While I sat on the board of News Broadcasters Association (NBA), a News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) was formulated.
Our board, then chaired by G Krishnan of TV Today, requested member channels to nominate an editor to a committee whose job was to suggest draft news broadcasting standards guidelines.
The idea was to ensure that NBA member channels governed themselves before the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) did the minding. The MIB was only too happy to step back.
Arnab Goswami of Times Now chaired this NBA sub-group – and the redoubtable Harish Salve generously settled the draft standards we wrote.
Krishnan then ran Salve’s draft past Justice JS Verma, a distinguished Chief Justice of India. But Verma wanted to chair the NBSA only if he was allowed the power of ‘suo motu’.
It was a move of far-reaching implications, where the NBSA needn’t wait for a formal complaint to act against a channel.
The NBA Board was very keen to get the protection of Verma’s moral halo. We, therefore, saw no reason to grudge him his demand for ‘suo motu’.
In a chat with me some months later [thanks to our ‘Allahabad affinity’] the astute judge mentioned why he was so clear on this particular point – “I did not want you TV channels to put me on perpetual hold waiting for a complaint”.
Truth be told – there was, besides his sagacity, a financial reason too why Verma’s word was so sacred for us. Unlike many retired judges who thrive in post-retirement arbitrations, he took from us only a token honorarium of Rs 1 per month. [KVL Narayan Rao, our treasurer, had apportioned Rs 1.5 lakh per month on this head!]
My purpose of piecing together this flashback is to underscore why news channels, at least the ones wedded to NBA, had set out to follow a fair amount of rigour and self control [http://nbanewdelhi.com/pdf/final/NBA_code-of-ethics_english.pdf].
Fairness and neutrality were our pious intent.
But in the intervening five years since NBSA came into being – under Verma and now after his demise, Justice RV Raveendran – I see the touchstones of fairness and neutrality being overshadowed by theatrics.
The NBSA process needs to keep pace with the fists of fury that politicians are unleashing on each other. Particularly so as the level of unsubtantiated allegations is getting worse as we’re getting closer to the General Elections 2014.
Each time something defamatory is being uttered, some TV channels have been adopting an aura of bemused detachment, letting their ‘live’ signal be hijacked for people to say virtually anything they want.
Be warned! A very basic license condition can be the casualty here.
Regulation 101 would tell us that a channel can’t get away just being a regurgitator, much less become a platform and instrumentality for wide dissemination of false and defamatory statements and allegations.
That a defamatory press conference was ‘live’ and hence, beyond editorial control of the channel, doesn’t absolve the editor and the media owner from being accomplices in permanent publication of defamatory material.
Publishing (read broadcasting) any material can only be after verifying the truth or veracity of the statements and allegations being made.
Yet, TV channels seem to think that this responsibility isn’t their’s, but the person who is making the allegation!
Perhaps, it is under this misimpression that each time a legal notice is slapped on a TV channel, the recourse is to beat breasts citing media freedom.
The cry for media freedom in the instant case isn’t sound, either legally or ethically.
The channels, with or without NBSA, are bound by MIB’s ‘Guidelines for Uplinking and Downlinking from India’ dated December 5, 2011.
Accordingly, they are obliged to comply with the ‘Programme Code as laid down in the Cable Television Network (Regulations) Act, 1995, and the ‘Rules’ framed thereunder.
Telecasting, even without comment, a defamatory allegation is a violation of license conditions.
I don’t know if anchorman and line producers have been explained this important fact. If not, they need to be told – or else expected to own up what their channel ended up ‘broadcasting’ or regurgitating.
As the political climate degenerates in the final stages of the General Elections, Raveendran might want to use his power of ‘suo motu’. This would resonate among member channels and the industry at large. It would also keep the government and the courts out of the door. Else, those injured may bypass NBSA as a ‘toothless nicety’.
The columnist has been an editor in print and television. He is an alumnus of Harvard Business School and will write every week at the intersect of media, regulation, law and strategy. Rohit Bansal’s column will appear exclusively on exchange4media every Tuesday.