmuch as their licence can be suspended or cancelled by the Bar Council for professional misconduct. Similarly the licences of doctors, chartered accountants, etc., can be suspended/cancelled by their regulatory bodies. Judges of the Supreme Court or the High Court can be impeached by Parliament for misconduct. But the media claims that no action should be taken against it for violating journalistic ethics. Why? In a democracy everyone has to be accountable, but the media claims it should be accountable only to itself ...The NBA and BEA claim self-regulation. Let me ask them: how many licences of TV channels have you suspended or cancelled till now? So far as we know, only one channel was awarded a fine, at which it withdrew from the body, and then was asked to come back. How many other punishments have you imposed? Let us have some details, instead of keeping everything secret. Let the meetings of the NBA and BEA be televised so as to ensure transparency and accountability (which Justice Verma has been advocating vociferously for the judiciary).
Let me quote from an article by Abhishek Upadhyaya, Editor, Special Projects,Dainik Bhaskar:
“It appears that the BEA was founded to collectively use intimidatory tactics in favour of a select few players after NBA failed to do so. The NBA is so weak, so feeble in its exercise of power that it can't confront intimidation by its own members. The India TV case is an example of this. The NBA, in the past, had given notice to India TV for deceptively recreating a US-based policy analyst's interview. It slapped a penalty of Rs 1 lakh on the channel which then walked out of the Association.
“The group of broadcasters found themselves completely helpless, couldn't take any action and finally surrendered meekly before the channel. The offending channel issued a statement saying that its return has come after “fundamental issues raised by the channel against the disregard to NBA's rules and guidelines were appreciated by the association's directors…” The head of India TV, Rajat Sharma, then proceeded to join the board of NBA, and the channel's managing editor, Vinod Kapri, returned to the Authority in the eminent editors' panel!
“This was the turning point in the so-called self-regulation mechanism of electronic media. It became clear that all concerned had made an unwritten, oral understanding not to raise a finger on their own brethren in future. BEA was the next step in this direction, formed on 22 August, 2009 with a few electronic media editors in the driving seat. Since its inception this body has been irrationally screaming in the interest of a select few. The editors of this body announced some tender sops from time to time to publicise its good image and thwart any regulatory attempt in advance”.
If the broadcast media claims self-regulation, then on the same logic everyone should be allowed self-regulation. Why then have laws at all, why have a law against theft, rape or murder? Why not abolish the Indian Penal Code and ask everyone to practise self-regulation? The very fact that there are laws proves that self-regulation is not sufficient, there must also be some external regulation and fear of punishment.
I may clarify here that I am not in favour of regulation of the media by the government but by an independent statutory authority like the Press Council of India. The Chairman of this body is not selected by the government but by a three-member selection committee consisting of (1) The Chairman of the Rajya Sabha (who is the Vice-President of India) (2) The Speaker of the Lok Sabha and (3) One representative of the Press Council.
The Press Council has 28 members, of which 20 are from the Press, five members of Parliament, and 3 from other bodies (The Bar Council of India, UGC and Sahitya Academy). The decisions of the Press Council are taken by a majority vote. Therefore, I am not a dictator who can ride roughshod on the views of others. Several of my proposals were rejected by the majority, and I respected their verdict. If the electronic media also comes under the Press Council (which can be renamed the Media Council), representatives of the electronic media will also be on this body, which will be totally democratic. Why then are the electronic media people so furiously and fiercely opposing my proposal? Obviously because they want a free ride in India without any kind of regulation and freedom to do what they will. I would welcome a healthy debate on this issue.
(The author is chairman of the Press Council of India.)
If Justice Markandey Katju's conviction that “90 per cent Indians are fools” is accepted as the yardstick to assess the quality of public life, no immediate connection will be made between his robust intervention in The Hindu (“Media cannot reject regulation,” May 2, 2012) and the still-born Print and Electronic Media Standards and Regulation Bill which Congress MP Meenakshi Natarajan proffered to the Lok Sabha. Although the Chairman of the Press Council claimed he “has not read the Private Member's Bill,” only the minusculity of non-fools will deny that both he and Ms Natarajan proceed from the same set of assumptions.
