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Mixed Media: Time for news channels to get their act together on self-regulation

18-May-2009
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Mixed Media: Time for news channels to get their act together on self-regulation

It’s not just the political parties who need to introspect post the elections. All the political formations which didn’t do very well must figure what they ought to be doing to be in the reckoning in the political arena five years hence. The media, too, must do a quick stocktaking of where it is going right and what it did wrong in the coverage of Elections 2009.

I’m not too concerned that most of the national news media didn’t capture the real mood of the billion-plus populace… it is not easy doing that. I’m okay with both NDTV and CNN-IBN doing a tacky take-off on the ‘Singh is Kinng’ song… it was party time! I’m also not too perturbed that most exit polls were off the mark from the real numbers. CNN-IBN did stick its neck out, but as Rajdeep Sardesai said himself, exit polls can’t always be trusted. “We got it right, but we may not next time,” he said in a call-in programme.

Well, there is a slightly graver problem that the news television bosses need to contend with now that the election process is over. With a stronger mandate and no major need to appease the media (save a few Assembly elections), expect the new information and broadcasting minister to flex his or her muscles on the regulation issue.

We already have an all-party Parliamentary Committee that has underscored the need for the government to set up a Code of Conduct with a clear statement saying self-regulation won’t work given the race for ratings. And outgoing I&B Minister of State Anand Sharma did have the channels on the backfoot more than once with evidence of ‘excesses’ post the Mumbai terror strikes.

Over the last two months, from around the time they earned reprieve from the Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi that no regulation would happen without adequate consultations, I must say that the news channels have done precious little to do anything towards building a strong defence structure. In fact, the News Broadcasters Association saw a minor revolt with India TV accusing the President of bias. The NBA President is also CEO of TV Today, which runs India TV’s arch rival Aaj Tak, among others.

Although the NBA website still sports the India TV logo, the channel has withdrawn from the body. “No justice, no change in our stand,” was the cryptic response from the channel’s spokesperson when I asked for an update last evening.

My own view – changed given the India TV development and expressed in this column before – is that the News Broadcasters Association should possibly be looking at disbanding its redressal set-up and instead simply play the role of a lobbyist. The licensing and NBA membership requirements should insist that every channel appoints its own ombudsman to address complaints. As a service to its members, NBA can provide guidelines and legal assistance, if necessary.

While all news channels are going to be busy until the prime minister takes office afresh and appoints his new set of ministers, I think the NBA and the channel bosses individually would have a two- to three-week window to remedy things. Make it a month, given the information and broadcasting ministry will have a new secretary with effect from June 1. And he or she will take a bit to settle in.

If the channels don’t get their act together on self-regulation, they’ll only have themselves to blame as despite all of the pre- and post-election camaraderie with the netas, content on news television and banning advertising that he or she finds vulgar are two issues every I&B minister loves dealing with.

State regulation of the news media is regressive. But in India, television channels are dependant on the government for their licensing. While I don’t think the new regime will pull the plug off any of the current crop of players, remember we’re dealing with a bunch of politicians and the best of them can get unreasonable. And now, we need to contend with a stronger Congress…

(The views expressed here are my own.)

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