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Media Mantras: From media trials to trials of media

11-October-2011
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Media Mantras: From media trials to trials of media

The most discussed term today is ‘media trials’, if you happen to talk to members of the judiciary, politicians, government officials, bureaucrats or spokesperson of various parties. They will all be united in the opinion that such trials hinder governance and level-headed decision-making. Honest or dishonest, every official dreads this unavoidable sentinel that puts them at the centre of many questions. For them, media trials are the Frankenstein overpowering the country. Many people of the aforementioned groups feel that the media runs the country by opinion-building and influencing the minds of the citizens, misleading them under the façade of free and fearless reporting, while asking straight and uncomfortable questions. The reason for a strong reaction like this is that the media today is boisterous, free and more independent than before. Honest scrutiny by the media and media professionals has rendered a few public figures naked, and the resultant outbursts are increasingly visible, because they are akin to robbing the emperor of his clothes. So annoyed are some that now, every stakeholder in governance is looking at ways to put media on the backfoot. At the slightest, faintest and most filmsy opportunity, the powers that run this country are stripping media organisations and accusing media professionals of lack of credibility, opinionated thought processes and sensational reporting. It’s a disturbing trend.

If you do a Google search on the name of this business tycoon who has made millions in the education business, creating institutes that make you think beyond education, even Google appends “fraud” to the name without you even typing it. But the man has filed a defamation case against one of the most respected magazines in India, known for its in-depth reporting, as the magazine unraveled some uncomfortable truths about the man and his business. The lawsuit runs into crores.

The matter had not even died down when we heard of a leading English news channel from India’s biggest media and news company getting a court notice to pay up for a mistake it committed three years ago. The said news channel had named the judge in a scam story, though the judge was not associated with the case. Claiming that the report tarnished his image, the judge sued the news channel and its editor-in-chief in a Rs 100-crore defamation case.

The lower court has approved the compensation amount and asked the channel to pay up. The error in question was a mechanical/ technical one that emanated from a software match in a span of less than five seconds. The channel also issued a corrigendum for five days continuously after the story was aired, but to no avail.

There have been instances in the past of newspapers quoting wrong names, designations and then issuing a corrigendum the next day. Should a mistake that lasted for just five seconds on air be treated as severely when compared to ones that last for a full day or more in print? We are humans, and to err is human! As long as there is no intent to defame someone, which is pretty much understandable in this case, why should the court see it as an attempt to defame? There was no sustained coverage or erroneous reporting that amplified the matter. I suspect something fishy here.

This is probably one of those rare chances when people have got the opportunity to put the media itself on trial. Otherwise, why would the channel be ordered to furnish a bank guarantee and deposit Rs 20 crore even to appeal to the High Court?

I am surprised that this is the plight of the judiciary and media, which work hand in hand in many cases. What baffles me is that the matter has not been discussed even once in any association set up to monitor broadcast practices, but dragged straightaway to court.

In my view, news and other media should unite and fight against this together. The Broadcast Editors Association (BEA), News Broadcasters Association (NBA), INS and various other news associations should come together to stand against this defamation suit, as any of them could be in a similar situation. If small errors like this are dragged to court with lawsuits in the vicinity of crores, our journalists and news editors would be sitting more in courtrooms than reporting the news. Media has to unite and raise decibels together to deflate this bogey. Media should not let such blackmail to happen, as the fire is bound to creep into everyone’s homes if the spark is ignored.

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