Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Taming the Monster: Do Indian media need a regulator?

By Swapan Dasgupta

The closure of the popular Sunday tabloid News of the World, the arrest of top executives of the Rupert Murdoch-run News International on phone hacking charges and the proceedings of the Leveson inquiry have focussed attention on the skewed internal workings of an otherwise vibrant British media. This has resulted in a bizarre turning of the tables. A readership accustomed to viewing the media as a white knight in shining armour puncturing the pretensions of the powerful and the pompous has suddenly been exposed to unethical practices, blatant illegalities and the cosy relationship that exists between the Fourth Estate and politicians.

The results have not been edifying. In the past, the media conducted itself with the militant cussedness of trade unions. Every right was fiercely guarded and transformed into a privilege; every hint of regulation was instantly transformed into a larger battle for democracy; and the occasional on accountability was painted as an insidious assault on the people’s inalienable right to know.

The boot is now on the other foot. Instead of being assiduously wooed and flattered by the powerful, the Leveson inquiry has witnessed powerful media barons such as Rupert Murdoch and his son James being subjected to merciless interrogation. Indeed, as the inquiry meanders from the internal workings of the newsrooms to politics, the likes of British Prime Minister David Cameron are having a torrid time explaining their convivial relations with the Murdoch empire. Hostile public opinion is veering to the opinion that existing laws and quasi-official bodies such as the Press Complaints Commission aren’t enough: what the media needs is a public spirited, independent regulator.

It is difficult to gauge whether or not the Chairman of the Press Council Markandeya Katju was influenced by developments in London when he rushed into battle against India’s ‘unionised’ media. A high-spirited individualist with very definite (and occasionally bizarre) views on all subjects ranging from Salman Rushdie’s writings to cricket’s role as a promoter of false consciousness, the retired Supreme Court judge has proffered a simple argument: if all professions are regulated, why should the media be any different? Waging a turf battle against the electronic media-appointed watchdog body headed by former Chief Justice J.S. Verma, Katju has strongly argued that the Press Council be transformed into a Media Council and assume the role of a regulator.

Predictably, Katju’s suggestion has drawn flak. In part this is due to his diagnosis of the media’s ailments. In an article in The Hindu, Katju spelt out his dissatisfaction: “The way much of the media has been behaving is often irresponsible, reckless and callous. Yellow journalism, cheap sensationalism, highlighting frivolous issues (like lives of film stars and cricketers) and supersitions and damaging people and reputations, while neglecting or underplaying serious socio-economic issues like massive poverty, unemployment, malnourishment, farmers’ suicides, health care, education, dowry deaths, female foeticide, etc, are hallmarks of much of the media today. Astrology, cricket (the opium of the Indian masses), babas befooling the public, etc, are a common sight on television channels.”

Katju, it would seem, had very definite ideas about editorial content and the hierarchy of news. In his perception, the media must play the role of a social reformer and not fritter away its energies in frivolity and tittle-tattle, never mind the fact that not all its consumers are preoccupied with virtuousness. It is precisely because of his highbrow certitudes and disdain for popular journalism that his insistence on a media regulator has been viewed with a measure of amusement by the Fourth Estate.

If an all-powerful regulator in the mould of Katju, it has been argued, assumed responsibility for the whole media, it would be tantamount to murdering diversity and ruining a vibrant and growing industry. In spelling out his philosophical preferences robustly, Katju unwittingly helped focus attention on the dangers posed by an activist regulator who would replicate the ideals of the so-called New Information Order, once favoured by the fellow travellers of the Soviet Union. What added to the scepticism was Katju’s proposal coinciding with the still-born Private Member’s Bill proposing media regulation that Congress MP Meenakshi Natarajan contemplated introducing to the Lok Sabha earlier this month.

That the angularities of Katju were responsible in distorting a much-needed debate on the internal workings of the media should not, however, blind the Fourth Estate to its own vulnerability. The decision of a court fining a popular TV news channel a whopping sum of Rs 100 crore for confusing the identity of a former Supreme Court judge may be questioned on the plea that the punishment was disproportionate. But it was a reminder of the fact many of the upholders of India’s institutions are exasperated by what they see is an increasingly roguish media.

Much of exasperation is born out of aesthetic repugnance. A complacent elite used to stodginess and predictability in the packaging of current affairs has been unsettled by the dramatic induction of a colloquial idiom. The media has won new consumers with its relentless demolition of social entry barriers. Yet, this social churning and innovative communication methods have, in turn, generated a backlash. Judges and litigants are rightly fearful that a shrill kangaroo court atmosphere is making judicial trials difficult to hold in a right environment. The Arushi Talwar murder case in NOIDA is an obvious example. Politicians are angry that the media is playing the role of an anarchic agenda-setter, confirming Stanley Baldwin’s prognosis of exercising power without responsibility. And celebrities, who otherwise love free publicity, have been dismayed by intrusive journalism and, above all, a wild social media that veers from recklessness to licentiousness.

Many of these hiccups are the consequence of social churning and technological innovations. The reactions to them have also been predictably knee-jerk. Neither social attitudes no technology can be regulated and controlled without the state assuming draconian powers that invariably end up being misused. India is a naturally fractious society that, however, believes, rather naively, that the state has the responsibility of imposing order without undermining civil liberties. The media has become the target of those impulses.

The media remains on a strong wicket as long as it doesn’t lose sight of common decencies and the notion of fair play. As long as its motives are honourable, it can get away with minor transgressions. However, if its own house isn’t clean, the backlash being witnessed in Britain is unavoidable.

The Indian media hasn’t quite bothered to dispense with the rotten apples in its own basket. Unless it tackles issues such as paid news, wilful deception, insider trading in the markets, extortion and blackmail—and all these are rampant outside the metros—it cannot expect to continue with the privileges that a democratic society has accorded it. In the face of the regulatory threat, the media must engage in a major bout of self-correction. Journalists have become accustomed to being regarded as exceptional citizens because they wield the power to damage others. Of late this power has often been wielded without discrimination and for reasons that verge on outright criminality.

There is, of course, the law which, thanks to the sheer inefficiency of the judicial system, isn’t really a check. There are also other punitive measures that the authorities shy away from using for fear of being charged with being anti-democratic. Yet, a situation is now arising whereby powerful sections of society are urging the creation of special purpose vehicles to tame what they see is a monster. Taking defensive action involves the media undertaking self-purification. 

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