The Press Council, then and now

BY P RAMAN| IN Books | 27/06/2018
The post-Emergency Press Council, reconstituted in 1978, was a taller body than its current avatar,
Writes P RAMAN in his memoir, ‘A Footsoldier’s Version’

 

Book extract

“THE POST-TRUTH MEDIA'S SURVIVAL SURTRA: A Footsoldier's Version”
Aakar Books 2018
ISBN : 9789350025574

                                        

                       Chapter XV --A  Muffled  Watchdog

 

THIS WRITER became a member of the Press Council when it had still enjoyed its pristine stature.  That was in 1985.  Ours was the third council after it was reconstituted under the 1978 Press Council Act.  Indira Gandhi government had dissolved the council during emergency.  The emergency excesses and onslaught on the freedom of the press were the compelling reasons for the demand for a more nuanced press council. With this in view, the Second Press Commission which had already started work, had to be reconstituted with members like Nikhil Chakravarti and Girilal Jain. 

This was the background in which the media, government and the public at large had treated the council with high esteem. In its early phase, it had gained in authority with the presence of members like L.K. Advani, Ram jethmalani, George Fernandes, Edward Faleiro, Mammen Mathew, H.V. Kamath, R.K. Karanjia, V.N. Gadgil, C.R. Irani, B.G. Verghese, Prem Bhatia, Raghubir Sahai and M.J. Akbar. Its adjudications on complaints were taken seriously. Newspapers had carried the council’s decisions on a regular basis. Some newspapers had found it necessary to make editorial comments on the council’s verdicts.  Regional dailies had made it a point to publish the council’s comments against the local rival newspapers.  To an extent, this had served the purpose of naming and shaming the wong-doers. 

Cases involving some of the largest media houses were disposed off during our time.  Often top Supreme Court lawers had appeared before the inquiry committee to argue cases on behalf of their influential clients. In B.G. Verghese vs The Hindustan Times case, the council had passed a harsh judgement against the Birlas, the owners. By far, this was the most controversial case that had evoked wide media attention.  In The Hindustan Times vs The Times of India case, L.M. Singhvi was hired to argue the case on the former’s behalf.   Such was the importance the media had attached to the Press Council even during the 1980s.  Then why is the Press Council so ineffective today?  How come we are left in dark about what is happening in the council?  Why the media houses wholly ignore the activities of this quasi-judicial body which was meant to be an effective watchdog?

There have been suggestions in the recent past for scrapping the council if it is not able to achieve its objective for which it has been constituted.  On the other, many have proposed that the council should be given more teeth to make its decisions binding on all parties in disputes. The latter want the council to be armed with punitive powers. Then there are suggestions to include broadcast and social media in its ambit.  However, there have been persistent divergent views on all such proposals.  Private broadcast media barons have already said they won’t accept any regulations by any body, statutory or quasi-judicial.  Instead, they have set up their own ‘council’ for self-regulation.  

However, if the experience of the TV media is any indication, the self-regulation itself is far from satisfactory.  Both News Broadcasters’ Association and Broadcast Editors’ Association have been ineffective in disciplining the erring channels. Former Press Council chairman Markandeya Katju challenged the two outfits to state how many licences they had cancelled for the violation of ethics by the fellow channels that had crossed all limits.  He had cited a large number of cases of misdemeanours.  But only in one case – India TV -- a fine of Rs. 1 lakh was imposed for manipulating an interview.  But soon after this, its head was taken back into the association.  Not only this.  The person who was punished for manipulating an interview, was honoured by the government with a ‘bhushan’ award for ‘excellence’.  “The NBA is so weak, so feeble in exercise of power that it cannot confront intimidation by its own members,” says Abhishek Upadhaya, senior editor of Dainik Bhaskar and a media critic.  With such experience how can one expect any effective self-regulation in print media?     

