Media self-regulation a laugh

BY ARUNODAY MAJUMDER| IN Media Freedom | 04/09/2012
The balance of power in the PCI is deeply skewed with 20 of its 28 members being representatives of journalism.
ARUNODAY MAJUMDER feels the logic that self-regulation is sufficient to ensure quality is simply untenable.
In his book, The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), the French thinker, Michel de Certeau poses a question in the chapter titled “Walking in the City”: “The ministers of knowledge have always assumed that the whole universe was threatened by the very changes that affected their ideologies and their positions. They transmute the misfortune of their theories into theories of misfortune. When they transform their bewilderment into ‘catastrophes’, when they seek to enclose the people in the ‘panic’ of their discourses, are they once more necessarily right?” The question assumes immense significance in the debate over regulation of television news and social media.
After November 2011, the chairman of the Press Council of India (PCI), Justice Markandey Katju has once again asked the state to amend laws and bring television news and social media under the ambit of the PCI. Unsurprisingly, the holy cows of the news industry have bellowed angrily in protest. The general secretary of the News Broadcasters Association (NBA), Annie Joseph, has stated: “The NBA strongly opposes this move which seeks to negate the self-regulatory mechanism that has been in force for the last several years and has had a very real and positive impact in improving broadcasting standards.” (The Hindu, Delhi Edition, 31.08.2012, page 13).
The NBA has found support from the Indian Newspaper Society (INS). The president of the INS, Ashis Bagga, asserted: “INS believes that the press in India is time-tested and self-regulated with enough maturity to continue to play the crucial role of the Fourth Estate of our vibrant democracy responsibly.” (The Times Of India, Delhi Edition, 31.08.2012, page 12). Despite the perceived difference in status between newspaper scribes and television reporters, the hand-in-glove relationship exhibited in this instance, is not entirely unexpected. After all, both align at the level of ideology with regard to the content of news. Moreover, many corporations that conduct news business have stakes in television news and news dailies. So, it is only typical that foxes of both hues join the chorus.
Resistance
Now, the two grounds on which the NBA and the INS resist external regulation are: (a) that it is a threat to the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution and (b) that internal regulation or self-regulation is sufficient to ensure the quality of news content. The author would like to point out that both these points of logic are not just untenable but also laughable.
There is no doubt that external regulation of journalism in the form of state control is fraught with the danger of information manipulation. But does external regulation necessarily have to be in the form of state control? Can the responsibility of news monitoring not be invested in an external body composed of all stakeholders, the reader and the viewer included? Under this schema, the regulating body is an external entity and at the same time is not an arm of the state.
Unfortunately, the PCI has almost been dysfunctional because of its very structure. In accordance with the Press Council Act (1979), the PCI is composed of 28 members and a chairman. Of these members, seven are working journalists, six are editors of newspapers, six are owners of newspapers, and one is the manager of a news agency. Of the remaining eight members, five are parliamentarians and three are constituents of the Sahitya Academy, the Bar Council of India and the University Grants Commission.
The composition of the PCI makes it evident that 20 of the 28 members are from the field of journalism. Therefore, the balance of power among the members of the PCI is deeply skewed which thwarts any attempt to restructure the PCI. But most importantly, the biggest stakeholder, the reader, has no representation in the regulatory institution, and the lapse has never been addressed even by Justice Katju.
Unexplored
The option to include readers and viewers in a watchdog body remains unexplored because every time the issue of external regulation of news has arisen, journalism unions have very deftly translated it into an attack on freedom of expression. This is precisely what de Certeau points out. Once the concept of external regulation is equated with the threat to freedom of expression, reference is then made to the period of Emergency in order to generalise the specific. The Emergency was suppression in general: it was a repressive regime for all, including journalism. But the issue of external regulation is very specific to the freedom of expression of journalism and not to the public at large. Journalism may claim that it is the voice of the nation but there is enough evidence to suggest that it is only the mouthpiece of the business corporation. And therefore, there is immediate need to rein the bark and prevent the bite.

Sample this! In the book, Indian Mass Media and the Politics of Change, edited by Somnath Batabyal and others, Batabyal recounts an exchange with Sonal Pandey, Deputy Head of Sales of a major news organisation, in 2006: “For example, she said, ICICI (Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India) Bank had been a major spender in the Indian market, but Star News had so far received a relatively small portion of the spending. Star News, Sonal said, was looking at the potential for doubling this account. To do this, the Ad Sales department was trying to come up with strategies that she explained to me … Specific extras, Sonal told me, are promised to clients to get their advertising revenue. For example, she pointed out, reporters are asked to do stories which talk about the housing boom and the availability of easy credit to help secure advertising from financing institutions. Higher education prospects are touted through stories of new private colleges coming up in the country to induce such institutions to spend their media budgets on the channels.” (Routledge, New Delhi, 2011, page 50).
 
As recently as last week, a brilliant piece by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta titled, “MPs’ report refutes TOI’s BT Cotton stories” was posted on this website. The article compares the reports of The Times Of India (TOI), particularly the one that appeared in 2008, literally singing paeans to BT Cotton, with the 37th report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture which confirmed that BT Cotton was at the root of farmer suicides in Maharashtra. The article reminds readers that the 2008 news piece was carried as a full-page paid advertisement by the TOI in 2011. However, most importantly, it informs that the reports and the advertisements coincided with severe public criticism against Mahyco Monsanto Biotech, the multi-national firm that manufactures and sells the seeds. Therefore, is it silly to ask if in this case too news space was sold to promote a product--a product that is the cause of deaths driven by despair? Or, is it daft not to raise these questions? Can the TOI bury the issue by making the reports unavailable online? Can reporters get away with killing while making a living?
From what appears to be involvement in paid news by Star News in 2006 to another apparent instance of involvement in paid news by the TOI in 2011, with blots of irresponsible reportage of 26/11 in 2008 and the Radia tape scandal of 2010 in between, the standard of journalism has only nosedived. Despite evidence of such serious transgressions, only a drugged or tutored individual can claim that self-regulation has improved the standards of news broadcasting. As far as the tall claim of journalism being the fourth pillar of democracy is concerned, it can either be dismissed as sheer flatulence or it can be investigated for being the fourth killer of democracy after starvation, displacement and Anna.

(The author is a student at the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, and a former television journalist. He can be reached at arunoday.majumder@gmail.com)

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