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Lessons from the Brits
With paid news, private treaties, advertorials, and selective leaks becoming the order of the day, the Leveson inquiry is relevant here. The Brits are defining a template for us to follow, says MURALIDHAR S. Pix: Justice Brian Henry Leveson
Posted/Updated Monday, Apr 30 15:45:03, 2012

Who is Justice Leveson? No, this isn’t another question in the delicious ad wars fought recently by two dailies. But, thanks to the token coverage (as always, with certain exceptions) this issue has received so far in the English Language Media (ELM), you could be forgiven for coming up with an expression no different from those shown in the ads. Could this be because this is happening in distant UK? Not quite. When ELM think it fit to remind their audience about the royal wedding anniversary, why would they brush aside an all-important inquiry? Does this have something to do with what Lord Justice Leveson is inquiring into?

British Prime Minister David Cameroon set up this inquiry   last July to look into “the culture, practices, and ethics of the press” in the context of the latter’s relationship with the public, the police, and politicians. This was in response to the furore over the phone-hacking scandal at the now defunct News of the World (NOTW) that is threatening to bring the mighty Murdochs to their knees on either side of the Atlantic. The inquiry just concluded its latest round of hearings where the Murdochs were grilled on journalistic practices prevalent in their media outlets. It  has shed light on very cozy relationships and possible quid pro quos between the Murdochs and senior politicians. Without going into the details, it would suffice to say it is a text book case of politician-big business nexus to the potential detriment of public good.

Agreed, this isn’t exactly news for Indians hardened by scams.  Nor do we have a dearth of scandals. However, in a country dominated by paid news, private treaties, advertorials, selective leaks, hobnobbing between journalists and powerful people, and a reticent media that wouldn’t expose one of their own, this inquiry ought to matter. Given the heavy British influence on our legal system and governance, the Brits are literally defining a template for us to follow and take a small step towards cleaning up our mess.

The terms of reference  of the inquiry and the environment that necessitated it have striking similarities with ground realities in India. The allegation against Jeremy Hunt, the British minister battling charges of bias towards News International, is not very different from the one that Praful Patel  faced in his handling of Air India. However, look how both the cases have panned out.

The British media played a crucial role in blowing the lid. The scale of the scandal was unearthed by a relentless pursuit by The Guardian and to some extent, by The Independent. How many times have we seen a media outlet in India being critical, let alone expose a fellow outlet? Worse, there is a systematic connivance to black out any news that doesn’t fit the mainstream narrative. It is little wonder that our news barons love self-regulation so that “errors of judgment” can be dealt with kid gloves.

To prevent a NOTW-type scandal, it is imperative for India to regulate its noisy media, especially the electronic news media. However, the last entity that should be entrusted with this task is the government. With rich experience in subverting every possible constitutional office, a government-controlled regulator is worse than not having a regulator. The electronic news media are nascent, and the nation can’t afford to let them learn their lessons by trial and error. The closest thing to oversight of electronic news media in India is Twitter. The Radia tapes, the fake tweets and the sim sat saga came to light, thanks to social media. But, this is a far from perfect arrangement. There is plenty of bile on social media making it easy for those coming under the gun to tar everyone with the same brush while claiming victimhood. As a result, genuine criticism gets drowned by reckless rants.

The UK again offers a great model in the Ofcom. We could look at a quasi-judicial body, free of government control and one that places the interests of the public at the core of its functioning. With clear guidelines and sufficient teeth, it should be possible to prevent journalists from concealing the facts under the guise of editorial judgment and, if required, punish them for errors of judgment.

A probe along the lines of the Leveson inquiry must be ordered into the despicable practice of paid news. It is not about giving a clean chit to X or Y. Rather, we as a nation have a right to know the truth and demand it when denied. The Leveson inquiry is open to the public and invites anyone with relevant material to submit it before the inquiry (even anonymously, if required). A similar approach can possibly bring to surface a trove of material from honest journalists/sincere citizens who’d like to keep the professions clean.

Doordarshan must be professionalized and be freed from the clutches of the government. It must be fiercely independent, politically neutral, and provide a service along the lines of the PBS, NPR, and BBC. Public service need not come at the expense of profits. Al-Jazeera is a great example of a government-funded independent and professional news organisation that, unlike CCTV, isn’t a puppet of its masters. This country has produced some of the finest journalists in the world, and in addition to projecting soft power globally, a re-invigorated DD can possibly tell us whether the Indian viewer is interested only in sex, sleaze, and sensationalism under the garb of news, as our private channels like us to believe.

There should be an audit of the stories published/broadcast by the media outlets so that reliable metrics on the coverage and balance can be obtained. The Code of Ethics and Broadcasting standards as defined by the News Broadcasters Association says: “News shall not be selected or designed to promote any particular belief, opinion, or desires of any interest group”. The recent coverage of the UP elections by ELM may make many of us wonder whether this code was followed in letter and spirit.  

There must be an immediate ban on media houses conferring “awards” on politicians and businessmen. This is a not so subtle an attempt by media barons to cozy up to powerful people. Politicians, business leaders, and media owners must remain at arm’s length for effective functioning of democracy. Today, there is a matrix structure where politicians, media moguls, and business owners have intersecting interests. Worse, they have their hands in all three pies. This incestuous relationship is fuelled and strengthened by such “awards” and “recognition”.

Quality journalism doesn’t come cheap. The advertiser-funded model will always carry the risk of commercial agendas being pushed through editorial gates. In the viewer/reader-pays model, that risk is negligible. This fee can be in the form of subscription for newspapers/ pay TV or license fee for TV (as is the case with BBC). Customers must be willing to pay the price one way or the other– free, substandard news or a small fee to fund quality news. A positive change in the customer mindset can dramatically hasten the cleanup.

Finally, a thought from Lord Puttnam who has devoted the past 30 years of his life to issues of media plurality and has served as the chairman of the Joint Parliamentary Scrutiny Committee for the 2003 Communications Act that resulted in the creation of Ofcom:

A successful media environment does not happen by accident and, when it does occur, it can and to my mind absolutely should be supported by thoughtful and sensitive regulation. What is certain is that plurality and diversity are not, and never can be, a natural "byproduct" of unregulated market forces.

We cannot, for example, legislate for good journalism, but we can legislate for the conditions under which the very best journalism is nurtured and sustained. We can create frameworks in which each new technology becomes a spur for diversity, not an instrument of its erosion.

(The author is a media analyst and commentator. Email: murhari@gmail.com)
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