Justice Markandey Katju, the new chairperson of the Press Council of India (PCI), stepped on many media toes and was widely accused of overstepping his authority when he recently aired his controversial views on the news media, with particular reference to television.

Admitting that he had a poor opinion of the media, he said they were “not working for the interests of the people” and tended to “divert attention from the real problems,” “divide the people” and “perpetuate their backwardness.” He also admitted he had a poor opinion of media people, their intellectual capacities and their knowledge of economic theory, political science, literature, philosophy, etc. Suggesting that fear was required to improve the situation he called for powers to stop government advertisements, suspend licenses, impose fines, etc., albeit only “in extreme situations.”

Justice Markandey Katju was formerly a Judge of the Supreme Court. Pic: Wikipiedia.

Several media organisations, including the Editors Guild, the Broadcast Editors Association and the News Broadcasters Association, were quick to respond, registering their strong opposition to both the tone and the substance of his comments and proposals. The NBA even appealed to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to intervene in the matter, which is ironical considering their customary stance against governmental interference.

Justice Katju may have won back some friends in the media by promptly going public with his disagreement with the orders of the High Court of Bombay and the Supreme Court of India in the matter of the Times Now news channel and its wrong use of a photograph of Justice P B Sawant (instead of Justice P K Samanta) in connection with the Ghaziabad Provident Fund scam. “With great respect to these orders,” he said, “I am of the view that they are incorrect and require to be reconsidered.” He also suggested that the Rs.100 crore fine imposed on Times Now was "grossly disproportionate" to the offence.

However, his diagnosis of and prescription for the media’s ills remain defective and disturbing at many levels. His subsequent clarification has done little to alter the perception of oversimplification and lack of discernment and balance, not to mention condescension – even among media professionals who are genuinely concerned and critical about many current media trends and practices. According to Justice Katju, however, his criticism was meant only to “remind the media persons of their historical duty to the nation” and help them “to give up many of their defects” so that they can become “better media people.”

Need for debate

Having recently assumed charge of the PCI, Justice Katju was well-placed to initiate a serious, informed and constructive public debate on the subject with the participation of all stakeholders in the media, including journalists and members of the public. He may have won more friends and influenced more people and, more importantly, served the cause of media reform better if he had opened up the conversation before airing his own somewhat superficial and provocative opinions.

But perhaps such an initiative can at least be the next step. Certainly the time is more than ripe for an honest exchange of information and ideas which can lead to meaningful action that respects and protects freedom of expression and, at the same time, upholds and fosters media standards, ethics, responsibility and accountability.

If there was any doubt that the credibility of the news media is currently at an all-time low, the disenchantment of a substantial section of the media audience can no longer be ignored. For example, a recent television survey showed that nearly three-quarters (74 per cent) of the viewers who responded supported Justice Katju’s views, while comments in the social media and blogosphere also revealed widespread agreement with his remarks. It is also significant that several journalists have argued that the baby of professional principles and practice must not be thrown out with the bathwater of the PCI chairperson’s generalities.

A recent television survey showed that nearly three-quarters of the viewers who responded supported Justice Katju’s views, while comments in the social media and blogosphere also revealed widespread agreement with his remarks.

 •  Pay-to-print resumes
 •  SEBI: Private treaties harm news

Justice Katju is not the first person to notice or point out that the priorities and preoccupations of significant sections of the news media today are far removed from the realities and anxieties of the majority of citizens. Quite a few journalists and media-watchers have been documenting and critiquing the skewed nature of present-day media coverage, which accords inordinate attention to certain people, events and issues while giving short shrift to a wide range of other situations and developments that critically affect large numbers of people across the country.

Similarly, the falling standards of journalism (in terms of both content and language) and the “dumbing down” and “broadloidisation” of even the so-called quality press have all been regularly highlighted and criticised within and outside the profession. Among the deplorable trends evident in influential sections of the media (principally but not only TV) are the growing tendency to trivialise and/or sensationalise news; the regular jettisoning of basic tenets such as accuracy, fairness and balance; the frequent blurring of lines between fact and opinion, investigation and speculation; the common disregard for the privacy and dignity of ordinary people caught up in news events; the inclination towards high decibel “media trials;” the ultra-nationalism bordering on jingoism that often underlies coverage of international relations (especially with Pakistan); the alarming proclivity for sabre-rattling if not war-mongering, etc. The communal, caste and ethnic biases of some sections of the media are also widely recognised.