THE HARSH truth is that the Press Council, after the post-emergency euphoria, has become an unwanted child. Its main stake-holders, i.e., media houses, do not feel comfortable with it.  They, at least a dominent section of it, simply want to ignore the councl’s its existence.  Why?  Perhaps you will not get a formal explanation.  But senior editors who are part of the media establishments feel free to pour their heart out to us, the harmless middle-rung journos.  They just hate any constraints being imposed on the media by ‘outside’ institutions except the judiciary. Many who sit there in the council are journalists working under them as employees.  Some are their sacked editors. Who are they to tell us what is wrong and what is right?  Running a newspaper, they assert, is a multi-million business.  Those close to the media houses say that the newspapers are under pressures from the government, advertisers and various other interest groups.  They will, in any case, have to be tackled tactfully.  Where is time for us to listen to the old-style pontifications by a few laymen sitting out there?  At Times House, a trusted editor even alleged that a few working journalists and former editors were manipulating the Press Council decisions. 

This is outlandish. The 28-member Press Council has representatives of the INS, apex body of the media houses, Editors’ Guild, small and medium newspapers body and working journalists. In addition, there are MPs, a nominee of the Bar Council, Sahitya Akademi and University Grants Commission.  Why should such members allow four working journalists fix decisions of the council?  The plain fact is that a dominant section of the media houses just do not want any kind of watchdog – a statutory body like Press Council or a mechanism for self-regulation.      

Clearly, the 36-year-old Press Council is in an identity crisis.  Or call it existential crisis.  This is the sentiment behind the clamour for giving more teeth to the council.  Every time a new chairman (who must be a Supreme Court or High Court judge) takes charge, the incumbent calls for giving more punitive powers to discipline the media.  This writer was privy to the council members going to the new chairman Justice Sarkaria to sensitize him about the complexities of the council’s relationship with the stake holders of the media. Similar had happened in the case of his predecessor Justice A.N. Sen. Both were quick to grasp the point.  But Justice Markandeya Katju, who had the distinction of being the most outspoken chairman, stuck to his view throughout his tenure.  He had even written to the prime minister seeking amendments to the Press Council Act to arm it with more punitive powers.  This was against the sentiments of the council from its inception.  The council before us and after had considered the issue and found the more-teeth demand even more dangerous.  First, one cannot rule out the possibilities of a few members ganging up at the behest of the vested interests and resort to witch-hunting the newspapers or journalists.

Second, the government can also use its levers to rally its favourites and misuse the council’s punitive powers to harass the unfriendly media. The Information and Broadcasting Ministry had on many occasions writtten to the Council to recommend amendments to section 14 of the act to vest it with penal powers.  Each time the council had rejected the idea.  Third, in case the council moves against any newspaper, it could go to the high courts to contest the order.  The council will thus get bogged down in a web of litigations in different courts.  In case the higher judiciary strikes down its adjudication, it will be seen as a jolt to the council’s moral authority and its collective wisdom. It is also likely that the courts may find its intentions mala fide.  This will place the council in an embarrassing position. 

The successive governments have always been too eager to use the Press Council to settle score with the editors and media. Information minister H.K.L. Bhagat had even encouraged the friendly members of the council to make the necessary recommendations.  Take Markandeya Katju’s letter to the prime minister. It was grabbed the UPA’s information minister Manish Tewari. In his ‘clarifications’ to the Rajya Sabha in 2013, Tewari had spoken of amending section 14 of the act that gives the council powers to ‘warn, admonish or censure’ a publication, editor or journalist if they were found guilty of violating standards of journalistic ethics or public taste.   The amendment could also have empowered the council to recommend to the government suspension of government advertisement to the guilty newspaper and cancellation of the journalist’s accreditation. In extreme cases, the amendment proposed suspension of the very registration of the impunged newspaper. Katju as per his recorded statements was more harsh.  He wanted the council to have powers to impose fine on the guilty.  Such harsh powers could be a convenient tool in the hands of the executive to keep the media under its hegemony.

