Mixed Media: Leave the media alone!

It’s unfortunate that a Rajya Sabha committee suggests that self-regulation will not work for the Indian media, comments Pradyuman Maheshwari, Group Chief Editor, exchange4media.com and impact.

e4m by Pradyuman Maheshwari
Published: Dec 15, 2008 7:04 AM  | 7 min read
Mixed Media: Leave the media alone!

Everyone loves whipping the media. In the good ol’ days, it was print and now, it is television. Some newspapers and magazines may indeed have sensationalised content, but I don’t think any of the reputed brands have ever overstepped their limits. Radio hasn’t really been an issue because all that we get is sanitised stuff on AIR.

The problem now appears to be with a bit of print and essentially the privately owned television news media. So, here we have a group of esteemed MPs advising the Government that while self-regulation and the like are fine, what is needed is a healthy set of rules given that everyone is nuts about achieving higher ratings.

The Rajya Sabha Committee of Petitions headed by BJP biggie M Venkaiah Naidu got into the act after being asked by a Gurjit Singh from Patiala regarding the “misuse of Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression by the print and electronic media and the need to restrict it under Article 19(2) of the Constitution”. At the time of writing, Report #132 (given that the Upper House Committee has dealt with 131 such plaints in the past) wasn’t put up on the Upper House website, so I’m basing my comments essentially on the press release sent out. The Committee, by the way, has 10 members, including Naidu and the very dynamic Vijay J Darda, Chairman and Managing Editor of the leading Lokmat Group of newspapers, which also co-owns IBN Lokmat, the Marathi news channel of the CNN-IBN stable.

The summary of Report #132 make for interesting reading, and I’m looking forward to the real thing. Here’s how it starts: “The police and some sections of the seemingly enthusiastic media may have to share the responsibility for the irreparable damage caused to the character and career of the alleged accused, who is yet to be convicted by the court of law in fair trial,” Save the unnecessary use of the word “seemingly”, I find the jottings fair. It adds that the “police must desist themselves from exposing the alleged accused to the media prior to his conviction”. Also, “the electronic media should not air information gathered through sting operation unless and until there is ample evidence to conclusively prove the guilt of the alleged accused; if it is required in public interest, the version of the alleged accused should also be aired simultaneously and with equal prominence”. Nothing wrong with this.

But, hang on. Naidu & Co don’t stop here. “It is, however, not the intention of the Committee to recommend curtailment of the freedom of the press and it is also not in favour of a constitutional amendment, as prayed by the petitioner, but at the same time the abuse of the said freedom by a section of the media for creating sensation, achieving pecuniary benefit and enhancing their TRPs, has to be checked in public interest,” it says.

The report summary now gets into the act of sermonising: “Freedom of the press casts responsibility on media as well. The committee, therefore, expects the media to contribute to the success of democracy by protecting the freedom of individual, including his/her right to privacy. The Committee observes that even though the right to know takes precedence over the right to privacy, the right to privacy should not be encroached upon under the garb of freedom of the press unless prompted by genuine public interest. Therefore, the Committee advocates following of a middle path approach between both the rights, to meet the ends of justice.”

Monsieur Naidu’s Report #132 also talks of the cops holding live press conferences and says that airing views on the news of an area “tantamounts to trial by media” and refers to the Noida double murder case. However, it adds: “The Committee would like to acknowledge the fact that in certain high profile murder cases, the vigilance of the media resulted in the dispensation of justice to the victims and their family members, who have otherwise lost all hopes of getting justice under the present system”.

The discussion finally moves to the Mumbai siege. “The Committee apprehends that the live footage shown by TV channels to the viewers could also have been used as free intelligence input by the perpetrators sitting far away from the place of incident… The live coverage was partially restricted later because of some good sense prevailing with suitable advisories. Needless to mention, self-regulation by media otherwise was not in place. The Committee expects the media to treat information of sensitive nature carefully and endeavour to ensure that the interest of Nation and lives of security forces and hostages in such type of operation is not jeopardised by live telecasting such nature of operations.”

There is also a reference to the display of dead bodies which could cause a “negative psychological impact” on viewers. And suggests: “News channels in many foreign countries do not telecast the footage of dead bodies. The Committee desires that similar approach may be adopted by the news channels in our country.”

If all of these still make you think there’s nothing dramatic about the recommendations, read on. “The Committee is aware of the existing regulatory mechanism of the print media, which is in place for almost three decades… Proposals are under consideration to grant more powers to the Press Council of India to regulate the Print Media. In this context, the Committee recommends the Government to process the matter expeditiously and come out with appropriate amendment to the Press Council of Act, 1978.”

And it continues: “The Committee is of the view that self-regulation is an ideal situation, but it may not be effective to regulate the media, particularly in the scenario of growing competition amongst the channels for supremacy in the business of ratings. The Committee is, therefore, in favour of having statutory regulations in place covering the print and electronic media, in the larger interest of the society, on the model of the Press Council of India vested with more powers.”

It then talks of the content code that will be part of the proposed Broadcasting Regulatory Authority of India and hopes the Broadcast Services Regulation Bill will incorporate all views, etc.

While there is reason for Members of Parliament, being elected representatives of the people, to be worried about what’s aired in the media, I think the suggestion to the police is bizarre. No, I am not trying to say that the media is always correct, but there is a legal recourse available. The Government and courts can ensure that libel laws are tougher and cases are discharged quickly, and there is no reason to regulate either the print or electronic media.

Just as the Report #132 acknowledges the role of the media in the Jessica Lall murder case (without naming it of course), it must remember that it’s only because of a free and flourishing Fourth Estate that the world has woken up to the evil acts of terrorism. Do the esteemed MPs believe that the bland coverage by Doordarshan (and All India Radio) can engage the international community the way the private channels have?

Our political masters should remember that the masses consume news from a media entity they trust. And putting out trash or fake interviews of terrorists (as has been alleged in some quarters) will eventually bring down a channel.

Only a free print and electronic media will do. Owners and editors do realise that viewers and advertisers will reject a dishonest offering. The Government must let market forces shape the future of the media. Yes, a legal framework that allows for speedy redressal of complaints is imperative, but that’s all that the Government should ensure. With apologies to Pink Floyd: Hey, MPs, leave the media alone!

(Note, the views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent those of the exchange4media Group where I am group chief editor, exchange4media.com and impact. Don’t agree with my views on Report #132, mail me at mixedmedia@exchange4media.com.)

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