What the Press Council could have been

BY Madabhushi Sridhar| IN Law and Policy | 27/11/2012
National Press Day in November reminds us of the purposes the Press Council should serve, but does not.
MADABHUSHI SRIDHAR reviews its current functioning.

The present Press Council Act need to be fine-tuned, restructured and reformed to make it a comprehensive institution to achieve media accountability besides performing the prescribed functions. There is also a strong necessity to consider a change in the law to review whether the chairmanship of Press Council should be entrusted to eminent professional journalist.

To symbolize responsibility and accountability of the Press, 16th November, the day on which the Press Council of India came into existence in 1966, was declared as National Press Day. The Press is free as per Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, but its responsibility cannot be guaranteed by Constitution. The accountability of the press depends upon various dynamics and the responsive character of the members of profession and that of the organizations like Press Council of India and Journalists’ associations. If the press is supposed to be a watchdog of the society, the Press Council of India is expected to be the watchdog of the press.  It is a forum where people can send the complaints against irresponsible functioning of media and press persons also can complain about the threats to their functional independence.  Whether it is happening or not is what is to be examined.

As the Government’s control over the press would amount to deprivation of freedom of press, a peer group of professionals is ideal to deal with professional aspects of journalism. The idea of a press council started catching up when it was set up as the Court of Honour for the Press in Sweden in 1916. This concept spread later in Scandinavian countries and then in Europe, Canada, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Either press councils or media bodies are put in place in around 50 nations.

The Press Council of India has two challenges before it. The first challenge is securing independence of the press, which factor needs to be emphasized. Second, making the press accountable, which challenge is met to the extent that it is hearing the complaints against and trying to correct the news professionals. The first Press Commission recommended constitution of a statutory authority to maintain professional ethics in journalism.

It started functioning on November 16    46 years ago, under the Press Council Act, 1965, as an autonomous, quasi-judicial body with 22 members headed by a former Justice of Supreme Court of India. It worked up to December 1975 when the  Indira Gandhi Government abolished it saying it did not serve its purpose. It was revived after a revised law Press Council of India Act 1978 was passed by the Janata Government. The functions of the Council were changed. Three of the functions listed in 1966 law were left out as it would be burdensome for the Council. Thus,  a) promoting the establishment of common services for the supply and dissemination of news to newspapers, b) providing facilities for proper education and training of persons in the profession and c) promoting technical or other research are not needed to be done by the Council. However, two new functions were added, they are: undertaking studies of foreign newspapers and their impact, undertaking studies as may be entrusted to the Council by Central Government.

Establishment of common services to supply news to newspapers is really a burdensome activity and Parliament in its wisdom has rightly deleted. But it was not proper to prevent Press Council from having a strong research wing. Yet the revised Act wanted the Press Council to undertake study. It is a major contradiction. The Press Council should have been encouraged to be a strong academic and research institution to undertake studies and research projects which would help the profession to improve its standards. Why not?  The Bar Council of India is expected to work on improving standards and the Medical Council of India was entrusted with responsibility of imparting continuous medical education.

Where is media education?

Press Council of India chairmen have repeatedly demanded reforms to give it more powers, teeth to enforce its directions and orders to make it almost like a court of law imposing punishments and penalties. It is a wonder that former Supreme Court judges wanted ‘district court’ powers to their ‘national’ level body, against which an appeal can lie to High Court. Instead they should have asked for more funds and more functions. However their demand has a reason that even the small directions against giant Press barons are not complied with. Though it is a court for some purposes it has no power of contempt to secure enforcement of its orders, which is a reasonable demand. At least the Press Council should be in a position to deny certain government  facilities to the media if it defies the orders of Press Council.

Why abolished and revived?

However, the very concept of making a former Judge of Supreme Court the chairman of Press Council of India appears to be not conducive to the nature, character and functioning of the Council in relation to the dynamics of Press.

If it is true that the Press Council of India was abolished because it did not serve the purpose, such a ‘truth’ should have been established by Mrs. Indira Gandhi Government before killing it. When it was believed that it would serve the purpose, the Janata Government should have explained why they thought so. When both the legislations wanted former Judge of Supreme Court to be the Chairman, they should have explained the reasons and justification for that. They did not because there is no justification.

There is absolutely no connection or relation between journalistic functioning and adjudication. Those who understood the character of press gave tremendous leadership. But most of the times it remained a body of hearing complaints and passing orders of censure or admonition plus offering some advices, good words and morals etc. Without intending any disrespect for former judges of Supreme Court in general and the dynamic and great judges who led Press Council of India very effectively in particular, the author thinks a senior professional journalist with experience should work out as a better choice for the Chairmanship for giving a professional leadership to the Council, when the Council is fine-tuned by amending Press Council Act, to motivate journalists and to achieve professional excellence and accountability.

Very little was done to achieve the statutorily prescribed functions such as, a) foster a due sense of both the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, b) provide facilities for the proper education and training of persons in the profession of journalism, c) promote a proper functional relationship among all classes of persons engaged in the production or publication of newspapers and d) study developments which may tend towards monopoly or concentration of ownership of newspapers, including a study of the ownership or financial structure of newspapers, and if necessary, to suggest remedies therefor.  A person without specialized expertise of professional aspects of journalism may not be comfortable in leading the Council to achieve these stipulated statutory functions.

Justice Goda Raghuram of the Andhra Pradesh High Court reviewed the working of Press Councils and their structures generally and stated in his address on the occasion of National Press Day (2011): “Operational deficit with many Press Councils is that they tend to consider themselves as complaints councils and insist on mediating and not on adjudicating against the Media, if they can avoid. On a holistic perspective, the role of Council is not just to satisfy a few individuals or groups who have been hurt by the media; not just to avoid law suits; and not just to discourage the State or limiting the freedom of the Media to make money. A Press Council is meant to improve the news Media.” (emphasis is added).

Justice Raghuram suggested that “a vibrant council on the other hand should not avoid seeking publicity, taking positions, establishing case law and taking initiatives even when no complaint is lodged. It should also assume functions like reporting on the state and evolution of the media and periodic audit of the Media in terms of its essential functions. A Press Council should take interest in the training of journalists to improve professionalism and take up research on how the media actually functions, what influence it exercises and what citizen need from them….The Press Council should also encourage evolution of other Media Accountability systems like documents, people and processes.”
 He suggested a handbook of ethics to be put in the public domain, collection of opinion through questionnaires, website offering journalists information and advice on promoting accountability and teaching the public how to evaluate the Media, a yearbook on journalism criticism written by reporters and media users and edited by independent academics to be made available. Justice Raghuram detailed several measures for achieving accountability. For instance, corporatization of Media Houses has a serious impact on the profession which transformed into news business. This tendency need to be researched properly which might lead to effective alternatives to shape the ownership policy.

The Press Council has no role to play in shaping journalistic education and institutional organization unlike the other professional councils such as Bar Council and Medical Council. The Bar Council is not an academy but it still has a significant role in standardizing legal education. While these two bodies are professional bodies coming into being by the professional members, Press Council is a multimember, representative body imposed from top rather than emerging from the bottom.

A Press Council is an essential concept, but it has to be comprehensively structured and provided with enough funds and infrastructure with proper demarcation of increased functions.

(The writer is Professor and Coordinator of Center for Media Law and Public Policy, NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, sridharnalsar@gmail.com)

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