WHEN THE Press Council bill was envisaged, misuse of executive powers against media was a dominant theme.  The council’s rules and procedures were shaped with this danger in view.  The council adjudicates on two kinds of complaints – against the media for violating the ethics and against the executive or private groups for attacking the press for their vested interests.  After receiving a complaint, the council secretariat issues notices to the defendents and collect evidences from both sides. The inquiry committee of the council at its hearing examines both sides. They argue their cases, often bringing in additional evidence. The whole process is to provide full opportunity to both sides.  Then the inquirty committee forwards its findings to the council which in its full meeting scrutinises and endorses the recommendations. The hearing is done in public and all statements and evidences are public documents.  The idea is to have fair play and prevent any misuse of powers to settle score with the media, government or members of the public.   

There are similar elaborate safeguards in the procedures for the formation of the Press Council. Chairman has to be a retired judge of the Supreme Court or high court. All stakeholders in media like the Indian Newspapers Society, Editors’ Guild, small and medium newspapers and working journalists are selected in a balanced proportion.  Names are given by their respective recognized associations. The government can only issue the orders. The rules also strictly prohibit the same newspaper group having more than one memeber in the council.  Supposing the Editors Guild and working journalists associations recommend names from the same media house, one of the nominees gets eliminated by draw of lots.  All this is to avoid any particular group monopolizing the council.  So the apprehension of manipulating the council’s decisions is wholly fallacious.    

Despite such safeguards, there may have been instances of partisan interests playing out within the council.  But then this is not due to the council’s structural defect.  Such things happen when the polity remains sharply divided in a highly charged political atmosphere.  It could happen to any panel.  True, nominating bodies like INS and Edtors’ Guild have often been not serious enough to send the best talents. Some of their nominees were so busy they only made an occasional appearance.  Some MPs were very serious and active.  But many took it as just another committee. We had a sharply divided council in the aftermath of the Ayodhya violence during the Mulayam Singh government. The council had received complaints about the highhanded manner in which the Mulayam government had acted against the press. It had then formed an investigating committee to find out the truth. Some members of the committee were bent on admonishing the UP government for its actions against sections of the Hindi media. It was then decided that the partisan behavior of the sections of the media and the sensationalism and hatred they had indulged in should also be probed.  Sections of Hindi media had done it as part of their partisan build-up in favour of the Ayodhya movement.  Every day duing the kar seva movement, these dailies came up with stories with sensational headlines. 

The committee had visited Agra, Faizabad, Ranchi and Lucknow to collect evidence.  In all places, partisan crowds had come to appear before the committee to present their version.  It had all the trappings of a tutored narration against the Mulayam government’s repressive measures and justifying the rabid communal campaign indulged in by sections of the regional media. As a result we three members, K. Vikram Rao, famous Hindi poet and journalist Raghubir Sahai and me, were forced to present an alternative report. We had highlighted both the Mulayalam government’s actions and the rabid competitive communalism indulged in by sections of Hindi media violating journalistic ethics.  This was the worst case of the misuse of the council by sections of its members for partisan political interests. 

Looking back, such aberrations could have been avoided had the nominating bodies like INS, Editor’s Guild and Small and Medium newspapers Association had nominated men of stature to the council. A similar episode took place when Justice Markandeya Katju was chairman. An imquiry committee had found fault with the actions of chief minister Nitish Kumar when he was part of the NDA.  The issue had to be reopened when some other members had taken exception to it.  Finally the decisions had to be reviwed. In a politically divided polity, there is always scope for aberration in the working of such institutions. The remedy is not to muffle the Press Council or boycott it altogether but to improve its quality by making it more effective and giving it a higher stature.  The media barons boycotting the council have another reasonable option.  They can initiate a debate to make the watchdog body more effective by seeking structural changes in its composition.          

