Resurrecting the Media Council idea

BY Ammu Joseph| IN Law and Policy | 16/07/2006
Possibly the most important pre-requisite of an effective media regulatory body is that it be taken seriously by the media industry.

Ammu Joseph

The heat and dust raised by the draft Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill, 2006, briefly brought media policy back to public attention over the last fortnight, with television news channels, in particular, paying more attention to this proposed legislation than they do to most other laws tabled in Parliament.  Several studio discussions roundly criticised the government for even drafting such a "draconian" Bill.  At the same time, most panellists acknowledged the need for a body to oversee the burgeoning broadcast media, with some suggesting that it could possibly be modelled on the Press Council of India (PCI) whose jurisdiction - such as it is - is restricted to the print media. 

The idea of a broader Media Council or Commission has been floating around for several years, most recently towards the end of 2004, when both the Prime Minister, Mr. Manmohan Singh, and the then Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Mr. S. Jaipal Reddy, made statements on the need to review existing  media policies in the context of current realities.  It is actually quite astonishing that the proposal has remained in the realm of general, intermittent discussion over the years, even  though the broadcast scenario in the country was transformed over a decade ago and has grown and evolved at a rapid pace ever since.

One problem that has dogged all efforts in the direction of a Media Council in India has been the virtual absence of consultation and discussion. With neither the media nor citizens involved in the process of determining the purpose and nature of such an organisation, let alone its frame of reference, composition, powers, and so on, the government has laid itself open to the suggestion that its intention is to control or even muzzle the media. 

Lack of transparency and dialogue is clearly a fundamental flaw, especially since media regulatory authorities are meant to be public institutions, accountable above all to citizens.  Difficult as it may be to remember in today¿s context, the media - especially the news media - are supposed to constitute a public good, existing primarily to fulfil a public role and serve the public interest.  It is not for nothing that the Supreme Court of India, in a 1995 judgement relating to broadcast rights, made it clear that "the airwaves or frequencies are a public property" (belonging neither to the state nor to private entities) and that "their use has to be controlled and regulated by a public authority in the interests of the public and to prevent the invasion of their rights." 

There are several examples of media regulatory authorities across the world which are expressly committed to the public interest.  According to the organisation of Independent Press Councils, which is dedicated to Media Accountability Systems (M*A*S*), a press or media council is not only the best-known M*A*S but it has the potential to become the best possible system.  M*A*S refers to any non-governmental system of inducing the media and journalists to respect the ethical rules set by the profession. The basic principle is that, in order to serve the public well, the news media must be free of both political and economic pressures.  In order to obtain, keep and increase their freedom, the media have to be trusted and protected by the general public.   And, in order to gain public support, the media need to "inform readers/listeners/viewers properly" and, in addition, "listen and render accounts to them." 

If India is to have a revamped media accountability system - of which press or media councils would constitute a critical part - there are plenty of working models to draw from. The South African model, for example, is one of the most recent, interesting, complex and multi-layered systems of media self-regulation, which includes a press ombudsman.  The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) of the United Kingdom and the Australian Press Council are other examples worth examining and learning from. 

It is significant that the UK¿s PCC states very clearly that its main role is "to serve members of the public" who have complaints about the press and that its primary aim is "to ensure that it is accessible to all."  Since information is the key to such access, the PCC goes to great lengths to ensure that information is available to all citizens in multiple forms and ways.  It operates a help-line to assist members of the public in making complaints, produces material in a range of minority languages (including Bengali and Urdu), maintains a 24-hour advice line to handle emergency complaints, runs a text-phone to aid people with hearing difficulties, and provides information on audio-cassettes for the visually impaired, in addition to maintaining a regularly updated and user-friendly website (http://www.pcc.org.uk).

The Australian Press Council, which also has an up-to-date website (http://www.presscouncil.org.au), additionally publishes a quarterly newsletter which, too, is available online.  APC News includes relevant articles, opinions and news on issues relating to the print media as well as the Council and, in addition, reproduces all the adjudications issued in the preceding quarter. 

