(All statements attributed to Justice Katju, have been sourced from the transcript of an interview posted on 01.11.2011 on www.thehoot.org
The response from the media to remarks made by Justice Markandey Katju, the new Chairman of the Press Council of India (PCI), is so unanimous that the author is considering the revision of a proverb to ‘birds of a feather chirp together’. This article will examine the merits and demerits in the PCI Chairman’s statements. Also, responses to his statements that have appeared in the ‘most selling English newspaper’ (MSEN) will be scrutinised. The selection is necessary since it is impossible to discuss all responses appearing in various media.
From what has appeared in MSEN, the various broadcast associations have been particularly offended by three remarks made by the PCI Chairman – (a) that journalists, especially those operating in the electronic medium, have low levels of intellect, (b) that the media divides society along communal lines and (c) that the PCI should be renamed as ‘Media Council’ to bring television news channels under its purview.
Appearing in an interview hosted by Karan Thapar on CNN-IBN, Katju responded to a question saying, “… I have a poor opinion of most media people. Frankly, I don’t think they have much knowledge of economic theory or political science or literature or philosophy.” He reaches this conclusion on the basis of three observations – (a) “… 80% of the people are living in horrible poverty, unemployment, facing price rise, healthcare etc. You divert attention from those problems and instead you project film-stars and fashion parades and cricket as if they are the problems of the people.” (b) “… whenever a bomb blast takes place, in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, within a few hours almost every channel starts showing that an e-mail has come or a SMS has come that Indian Mujahideen have claimed responsibility or Jaish-e-Mohammad or Harkat-ul-Jihad, some Muslim name. You see, e-mail or SMS any mischievous person can send, but by showing it on the TV channels and next day in print, you are in a subtle way conveying the message that all Muslims are terrorists …” (c) The media through many TV channels show astrology which is pure humbug.”
The PCI Chairman’s comment with regard to the lack of knowledge in the social sciences and humanities on the part of “media people” is an observation on individuals when they operate in the media i.e. when they operate as journalists. This may or may not extend to them when they do not operate in the media; and the PCI Chairman, very rightly, does not comment on that. Thus, in his observation on journalists, he has criticised the public individual and not the private individual. In this article too, the word ‘journalist’ and its synonyms will be used to refer only to the public individual.
On the basis of their conduct as journalists, it is no exaggeration to state that there is a general lack of knowledge of the social sciences and humanities among them. How they act as non-journalists is not the objective of the PCI Chairman’s comments nor is it in any way of interest in the writing of this article. In fact, if journalists do possess knowledge of the social sciences and humanities, which clearly some of the ‘stars’ do and a look at their profiles confirms this, then it speaks even more poorly of their conduct as information disseminators as they are suppressing information. Reportage informed by knowledge of the social sciences and humanities is imperative to journalists because they record and comment on events that take place in society. News or information, as journalists generally tend to believe, do not have an independent existence outside the socio-political-economic universe, rather they have their bases in everyday human activities and relations.
So what happens when the usual journalist without any application of knowledge of the social sciences and humanities reports? A sample is in the report headlined “Stir-hit Maruti goes to Guj for its biggest plant” (MSEN, 30.10.2011, Pg 1, emphasis added). The violation of objectivity, the first principle of journalism, is evident in both the headline and the opening sentence – “Gujarat finally bagged Maruti’s new mega factory as the country’s largest carmaker, frustrated by the recurring labour trouble in Haryana, cleared a proposal to build a facility outside its home state to increase its production capacity.” (ibid, emphasis added). Clearly, the reporter suggests that the only party to be ‘hit’ by the workers’ strike is the automobile giant Maruti. It is not quite explained as to why, despite being fined Rs 3,800 each for participating in the strike, the workers are not hit. Again, the reporter deduces that a loss in output makes Maruti the ‘frustrated’ party. Even a cursory glance at the work schedule operating in the plant shows that the disciplinary regime in place is enough to cause physiological and psychological damage to the workers and not just frustrate them. A reading of pages 59-85 of ‘Labor and Monopoly Capital’ written by Harry Braverman will be helpful in understanding. The first 15 minutes of Charlie Chaplin’s film ‘Modern Times’ (1936) will also be illuminating in this regard. Finally, the reporter, on account of being associated with the owners of the means of knowledge production, categorizes labour protest as ‘trouble’. The understanding and representation in this case is so naive that besides social science text books that explain the politico-ideological difference between the two terms, reference to the dictionary is strongly recommended.
The Editors’ Guild and broadcast associations have variously responded, calling the PCI Chairman’s statements ‘negative’ and ‘divisive’. They contend that his observations slight the great journalists that the country has produced (MSEN 03.11.2011). The PCI Chairman has in no way slighted the great journalists in the country and has lauded P. Sainath for instance. He has further clarified that Sainath is not the only one.
