Justice Markandey Katju, the new Chairman of the Press Council of India, has become a much sought after media personality. He has been raising several issues about the status of media in India – much debated and controversial but none new – with predictable responses from the big media.
One of his predecessors, Justice Sawant, received similar vitriol from the INS and other muscular entities of the ‘free’ press for thinking aloud about the link between the nature of ownership of media houses and their claim to immunity (impunity?) from all reasonable regulation under the free speech umbrella.
Justice Sawant liked to recommend cooperative ownership of media houses, which was not to the liking of the big players(one does not recall him calling for abolition of all newspapers in the private sector). The mere possibility of an alternative mode of organization, other than the existing corporatized framework, is found abhorrent by the big media. He also liked to comment about the contractual employment prevalent in the media, and the sell-out of news columns for paid promotion during election times. All the issues raised by him were the unfortunate truth about some small and major news organizations in the country, as the more recent developments on paid news revealed. Were it to be taken seriously then (1997), the media houses would have spared themselves the embarrassment of the Paranjoy Guha Thakurtha and Sreenivas Reddy Report.
Given the reaction to the PCI Chairman’s comments, can one assume that the media are able to exercise their right to free speech fully, and in public interest? Would paying heed to the PCI Chairman’s comments destroy this idyllic situation?
The corporate media have made heroes of those who can pay, be it a politician, an actor, a writer, a religious guru, a jewellery store or a corporate honcho. This is visible every day on television channels. While major stories are broken, it is also clear that they have systematically abdicated their responsibility to be even-handed in their coverage – playing partisan role for or against politicians and corporate houses. There are too many instances when the media just protect commercial interests, which has nothing to do with free speech or public interest.
In most liberal democratic countries free speech is guaranteed but is subject to reasonable restrictions by various modes – through Press Councils, through punitive laws, through regulatory bodies and through media watch activism. None of these are preventive (as in censorship), but are expected to work as effective post facto interventions that deter repeated violations of widely accepted professional ethics. Some adopt the name and shame strategy to keep the media in line.
But in India, naming and shaming also does not appear to have an impact. Unethical practices such as private treaties and paid news have been written about and news organizations publicly named. There has been no response so far from any of the news organizations that are involved in these practices. Nor are they refraining from such practices. One need not be surprised to hear them call for ‘legalising’ the practices as legitimate forms of revenue generation (a la a leading economist calling for legalising bribe-giving). In fact, it has become so already by default. Several other news organizations have begun to enter into private treaties, primarily because of the absence of any (self-) regulatory response/deterrence.
Even in well-regulated contexts such as UK, there have been large-scale lapses,downright criminality, and undermining of law enforcement agencies through political clout and media muscle. Alarmingly, the unravelling of the Murdoch-led enterprises in UK does not seem to offer any lessons for our home-grown Bill O’Reillys.
And, it is the serial violators who seem to take the greatest umbrage at any criticism. To quote Karl Marx writing in defence of free speech, “… the defenders of the press in this Assembly have on the whole no real relation to what they are defending. They have never come to know freedom of the press as a vital need.”
Marx goes on, “Goethe once said that the painter succeeds only with a type of feminine beauty which he has loved in at least one living being. Freedom of the press, too, has its beauty — if not exactly a feminine one — which one must have loved to be able to defend it. If I truly love something, I feel that its existence is essential, that it is something which I need, without which my nature can have no full, satisfied, complete existence. The above-mentioned defenders of freedom of the press seem to enjoy a complete existence even in the absence of any freedom of the press.”(Prussian Censorship, Rheinische Zeitung, No. 125, Supplement, May 5 1842).
However, it is clear that even the industry does not deny the need for a regulatory body. The fact that there is an attempt at self-regulation proves this. The NBA through the self-regulatory mechanism under a highly respected judge takes tough decisions on violations but it is a voluntary gathering of 45 members (technically fewer, as more than one channel belonging to one media house are members) out of a media market of 600+ channels including some 345 news channels. And often it is this minority group organized as a lobby that speaks for the entire industry. What self-regulatory plans does this lobby have for those who are unwilling to participate in their organization? In fact, one of the channels pulled up by the organization has left the body initially, rather than comply. Will a purely voluntary association suffice to regulate an entire industry with close to 600+ members (and growing)?
The alternative, perhaps, is a quasi-state media regulatory body with jurisdiction over all the licensed TV and radio channels. It could have its own elected governing council from industry representatives and eminent people from all walks of public life. It should be financially independent, perhaps, through a one-time fee towards its corpus from all the broadcast license-holders. Its primary mandate should be to protect the channels from any interference by the state in their exercise of free and fair speech. The secondary mandate should be to rein-in the rogue elements in the media who destroy the democratic values in public life and pollute the cultural landscape. This need not be through censorship (as in prevention of any content from airing) but by holding the channels accountable through well laid out disciplinary procedures.
It is interesting that each time a pro-active Chairman takes charge of PCI, a veritable storm breaks out in media. The PCI has been ineffective. It could put out its own report on paid news with much difficulty and under duress. By general consensus, the PCI is toothless. So, why have the justices’ comments on aspects of media earlier and now evoked such a scabrous response from the industry? Is it a strategy to silence any debate that can lead to genuine accountability?
When the Soviet Union split up, a Western media mogul celebrated saying, ‘now all Russians have the freedom to buy ‘Playboy’. Amitav Ghosh in his wonderful novel, ‘Sea of Poppies’, describes how the British East India Company forced opium cultivated in India on Chinese people in the name of free trade. There’s nothing free about such coercive trade which turns whole populations into junkies, and there’s nothing ‘free’ about free speech if it is used for shielding corporate/political friends and selling-out public interest to the highest bidder.
Ultimately, as the proud fourth leg of democracy, media must apply the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number of people, for its own credibility and survival. External regulation can only provide an ethical barometer. And, regulation is not censorship.