What is more, the composition of both the APC and the PCC reflects their public nature.  Members of the public are as well represented on the former as are publishers and journalists.  Despite being entirely funded by newspaper and magazine publishers, the Australian Council seeks to ensure that its membership covers a wide range of citizens, representing different qualifications, experience and community interests and, in addition, fulfilling the need for gender, ethnic and regional balance.  Its public members are selected for their personal qualities, including involvement in community/public affairs, and represent themselves as citizens rather than the organisations to which they may belong.  There is at all times a panel of ten members representing the public, of whom at least seven must attend each meeting.  This means that one third of the 21-member Council comprises members of the public. 

The UK Commission also has a decisive majority of lay members.  Further, its system of appointments is designed to ensure that lay appointees are themselves selected by a cross-section of distinguished and autonomous citizens.  As a result, although the PCC is funded by newspaper and magazine publishers for the benefit of complainants, it is independent of both the industry and the government. 

On the understanding that an organisation meant to redress public grievances outside the judicial system needs to be prompt, proactive and productive in order to be effective, the PCC tries to ensure that its "service to the public is free, quick and easy."   Guided by its motto -- Fast, Free, Fair -- it aims to deal with most complaints in just 32 working days.  The APC meets every month. 

Possibly the most important pre-requisite of an effective media regulatory body is that it be taken seriously by the media industry.  If the PCC can boast that all its critical adjudications against publications have been printed in full and with due prominence throughout the 13 years of its existence, it is because it follows a system of self-regulation to which the newspaper and magazine publishing industry is committed.

All complaints made to the PCC are investigated under a Code of Practice drawn up by editors, which binds all national and regional newspapers and magazines and covers the way in which news is gathered and reported. The Code also provides special protection to particularly vulnerable groups of people such as children, hospital patients and those at risk of discrimination. The industry¿s acceptance of and commitment to the Code, which is what gives the Commission real teeth, is demonstrated by the fact that it is now apparently written into the employment contracts of the vast majority of editors in the country.

Possibly because the Code evolved from within, of the 3,654 complaints received by the Commission in 2005, it had to adjudicate on only 30 cases.  According to the PCC, its success highlights the benefits of effective and independent self-regulation over any form of legal or statutory control.

The Press Council of India has a very different character.  Jointly funded through fees levied on registered newspapers with circulations of over 5000 and grants from the government through the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, it is headed by a chairperson who is, most often, a retired judge of the Supreme Court.  Of its 28 other members, "20 represent the press and are nominated by the press organisations/news agencies recognised and notified by the Council as all-India bodies of categories such as editors, working journalists and owners and managers of newspapers, 5 members are nominated from the two houses of Parliament and 3 represent cultural, literary and legal fields as nominees of the Sahitya Academy, University Grants Commission and the Bar Council of India."  Not only does this lead to an unnecessarily top-heavy organisation, but there is no mention of the need for balance of any kind other than language.  Under the circumstances it is not surprising that of the 28 present members only one is a woman (representing the Rajya Sabha). 

The website of the PCI is also hopelessly outdated (the most recent press release on it is from 2004, the most recent publication listed is a 2002 "souvenir") and it contains hardly any useful information. In addition, the Council appears to take an inordinate amount of time over its interventions, possibly on account of excessively bureaucratic procedures.  To make matters worse, sections of the press do not seem to take it very seriously.  Even though it is meant to be a mechanism for self-regulation, the Council¿s sporadically issued guidelines and recommendations do not reflect much professional input.  It is, therefore, only to be expected that they are often ignored and/or downplayed.  In fact, all too frequently, media organisations do not even bother to appear before its inquiry committees.

One of the few up-to-date items currently up on the PCI¿s lacklustre website is a brief announcement about an international conference on "Journalism, Ethics and Society in the Age of Globalisation," scheduled to be held in Delhi in November 2006.  The conference will apparently pay special attention to the role of self-regulatory bodies of the media, as well as media ethics. 

The I&B Ministry, which has stirred up a hornet¿s nest with the new draft Broadcast Bill, as well as a draft broadcasting code, may like to consider keeping both in abeyance until some clarity emerges, if it does, from discussions at the conference.  In any case, it needs to make up for the fact that it drew up both documents without adequate, if any, consultation and discussion involving both the media and the public. 

If a new Indian Media Council does eventually emerge - better late than never! -- one can only hope that it will live up to the best traditions of the press council concept, which involves cooperation between the media and the public to protect key human rights such as the freedom of expression and the right to information.

Contact:  ammujo2003@yahoo.co.in 

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