In our time, we had made a landmark decision.  We decided to open the hearings of the council’s inquiry committees to public.  Befor this, proceedings were confined to the concerned parties.  Media was not allowed to report its proceedings but only the final adjudication. The issue was debated both within the council and outside. There were apprehensions that the members will not be free enough to express their views if all that they said was carried by media. Some felt that the council’s verdict would lose sanctity if it was known that the adjudication was made by a divided house.  Despite this, the public hearing did have a salutary effect. There was a sudden spurt in the number of complaints received at the council’s secretariat obviously because of the wider public interest this had evoked. Newspaper reporters also had begun attending the proceedings and some reports about the daily hearings had appeared in press.  However, for reasons best known to the media houses, this healthy practice was discontinued.  This was another case of deliberate devaluation of the press council by the media houses.

As briefly mentioned earlier, a complaint filed by The Hindustan Times against its rival The Times of India had created a big storm in the media world.  It was over an advertisement campaign conducted by the latter on its pages. It was widely seen as distasteful. The advertisement showed a man climbing bare stairs drawn on a circulation chart and tripping suddenly on the ground below.  The accompanying caption said:  ‘Humpty-Tumpty had a great fall’ with ‘H’ and ‘T’ (Hindustan Times in bold letters.  It had also showed HT’s circudlation figures falling at the time.  Clearly, it was part of a bitter circulation war between the two media giants.  When the issue came up before the inquirty committee in which this writer was also a member, both the complainant and defendant had appeared in strength.  Leading lawyer L.M. Singhvi had appeared for HT.  On the TOI side about a dozen officials, including the editor Dilip Padgaonkar, had come.  The latter’s argument was that there was nothing distasteful in that ‘artistically’ presented advertisement. The whole story had represented the emerging trend of ‘comparative advertisement’, the TOI side asserted. 

The next day the TOI had carried a rather long report of the council proceedings, throwing doubts about the very fairness of the adjudication. Soon the newspaper had also carried articles on the virtues of ‘comparative advertising’ to what it said create a better awareness among the consumers.  On its part, the council after hearing the arguments of both sides and studying the documents presented, came to the unanimous conclusion that The Times of India’s advertisement was in bad taste and expressed concern over such tendencies.  While other dailies carried the verdict, the impugned daily later came up with a highly defiant version of it.  And that was the beginning of a long saga of determined boycott of the media watchdog. It often reached such ludicruous level that even the high court orders on the Press Council are treated as blasphemy.  In April, 2016, the council had issued a bailable arrest warrant to the secretary Information and Broadcasting ministry refusal to appear before the council in a case. But the latter went to the Delhi High Court which promptly stayed the council’s order. This was a rather rare intervention by the high court. It involved the union government.  Why the story was dumped down?  Herein lay the bitter side of a determined boycott.  As this book goes to the press there were some feeble signs.   Some dailies have made a brief reference to the Press Council seeking report on the Kashmir violence.  We do not know whether it is a change of heart or happened by default.

Did the council lose its relevance after having lost its track and getting lethargic?  Has it become non-productive and turned a white elephant? Some have asked this question. This writer, to his surprise, found that the council since our time had been even more active and discerning in its deliberations.  They were admirably diligent in disposing the complaints. It did enormous work and was also active in non-routine functions.  For instance, the council had drawn up appropriate guidelines on a number of critical issues affecting the profession.  These included issues like exit polls, portrayal of women in media, right to reply, changes in the Official Secrets Act and a report of the problems of small and medium newspapers.  Even a casual look will convince one of the enormous input they mustered to arrive at the right conclusions.  It is worth mentioning the sensible norms the council has recently drawn up for those doing the business and commercial reporting.  Perhaps, this may not be to the liking of centain media houses that are known for mixing news with business.   But if truthfully followed, it will enhance the media’s integrity. 