The second observation on the basis of which the PCI Chairman concludes that a majority of journalists have “a very poor intellectual level” is the thoughtless distribution of a particular type of unreliable information that follows terror attacks. He points out that claims of responsibility made in the name of Islamic terrorist organizations through SMS or e-mail is regular but hardly credible. It can be, as he mentions, simply an act of mischief or a deliberate ploy to demonise the minority community. The media has had experience of being used by terror groups. Live coverage by television journalists gave away the positions of security forces as they fought terrorists at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai on ‘26/11’. What makes them not consider that Hindu terrorist organizations could also be feeding such information to forward their agenda of communal division?
However, the PCI Chairman regrettably suggests that this is “… deliberate action of the media to divide the people on religious lines …” Such an unsubstantiated allegation speaks poorly of him. Perhaps, what is more plausible as an explanation is the inability to comprehend the latent repercussions of circulating such ‘news’. Once again, such inability stems from the divorce between the social sciences and humanities, and journalism that weakens reportage. Unfortunately the idea of politics, as manufactured by the media, is largely restricted to the electoral. Understanding of politics at the level of culture and communication is crucial to the identification of misinformation and its prevention.
The PCI Chairman’s criticism of broadcast and publication of astrological suggestions has gone uncontested but, as expected, not his suggestion to reorganise the Press Council. Broadcast associations have argued that the ‘self-regulatory’ mechanism adopted is an apt method of regulation. The principle of self-regulation, in principle, is dubious – the cat demanding that it be trusted to guard the fish! The media is the main source of everyday information of social and political matters. Such information is crucial to the health of the public sphere which governs the government. The media may pretend that it has already been a hundred years since Rip Van Winkle went to sleep and that a new world awaits him, but in reality it has not even been one year since the Radiia scandal. To say the least, conversations between representatives of business houses and ‘prominent’ journalists that reflect the act of lobbying for ministerial berths have done irreparable harm. Yet in gross underestimation of the viewers’ intelligence television journalists sing paeans to their self-regulation and ask viewers to join in the chorus.
Despite doubts on self-regulation, the proposal to institute an external watchdog has been very strategically reduced to the PCI Chairman’s personal lust for power: “… Katju was seeking to expand his powers to include the electronic media and worse, to threaten all of them with punitive action, including cancellation of licence.” (MSEN, 04.11.2011, Pg 11, emphasis added). The agenda is to single him out, demonstrate that his proposal has zero support from any quarter and establish him as the quirky Tughlaq. The report makes no mention of the PCI Chairman’s claim that he has received a letter from the Prime Minister which says the government is considering his proposal. Moreover, the entire report is about the response of the broadcast associations without any counter-response from the PCI Chairman.
The broadcasters have suggested that the PCI Chairman “… engage himself constructively with print media matters, which is the mandate he has under the Press Council Act and not to exceed his remit and to exercise restraint on commenting upon areas which are outside his jurisdiction.” (ibid). The Press Council Act is an Act and is therefore open to something called ‘amendment’. Surely, the media is not ignorant about this. What else were they supporting in holding up the demands made by the Kejriwal-Bedi-Hazare trio? The media is well aware that laws and the Constitution are not cast in stone. But an otherwise suggestion misleads the readers and worse, represents the Constitution as a rigid and conservative entity.
Mainstream media is biased and corrupt and therefore, unreliable. This necessitates urgent reform. But what the PCI Chairman suggests is dangerous. Imposition of fines and cancellation of licenses, with whatever qualifications, will be detrimental to the freedom of press. It is true that that freedom is largely missing in practice but the availability of it in spirit allows the functioning of a very vibrant but niche alternative media. Consolidation of enormous powers in the hands of the state will eventually kill both spirit and practice of the freedom of all press.
However, it is essential to investigate the matter a little further. Authoritarian voices gain ground in the midst of a crisis often fuelled by disillusionment. The rise of the Kejriwal-Bedi-Hazare trio is a very recent instance of such a crisis. Going by the increasing popularity of the alternative media, there is no doubt that the interaction between ‘mainstream’ media and society is in the midst of a crisis; a crisis fuelled by the lack of ethics and intellect amongst journalists in general. But both suggestions in response to the crisis – censorship and self-regulation are equally unacceptable. Perhaps, a way out lies in instituting a democratically elected body with some teeth – comprising journalists, media watchers and importantly, socio-economically marginalised groups – to regulate the media. Considering the ease with which the democratic process is subverted, the solution proposed is not ideal but the least worst.
(The author is a student at the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics and a former television journalist.)