In her rationalisation of legislation to impose a government-appointed regulatory authority on the media, Ms Natarajan noted: “The rights conferred by the Constitution are sacrosanct and should be respected. However, news value has been dwindling every passing day...While the freedom of speech and expression has to be respected, there appears no other option but to regulate the print and electronic media and impose on it certain crucial reasonable restrictions, which are needed for the purpose of protecting national interest…”
On his part, stressing that Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech and expression is circumscribed by Article 19(2) which stipulates ‘reasonable restrictions” for the sake of the larger good, Justice Katju wrote: “The media has become very powerful in India and can strongly impact people's lives. Hence it must be regulated in the public interest.” This is particularly so because the “way much of the media is behaving is often irresponsible, reckless and callous.” In effect he echoed Ms Natarajan's desire to “ensure good quality reporting, which does not only feed news according to TV rating points but also, in accordance with issues of prime national importance.” Of course, great minds don't always think alike. Justice Katju and Ms Natarajan differ on the composition of the regulatory body. The Congress MP preferred a statutory body nominated by the Central government. Justice Katju felt that an “independent statutory body” such as the Press Council can fulfil the functions after its scope is enlarged to cover the rapidly-growing electronic media. Self-regulation, as practised by the electronic media, he thought, was hogwash.
Whether it was Justice Katju's spirited campaign for regulating the entire media, including the social media, which was a factor behind Ms Natarajan's parliamentary initiative, is a matter of conjecture. What is certain is that there is hardly another instance of a Press Council head pressing so forcefully to enlarge the space for Article 19(2). “How many licences of TV channels,” he asked the self-regulation bodies, “have you suspended or cancelled till now?”— as if bans and closures were the ultimate litmus test.
Justice Katju has certainly conveyed the unmistakable impression of having been conferred the onerous responsibility of taming a greedy, irresponsible and reckless entity. There is a visible convergence between his desire to tame the media beast and the political class' exasperation with an intrusive rogue out to unsettle the “national interest.”
At the heart of Justice Katju's crusade is a plea for enlightened regulation (which he carefully distinguishes from control) of the media space. Since most professions are regulated and accountable, why should the media be the exception?
The assumption is erroneous. The media may not be blessed with a regulatory authority such as the ones governing, say, the telecom industry, the power sector and the stock exchanges. However, it is not above the law. Justice Katju must know that the media is not exempt from the statutes governing defamation, obscenity, incitement and official secrecy. Where necessary, the state also has the authority to ban publications and black out TV broadcasts. The police possess powers to prosecute journalists and media houses it holds to be engaged in blackmail and extortion. There is a full-fledged statutory regime that governs the media, including a Working Journalists Act. The Fourth Estate is not above regulation.
If the media is already governed by law, what is the scope of the proposed regulatory authority?
For Ms Natarajan, the answers are unambiguous: to determine the hierarchy of news, to mould the style and tone of reporting and to specify no-go areas. In short, exercise political control over editorial content.
On his part, Justice Katju seems to be driven by two different sets of desires. First, he abhors the fact that the media is also commercially driven. According to him, this explains their desire to pander to the lowest common denominator. In regulating the profit motive, will the regulator therefore determine the rates or the quantum of advertising, as the TRAI has needlessly suggested? Will it regulate the cover price and distribution costs of publications? Will it assault the economic freedom of the media?
Second, what are the ramifications of Justice Katju's passionate desire to be at the forefront of a crusade to instil a scientific temper? The Press Council chairman has already publicised his abhorrence of all editorial content that promotes frivolity, superstition, glamour and sport. He wants the media to be in the forefront of the battle against poverty and for social reform.
It is a noble idea and may even be worthy of emulation by an ideologically-driven niche publication or even a public broadcasting channel. But when one man's passion is translated into a desire to impose a replica of the Soviet Union-inspired New World Information Order, it is necessary to sound the alarm bells. The Press Council cannot control tastes.
Justice Katju is a man of astonishing certitudes. Yet, for all his purposeful interventions he has overlooked one crucial facet of the media environment: the availability of choice. No one is obliged to patronise a publication or be riveted to a screaming match on a news channel. One click of the remote control is enough to opt out.
Many do but many love and are entertained by India's rumbustious democracy. Is it because they are fools? In that case, as Brecht once suggested, wouldn't it be simpler to abolish the people and elect a new one?
The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.