THE PRESS Council’s separate guidelines for the financial reporters, editors and owners in accepting gifts and facilities like loans, preferential shares and such other favours have gone totally ignored. While presenting company reports, the council recommended, the writer should make it clear that it was based on the firm’s official version. Another significant suggestion was that no newspaper owner, editor or reporter should use their position to promote their other business interests. Similar was the council’s recommendations on mixing advertisement with news.  How many media houses had allowed their newspapers carry these important guidelines?  Perhaps such proposals are not to the liking of certain media houses.  Media observers like B.G. Verghese and Ajit Bhattacharya had attributed the ‘New Media’s business interests to their dislike for the Press Council. This mismatch is an extention of the three-decade long confrontation between the dominant media houses and government on similar contentious issues (see:   )   

In the happier days, after every coumcil meeting, the secretariat used to send out a press release on the major adjudications and special reports, if any, to the media.  News agencies promptly released the verdicts. Delhi dailies had regularily carried them.  Then came the boycott.  Since then the council chairman and secretariat had made special requests to the ediors to at least carry those adjudications involving the respective newspaper. Barring The Hindu and a few others, most others had ignored even this request. Rather than giving sharper teeth to the watchdog, what is immediately needed is an amendment to the Press Council Act, 1978, to make it obligatory on the part of the newspapers to carry the council’s adjudications concerning the respective newspaper. This will make the readers aware of the omission and commission on the part of their newspapers. 

But let there be no illusion.  No such thing is going to happen.  Ministers may talk of giving more powers to the council. Those like Markandeya Katju may lament on ‘yellow journalism, cheap sensationism and highlighting frivolous issues’. They all overlook a crucial point.  Media houses in India, both electronic and print, have grown enormously powerful since the Second Presss Commission report came out during the Janata rule.  In the past 38 years, the media houses have acquired unchallengable financial and political clout.   

Unlike in the pre-liberalisation days, many media houses have established deeper intrinsic links with the corporate entities in different ways.  A recent report had said that BCCL, publishers of The Times of India has stake in 350 companies by way of its ad-for-equity scheme. This includes some biggies and real estate firms.  This meant media houses getting easy financial stake in a large number of private firms and thus raising issues of conflict of interests.  A report of the Press Council sub-committee on paid news had recommented effective measures to stop the practice.  But Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a member of the PCI panel, says that the council had suppressed the report, obviously under pressures from the newspaper owners.  Later it was released which had angered the interested paties.    

Second, unlike earlier, the whole character and philosophy of media has undergone tectonic changes.  Many of the lofty ideals enshrined in the Press Commission report and the Council’s ‘pontifications’ have been swept away by New Media’s commercial philosophy.   The media houses are setting their own rules of the game without consultation or wider debate.  They brazenly reject the old dictum that journalism is ‘a public service and a profession’.  Much against the Press Commission’s dictum, the editor is no more the ‘ear and eye’ of a newspaper.   They are merely executives hired to run the paper.  Newspaper publishing has become a multi-million industry. If a publication is treated as solely a commercial business, newspaper becomes a consumer product and ‘news’ marketable ‘content’.  The form and marketing of the ’content’ will be decided not by ethical press dharma prescribed by the Press Council but market surveys and consumer tastes and behavior.  

The story of the Press Council vs. New Media will not be complete without the reference to a cosy arrangement between the establishment and big media houses.  In olden times the successive governments had used collective class actions like ‘diffusion of ownership’ and newsprint quota to hoodwink the media. Mass action is passé post-liberalisation.  Media taming could be more focused and unobstrusive through direct targeting.  If a media house brings out too many ‘negative’ stories with a view to enhancing its visibility, the Enforcement Directorate could send an innaucuous notice.  Or a few queries by a CBI official.  Suddenly you will find even the brave ones singing the songs of praise.  Look at the fall of the great interrogator Arnab Goswami.  When he was angrily shouting at Sushma and Vasundhara on the Lalit Modi case, it was explained that the media house gave enough freedom to its different publications if that was necessary to gain TRP edge.  Then suddenly Arnab went silent. The roaring lion on the screen has turned a tame mouse.  This has been this year’s most telling case of effective media management.  Possibly, 21st century cannot produce a Ramnth Goenka.         

 

P. Raman has worked in the Indian print media for over half a century. Beginning as a sub-editor, he worked with a dozen English dailies and weeklies, including Patriot, Link, The Indian Express, The Economic Times and Business Standard.  

 

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