Last week when the NBA’s Disputes Redressal Authority handed out the maximum punishment of Rs 1 lakh to India TV, the immediate thought that crossed the mind was “serves them right” because the offence charged was pretty serious: concoction of an interview. I thought it was a good tiding, that it would put all news channels, which have gone bonkers over the last few years, on notice and begin the long process of restoring some sense of responsibility.
For me it was not difficult to countenance such a situation. If the intention of the NBA was to set up the Authority as a showpiece of self-regulation to stave off the immediate and very real threat of government intervention, someone forgot to mention that to Justice Verma. For, from day one, it was obvious he meant business (I saw him at work as the editor-member on the Authority in the initial weeks). There was a clear distinction in the way the editor-members and eminent persons on the Authority saw the scope of its work. The editors saw it as a body whose job was limited to settling “disputes” and, in so doing, ensure adherence to the Standards Code recently adopted by the NBA. There was no dispute about the “disputes’ part, but in the “adherence to standards” bit, the eminent persons saw an opportunity to reform the wayward news channels, no less, and wayward we are.
So, it was clear to me that sooner or later Justice Verma would step strongly on the pedal. If you are a keen follower of any ball game, you will know that a pro will like to establish her/his supremacy at the net as quickly and as decisively as possible. And Justice Verma is a jurisprudence pro, so he would snap up the first violation.
The Authority latched on to the right issue. Farhana Ali, a Pakistan-born strategist with the CIA gave an interview to Reuters claiming that 23 terrorists had carried out 26/11 and not 10. India TV played the story with omission and commission, which is not very rare in TV news, specially Hindi. Omission: They used a picture of Farhana as the visual and, in a female voice, para-dubbed what she told Reuters. They omitted mentioning that it was not Farhana’s voice (hence, making it seem like Farhana gave them the interview). Commission: Farhana is a CIA strategist, but India TV called her a CIA spy (out of ignorance or because that sauced up the story).
Farhana wrote to India TV on December 30 crying blue murder. India TV’s CEO, Rohit Bansal, took up her complaint and over a period of the next two months addressed it to her satisfaction with a mutually-agreed retraction. Earlier, when Rohit informed the Authority of Farhana’s complaint, Justice Verma started simultaneous suo motu proceedings against India TV. The Authority met under his chairmanship on March 19 and found them guilty of severe code violations, while itself transgressing on laid-down rules:
India TV had informed the Authority a day before its March 19 meeting that it had redressed Farhana’s complaint to her full satisfaction and demanded a personal hearing to argue its case.
The rules of the Authority define quorum for the hearing as five members (including the Chairman) with at least two editor-members. On March 19, there were only four persons (including the Chairman) and only one editor-member.
The problem with judging somebody over morals and ethics is that it demands a stricter adherence to those values from the judges. Why was that not done in this case? Why was India TV denied a personal hearing (we are giving even Kasab the benefit of self-defence, and rightly so)? And why was no cognizance taken of the fact that India TV had settled the matter to the complainant’s full satisfaction?
India TV is hardly my idea of a paragon of virtues. The channel regularly takes liberties with news. (Example: “Tabah ho jayega Pakistan/Dus din me tabah ho jayega Pakistan”, hollered their promo for a prime time news show about two months ago. The news item they were selling: Taliban had just announced a 10-day ceasefire in Swat valley!) But you cannot rely on generalities to prove specific charges. Specific charges need specific proof and due process of law.
The Authority has not convinced me that India TV fully fabricated the interview (even Farhana has not denied its contents) and hence, the punishment seems like an extreme overkill. Obfuscation, yes. Concoction, no. The Authority has not convinced me that it followed due process, hence making me feel it was too eager to make an example out of somebody.
Justice Verma had enough scope for making an example out of India TV for its omissions and commissions. The channel is definitely in an ethical blackhole in this matter though, I repeat, it is not guilty of the ultimate sin of concoction. But a judgement delivered without a hearing to the accused knocks the bottom out of justice. In his eagerness to establish his authority early on in the game, Justice Verma seems to have just missed a sitter at the net.
But some good comes out of everything. Every channel now knows the mood at the Authority. They know Justice Verma is no pushover and they know what level of propriety he expects. They will soon tighten up controls because the option of walking out the NBA each time he delivers a verdict just doesn’t exist. The government is only too eager to trade places with Justice Verma.
PS: Justice Verma refused to speak on the matter (I don’t discuss my verdicts after I deliver them) and Annie Joseph, Secretary General of the Authority, did not respond to interview requests.
Dumb questions and dumber answers (never given)
Tailpiece: Some laughter to wash down the legalese. It’s afternoon of April 7. Jarnail Singh Just Did It, albeit with his Reebok shoe. And TV channels are tripping over themselves to get us the breaking news. Anchors are in their verbal overdrive doing what comes best them, shooting dumb questions. Some examples:
Times Now anchor to reporter: Was it completely surprising? We have not seen anything like this before. (No, Mr Chidambaram seemed to know about it because just the previous night he went into a buy-one-get-one-free sale and walked away with just one shoe. No wonder he was so calm.)
CNN-IBN to Jayanthi Natarajan: How is the security at the Congress headquarters? Will you do something to see it doesn’t happen again? (Yes, let’s win these elections, we’ll move a bill to ban footwear for journalists.)
NDTV anchor to reporter: Did this incident in anyway overshadow the purpose of the press conference? (Why else would you be showing that flying missile for the last 20 minutes, lady? Or did you think Mr Chidambaram always looked like a hazy Reebok shoe in freeze frame!)
(Venkat, as the author is known, is a certified lunatic of the Hindi news space who still believes that editors should put news on news channels. Imagine! He will occupy this space every Saturday. Write to him at email@example.com)