If criticism is to be taken seriously, however, credit has to be given where it is due – and there is little doubt that the news media have, at the same time, played a positive role by helping to highlight a number of important issues, including some that Justice Katju has referred to, and to expose dereliction of duty, misuse of power and corruption in high places.

Watching the watchdog

Justice Katju is also not the first person to moot the idea of a Media Council to cover print, broadcast and online media. The concept of such a body has been floating around since at least 2004, though the idea appears to have been mooted in 2001, too. It is actually quite astonishing that the proposal has remained in the realm of general, intermittent discussion over the years, despite the rapid expansion, transformation and convergence of the media sector over the past decade and more, thanks in large part to the fast-paced development of information and communication technologies.

One problem that has dogged efforts to move towards a broad-based Media Council has been the virtual absence of consultation and debate. Official statements every now and then have rarely, if ever, been followed up with any attempt to involve the media, let alone the public, in serious discussions on the proposals. The latest such announcement was made earlier this year, when the government revealed that it was in the process of setting up a National Broadcasting Content Complaints Council, the description of which closely resembles that of the PCI.

Interestingly, there has been no mention of this initiative in the furore that followed Justice Katju’s comments.

Similarly, periodic attempts by the government to introduce some form of regulation for the broadcast sector (most recently in 2006 and 2007) have also failed primarily due to the communication and dialogue deficit that has led to the perception that the purpose of any such move is to control or even muzzle the media. A more transparent and inclusive process of informed, tripartite (at least) discussion about media regulation in a democracy could create a more conducive environment for a dispassionate assessment of what forms and levels of regulation would best serve the inter-dependent interests of the media industry, the media profession and media audiences (not to mention society as a whole).

Experiments in self-regulation

The furore over the draft Broadcast Bill and Content Code of 2007 did have a positive fallout in the formation in 2008 of the News Broadcasters Association (NBA), with a membership of 20 news and current affairs broadcasters (representing 45 news and current affairs channels), which set up a News Broadcasting Standards Authority to deal with complaints about coverage. From the nine decisions covering the period March 2009-October 2011 posted on the NBA website it would appear that not many specific complaints are lodged despite the fairly widespread criticism of TV news practices in the public sphere.

The governing body of the Broadcast Editors’ Association (BEA), set up in 2009 “to raise the bar of journalism and strive to protect the freedom of expression,” comprises representatives from 11 news channels (eight Hindi and three English). Of course, the ability of these organisations to be impartial arbiters has occasionally been called into question.

Meanwhile, the Indian Broadcasting Federation (IBF), made up of non-news broadcasters representing over 250 TV Channels (according to their website), has also set up its own Broadcasting Content Complaints Council and drafted a set of self-regulatory guidelines. The summary of complaints received in the last quarter (June-September 2011), which is posted on the site, suggests that viewers of non-news channels are more active in registering their grievances (relevant or otherwise) than those who watch TV news.

It is another matter that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting lists 727 “permitted” TV channels (as of July 2011) and that 359 of these are classified as news channels. Even if not all the channels that have secured licenses are actually on air yet, a substantial number seem to be operating outside the ambit of the industry/professional bodies that presently serve as the self-regulatory platforms favoured by private broadcasters over any other form of regulation.

It is surprising that Justice Katju made no reference to the Supreme Court’s 1995 judgment, which held that “the airwaves or frequencies were a public property (and that) their use had to be controlled and regulated by a public authority in the interests of the public and to prevent the invasion of their rights.” Both the government and the broadcast industry have so far conveniently ignored the court’s instruction to the former “to take immediate steps to establish an independent, autonomous public authority representative of all sections and interests in society to control and regulate the use of the airwaves.”

Among the weaknesses of Justice Katju’s critique of the media is the fact that it scarcely addresses some of the contentious but vital issues that media regulation in the public interest cannot afford to ignore.

Questionable ethics

For example, the so-called Radia Tapes brought the unholy nexus between the news media and public relations outfits/corporate lobbies tumbling out of the closet in which it had been able to flourish without attracting much public attention. It is interesting that the NBA website makes no reference to the scandal that rocked the media world after selected transcripts of the tapes were first published in November 2010. Close to two months later, in January 2011, the then chairperson of the PCI (Justice GN Ray) seemed to think it was “too premature” to take any action on the matter; no statement or press release on the subject has appeared on the PCI website to date.

