Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Media Regulation - A Common Man's Perspective

The recent articles that surfaced in The Hindu, one by the Hon. Chairman of the Press Council of India Justice Markandeya Katju ( , and the other by a senior journalist Mr. Swapan Dasgupta ( , made me delve into the media, as they call, the Fourth Estate of any democratic institution. At the very outset, let me clarify that I am a student trying to learn some bit of engineering and whatever the information I have, is from the media itself. Factual inconsistencies may indeed arise and I apologize for the same. Maybe, a part of that blame though, has to go to the electronic media I so closely follow!

There are quite a lot of points I concur and with due respect, disagree to, in both the arguments. I must confess I am more inclined to Justice Katju’s arguments. The power of media has been undisputed for decades and the recent transformation of the electronic media from a cocoon to a giant size monster is something a philistine like me can simply look upon and awe in wonder. With the Egyptian “revolution” and the mass support base for the Anna Hazare movements attributed to the electronic media and the social networks, it is anyone’s guess that the power of media to influence the public mood has increased, exponentially. And I stress the word influence. It is a popular ode that “With great power comes great responsibility”. And the science of logic, which I strive to assimilate, helps me deduce a slightly improvised version of this, “With greater power, comes greater responsibility”.

I categorize myself to be a common man. One, who is concerned whether I will miss the 9 ‘o Clock bus to college today, whether today there will be a strike in my college, whether my family can survive this month on the money left….these are among the infinite problems I face. Other than a few holiday moments I spend at home which has become few and far between, I do not (read cannot) devote much time to think of things that are outside of my immediate realm. Yes, a petrol price hike falls into immediate consequence category because it threatens my monthly budget. But I do not necessarily know how much oil India imports from Iran and how much of that trade is being done in Indian currency. If I reside in a crowded and congested city, the case of vehicular exhaust pollution will affect me as I see it affecting the health of someone around me. But I do not know how much India’s stance at the G-20 on carbon emissions will affect me. And these are the issues which I read off from a newspaper, or watch the evening TV news to be enlightened of. For an hour in a day. And I get back…to my problems. And it is in this respect, that I humbly allow myself to be categorized into something Justice Katju proclaims, that “90 per cent of the Indians are fools”. Yes, I am not quite proud of that but still I tell myself, that I belong to that classification.

There are a lot of impressive points I assimilate from the debate. Justice Katju stresses that the media must be regulated, not controlled.  And to quote Mr. Dasgupta’s counter-argument, “Since most professions are regulated and accountable, why should the media be the exception?” There is a case which I wish to quote which occurred on April 23, 2012 in The Times of India, a leading English daily in which the photo of a different Ronaldo was given pertaining to a news strip on the lead page, which contained the result of a soccer match. I feel a reason to quote this example, just because of the fact that it was harmless, it didn’t possibly hurt anyone. But a mistake still is a mistake. I wouldn’t have quoted this case had the newspaper offered a correction in a subsequent days’ edition which according to my knowledge, did not occur. Here, I feel, the argument of Justice Katju assumes importance. For a common man who doesn’t know anything about soccer, he didn’t know he was misinformed. And this being an insignificant error, no one complains, no action is taken and all is well with the next day’s edition. Another example which I would point out to drive home my argument is the issue of paid news. The case of politicians bribing the print media to ensure their propaganda reached the masses is an ill-effect of the lack of regulation (self or external) on the media. The problem is compounded by the fact that not just one or two many newspapers and journals allowed themselves to be bribed, which points to the problem of large scale erosion of ethical responsibility in favour of political and economic incentives.  And the punishments meted out to this section of media by the existing regulatory body, could hardly be called inspiring.

I concur with Justice Katju when he says, “The media has become very powerful in India and can strongly impact people's lives.” And this, I feel is where the underlying need for media regulation comes. In a society that is very diverse (I would perhaps use the term fragile as well, to go with it), anything that shapes public opinion needs to be regulated. Not necessarily controlled, but regulated. This is the price we must pay for the mindset we have been shaped into. Of reacting without often thinking. Of being allowed to be influenced by a report before ensuring if it is credible. We, as the people of this country have evolved into this mindset. And I have reason to believe that the media have had an emphatic role to play in the development of this mindset.

I cannot come to terms with some other arguments Mr. Dasgupta points out. For one, he professes the opinion that a statutory “content-controlling” body will effectively cast a grey shadow on the economic freedom enjoyed by the print and electronic media in the country today. Would I be incorrect in reading this opinion as that for media to survive, does it necessarily have to resort to sensationalized and often egregious news reports? When the public are affected to such an extent that they start losing the ability to infer what is right and what is wrong, it necessitates the change in the existing order. And if the media is in no mood to self regulate, a forceful change is an unpleasant but possibly the only option out. For an impartial and enthusiastic public, I feel we need to alter from the current course.

Again, this is not to be confused with the propaganda-based media norms existing in many communist and military regimes. I disagree with Justice Katju in this regard that astrology, life of cricketers, film stars etc should not be covered. Excess of anything is a bane and it applies to this as well. It is a very personal opinion expressed by Justice Katju that some news items should be banned. It is just that the over-emphasis on “sensational news” must be curbed. The issues that demand attention must take up space in the media, and the current trend of bypassing such news, in favor of something containing more “masala” should be done away with. In other words, the prominence of news items should as much be on the importance of issues it highlights. An error, however inadvertent it maybe, must be accounted for and a due apology must be issued. This is a question of integrity and ethics, and if it cannot be self-imposed, it has to be enforced justly and impartially.

If the government aims to reign in the media through parliamentary laws, it must be vehemently condemned. Because in that regard, the right to expression is forfeited. What I envision is as Justice Katju proposes, the formation of an independent, impartial and statutory body. I say independent because it concerns the enforcement which affects a section of the democratic ideals based on which the Constitution of India stands. I say statutory because there are some things that have to be regulated when one considers the interest of the nation. And it has to be impartial because no particular media house or no particular branch of the government or executive should have an absolute control over the media. The concept of Press Council of India is very much on similar lines because it contains members from the press community, the legislature and from other bodies like the UGC, but their executive powers are vastly limited.

 The Press Council of India should be expanded to reflect a more accurate ideology – more representatives from the media, plus prominent social activists should be included in the same. I would deem the role of social activists as vital because they are the people who can be expected to raise the voice on behalf of me, the common man. And an important step ahead would be to increase the powers, something on the lines of the Election Commission of India. With an able team to lead the press in the country in a direction so as to empower the media and thus invigorate the media-following citizens, am sure the media will play an ever increasing pivotal role in making our country a better place to live, for more and more of the citizens of the state.

The media have had the power. They have enjoyed the liberties conferred to it as the fourth estate of democracy. Did they misuse it..? At least if some people did not have this doubt, the talk of media regulation may not have arisen in the first place…

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