Self regulation or serving self interest?

BY Abhishek Upadhyay| IN Law and Policy | 22/11/2011
The role of the Broadcast Editors' Association demands attention. The Times Now case is a stark example of how it selectively overlooked relevant facts and targeted the judiciary without disclosing the factual position,
says ABHISHEK UPADHYAY
At this time of much-proclaimed media self regulation, the question arises as to what the electronic media community has achieved by forming its own regulatory as well as protective bodies? Since the question of self regulation is primarily concerned with electronic media, the role of the Broadcast Editors’ Association, an ultra vocal body of certain news channels in particular, demands attention.
 
 This is in fact a unique body with a representation of merely 8 Hindi and 3 English news channels in its committee which unilaterally vouch for the entire electronic media space without an iota of wider consultations. This excessively self assertive body is now busy painting Justice Markandey Katju ( the Press Council of India chief) as a mascot of negativity and irresponsibility, terming his comments  demeaning and denigrating. That is the level of diatribe against the PCI’s chairman, used by this body, consisting of only a handful of Editors. The BEA in its release of 2nd November says, “The BEA believes in inviting public criticism against itself and in taking, after evaluating such comments, the required corrective steps. But the criticism being made by Justice Katju is as demeaning and denigrating as it is a manifestation of his ignorance of media working.” Thus the BEA even pronounced its verdict on the knowledge level of Justice Katju.
 
Such fulminations are not new. It smacks of a particular modus operandi which in turn necessitates a deeper analysis of this body and its possible repercussions on electronic media industry as a whole. The declared objectives of this body are doubtless fascinating, its claims virtuous. It calls for creating a constructive and credible content. It promises to strive for protection of freedom of expression. But the conduct of this body unravels quite a different picture. Its workings are similar to those of a hard core regional political party whose deftly-worded constitution always projects it as the very champion of democracy and moral values, while the real picture is different.
 
The BEA is found to have been blindly following the well-established practice of raising a hue and cry for petty practical/political gains, generally adopted by vested interest groups, side-stepping facts, logic and public interest. This is the main reason why this body miserably failed to achieve any kind of credibility or strength in the eyes of the public as well as the government.
 
The Times Now case is a classic example of the stubborn and irrational functioning of this body. The BEA has, for record, a system of collecting facts and putting it together in public domain to harness its overt cause of free and fair journalism. But the Times Now case is a stark example of how it selectively overlooked relevant facts  and instead chose to target the judiciary without disclosing the factual position. The BEA has done this in the past too, undermining all uncomfortable facts and reaching a certain kind of favorable conclusions as might be  expected of  a Women Commission or a Minority Commission enquiry. 
 
The BEA even didn’t feel necessary to share basic facts of the incident in the Times Now’s case and continues to scream for a clean chit to the channel. This was the incident of 10th September 2008 when Times Now telecast Justice Sawant’s picture in the provident fund scam story in its 6.30 pm bulletin for 15 seconds, confusing it with the then sitting judge of Calcutta High Court Justice PK Samanta.  Justice Sawant through his secretary Mr. Kamat conveyed this mistake to channel on the same day. But there was no rectification, no clarification.
 
Justice Sawant then addressed a letter to the channel on 15th September, exhorting it to rectify its mistake. Times Now received the letter on 18th September. Again there was no rectification, no apology. The channel finally ran an apology on 23rd September, exactly 13 days after committing the mistake and five days after receiving Justice Sawant’s letter.
 
Justice PB Sawant is a former Supreme Court judge. He had been the president of  the Press Council of India. He knew his legal and constitutional rights. Therefore he took the required legal remedy. But the real questions are concerned with the “feel God” and “omnipotent” attitude of the channel in question. When it can dare to tarnish the reputation of a Supreme Court judge in such blatant and unrepentant manner, what kind of treatment is it supposed to offer to a common person who doesn’t have guts as well as resources to deal with a mammoth, all pervasive media organization?
 
That is why it seems that the BEA has the attitude of a diehard political party. It is following the same dangerous trend of committing a mistake and trying to walking away scot free, justifying itself with all possible means at the cost of propriety and truthfulness. The BEA not only completely exonerated the channel in a sub-judice matter but also misled the public on the factual positions of the case. It  never disclosed these rude, immoral and idiosyncratic actions of the channel which did not care to rectify its mistake despite being made aware of the incident on the same day.
 
It is a travesty of justice that the channel in the dock, occupies a judgment seat in BEA. Common people don’t know that Mr. Arnab Goswami, Editor in chief of Times Now is himself  vice-president of the BEA and has deciding authority in every important activity of this body. The media on every second day raises this very question of propriety, and clash of interest in cases related with some ministers, industrialists, corporate, bureaucrats etc.  But it disregards the conduct on its own turf.
 
There is one more body, claiming to replicate more or less the same objectives as being professed by the BEA. It is the NBA or News Broadcasters Association, founded in the year 2008 whose declared objectives are to promote, help, encourage, develop and secure interests of news broadcasters in the Indian television industry. This body consists of CEO or COO level officers of these media companies.
 
It appears that the BEA was founded to collectively use intimidatory tactics in the favor of select few players after NBA failed to do so. The NBA is so weak, so feeble in its exercise of power that it can’t confront intimidation by its own member. The India TV case is an example of this. The NBA, in the past, had given notice to India TV for deceptively recreating a US-based policy analyst’s interview. It slapped a penalty of Rs 1 lakh on the channel which then walked out of the Association.
 
The group of broadcasters found themselves completely helpless, couldn’t take any action and finally surrendered meekly before the channel. The offending channel issued a statement saying that its return has come after “fundamental issues raised by the channel against the disregard to NBA’s rules and guidelines was appreciated by the association’s directors…” The head of India TV, Rajat Sharma then proceeded to join the board of NBA, and the channel’s managing editor Vinod Kapri returned to  the Authority in the eminent editors’ panel! 
 
This was the turning point in the so called self regulation mechanism of electronic media. It became clear that all concerned had made an unwritten, oral understanding to not to raise a finger on their own brethren in future. BEA was the next step in this direction, formed on 22 august, 2009 with a few electronic media editors in driving seat. Since its inception this body has been irrationally screaming in the interest of a select few. The editors of this body announced some tender sops from time to time to publicize its good image and thwart any regulatory attempt in advance.
 
The case of Aishwarya Rai’s baby is  a classic example of this policy. News channels showcased enough spicy stories around Aishwary’s pregnancy in past days to boost their TRP and harness due commercial benefits. Just at the time of her delivery, all of sudden they realized their moral values and need for self-regulation arose suddenly. They instantly took a token decision of not focusing on the issue beyond a limit. Such tactics, time and again proves the same point that this body has been typically behaving on the lines of a newly formed regional political outfit, for instant meaningless gain, while expecting a lot from the government and public in the name of democracy, and a free press.
 
 
Abhishek  Upadhyay is Editor Special Projects, Dainik Bhaskar
 
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