The question of whether the journalists – including senior editors – named in the Radia Tapes expose were guilty of naivete, self-importance, poor judgment, vaulting ambition and/or worse is still up for debate. However, a development recently highlighted by Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of Open magazine, concerning a substantial investment in NDTV by a US-based hedge fund company soon after it entered into a joint venture with one of Radia’s client companies raises more troubling questions. Information about the deal was first reported by financial journalist Sucheta Dalal in Moneylife magazine over six months ago.

Similarly, eyebrows have been raised over some aspects of NDTV’s coverage of the ongoing financial crisis faced by Kingfisher Airlines in view of the fact that the group’s lifestyle channel, NDTV Good Times, was launched in 2007 in collaboration with Vijay Mallya's UB Group, which is believed to have made a five-year advertisement commitment worth Rs. 100 crore to the channel.

This is reminiscent of the “private treaties” pioneered by Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd. (BCCL), which owns the Times of India group that has interests across all media sectors, and reportedly imitated by several other media houses. Launched in 2004, the initiative involved BCCL picking up stakes in various companies in return for long-term advertising and publicity. It is widely known within the profession that favourable coverage – and the flipside: no negative coverage – are among the benefits offered to partners in such private treaties.

Then there is, of course, the infamous practice of “paid news,” which came to public notice during the 2009 general elections and the assembly elections in Maharashtra later that year, but is clearly not confined to election coverage. A new documentary film, titled “Brokering News” and made by Umesh Aggarwal for the Public Service Broadcasting Trust, focuses on other forms of paid news in coverage areas ranging from movies to sports, as well as related unethical practices.

Unfortunately, no section of society – including the apparently awakened civil society – seems inclined to tackle the problem of media misconduct in any serious, sustained, democratic manner, as media critic Sevanti Ninan recently observed.

It is significant that the PCI, which set up a two-member sub-committee to inquire into the practice of paid news in election coverage, ultimately chickened out and suppressed the report put together by two of its own members, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Kalimekolan Sreenivas Reddy. The report, titled “Paid News: How corruption in the Indian media undermines democracy,” also looked into the private treaties phenomenon. The official PCI report on the subject was a watered down version of the original. Only when the Council was directed by the Central Information Commission in September 2011 to post the latter on its website did it do so – with a disclaimer making it clear that the document was uploaded under duress and that “the sub-committee’s report was not accepted by the Council and was only relied upon…for information for drawing up the final report.”

Clearly Justice Katju will have his hands full if he wishes to put the PCI house in order so that it can fulfil its function as an independent watchdog charged with preserving the freedom of the press and maintaining and improving standards in the press. To begin with, it may be worth exploring the possibility of a more broad-based structure – with more public participation, such as those adopted by Media Accountability Systems elsewhere in the world – whether for a new, improved PCI or a multi-pronged Media Council or both.

Full disclosure

The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) recently used the Right to Information legislation to access and analyse the Register of Interest of members of the Rajya Sabha. The register, mandated by the RS ethics committee in 2005, provides information about the financial interests of members of the “upper house” of Parliament. According to the ADR/National Election Watch, this information is important because it can help deal with issues of conflict of interest with regard to discussions in Parliament, the formation of various standing committees and panels, and so on.

It may not be possible or advisable to mandate any such disclosure by media houses/proprietors and media professionals but the questionable practices of some sections of the media certainly raise questions about possible conflicts of interest vis-a-vis coverage. The adoption by the media of the kind of transparency they often advocate for governmental and political affairs could serve to repair their damaged credibility.

Some commentators point to what they see as the power of media consumers, suggesting that “they have an inherent protection: protection by the market.” According to one writer, “While the downside of competition is a herd-like tendency to follow trends, the upside is that for every view there is a counterview and for every plug there is an alternative. Don’t like paid news? Cancel your subscription. Can’t stand the opinions of a certain anchor? Switch channels.” Certainly audiences can try to choose between various anchors, but how is the average reader or viewer to know whether what they are reading or watching is peddled news of one kind or another?

There is, no doubt, a section within the media who think there is nothing wrong with the industry or the profession and/or that the current trends are inevitable in today’s world. However, many media professionals are not at all comfortable with the state of affairs and are willing to participate in efforts to improve the situation that are respectful of the freedom of expression and the right to information of the media as well as of citizens. Sections of the public are also obviously looking for course-correction that would restore their faith in the news media as an important means through which they can exercise their right to know as well as to express themselves.

Perhaps the time has come when issues concerning media standards and ethics can no longer be swept under the carpet as soon as the heat and dust of the increasingly regular, if sporadic, eruptions of official or public criticism have diminished. If so, some good may result from the recent storm over Justice Katju’s observations.