Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

The global 24x7media is most often the first to get and disseminate news, way ahead of intelligence agencies, the government, the military, corporates or anybody else. It sets the agenda, tone and parameters of discussion and relays back responses

Media Ethics and Social Responsibility

In a shrinking world with information literally at our fingertips, the media needs to play a vital role as a trusted gatekeeper.

By B G Verghese

Lecture at St Joseph’s College, Bangalore, 29 November, 2013

Media ethics and social responsibility has always been important but never so much as today. Information like knowledge is power. Hence intelligence gathering was from early times basic to statecraft.

The liberal revolution that followed the Reformation and Renaissance democratised information.

But none of this compares with the communications revolution ushered in our own lifetime by the satellite and the chip, the computer and internet.

This has created an instant world - shrinking space and time. Convergence and miniaturisationhavegiven us the cell phone and iPod and so that we now can hold the world in the palm of one hand. This has in turn created an entirely new medium called the social media, manifested in the web, YouTube Facebook and Twitter. Information is now popular power and not just state power.

The press has been transformed from select opinion sheets to newspapers per se, providing the public, in theory, with all the news that is fit to print. But apart from constraints of space, there have been compulsions of ideology, ownership interests, political preferences and pressures and such other considerations. Likewise in the broadcast media.

If the body demands a healthy and varied diet, so does the mind. Bias, misinformation and disinformation can be as insidious and dangerous as food or drug adulteration.

Standards and ethics are therefore vitally important in the media world which has graduated from being the Fourth Estate, alongside the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary, virtually to becoming the First Estate, sought and feared by all.

Governance, as much as life, revolves around communication, which triggers responses and actions. Given the technology now available, the global 24x7media is most often the first to get and disseminate news, way ahead of intelligence agencies, the government, the military, corporates or anybody else. It sets the agenda, tone and parameters of discussion and relays back responses.

This position of immense information-power obviously entails a corresponding individual and social responsibility of the media, from the reporter, photographer, copy-editor, news editor and up the line to the analysts and editor. How and what they sift makes them Gatekeepers.

The media in this sense holds a position of trust and social responsibility that makes newspapers and broadcast channels public trustees of news, informed comment and good taste.

This is as much an ethical and social responsibility as a legal one. By law, the Editor, is the one finally responsible, though publishers as owners and managers obviously matter.

This is the theory, the ideal situation. But we live in a world of pressures, ambitions, competition, ego, cupidity, human frailty and folly. Costs have soared. No surprise then that for some or much or most of the media “mission” has been corrupted into “commerce” combined with the arrogance of power.

News and images can be created to suit given needs to create a new virtual reality.

The Japanese play “Rashomon” tells of a murder of a prince at a crossroads in the forest at dusk that is witnessed by a wood cutter, a merchant and a robber. The event is first portrayed as it happened. The rest of the play consists of the subjective versions of what happened as told by the three others as observed from their vantage points and “edited” by their states of mind. So do we have one truth and three stories, or are there many sides of the truth?

The media has therefore to report all sides of a story and provide the background and perspective for its better understanding. This may not be possible at one go, but through careful investigation and follow-up.

But then we find owner and advertiser interests and angles coming into play. Sources can be subjective and leaks motivated and selective to give colour to events in line with the demands of interested parties. Information may be carelessly collected, fed from a poisoned chalice, or poorly collated or trivialised to create sensation. It may even be fabricated or distorted to create misinformation or disinformation. Haste to beat the competition, make “breaking news”, win dubious TRP ratings or self-glory can result in error, invasion of privacy, failure to double check, trial by the media and other ills.

With rising costs, economic slowdown and falling advertising, owners look to make more money to recoup past investments and amortise debt. Some lust for more.

Hence the abolition of Editors as an unnecessary nuisance, and the phenomenon of paid news and private treaties whereby newspaper magnates get shares in companies in lieu of advertising and then play the market – a phenomenon that has alarmed SEBI.

Cross-media holdings and corporate investments in the media are changing ownership and editorial relationships. Political parties, advertisers, the entertainment people, event managers and the underworld all seek media power. Information is power, yes - and profit and patronage too.

Media credibility has been eroded.

These trends are not entirely peculiar to India. They represent a global phenomenon. The News of the World scandal in the UK is illustrative of what goes on.

Somehow in India there is a myth that democratic societies do not have media regulation. This is incorrect. Article 19(1a)(2) allows imposition of “reasonable restrictions” on freedom of speech and expression on specified grounds. We have several laws that impinge on the media, but the Courts have been a shield and have helped expand freedom of expression.

The Press Council is a weak instrument. There is no statutory complaints commission for the electronic media though some informal broadcast tribunals have been set up with a limited reach of some 40 members against over 800 news channels!

Self-regulation clearly has not worked and regulation by the State, now under consideration, has aroused a good deal of alarm. Attempts at controls and censorship must and will be resisted. But just as powerful, high speed cars are only safe given good brakes and traffic controls, today’s immensely powerful media needs some measure of regulation to ensure matching responsibility.

RTI has played a great role in bringing sunshine, transparency and accountability in the conduct of public affairs. But the demand widely aired for free access to government and institutional processes of decision-making is dangerous and if acceded to can lead to anarchy, or compel decisions to be taken orally or recorded in doubly secret files. Tax dodgers keep double accounts. We should not compel decision makers to maintain double entry files.

Complex and delicate issues of governance cannot be thrashed out in the market place by the demos or the multitude in the name of Participative Democracy. That would be mobocracy.

Social media is ubiquitous and can play a vital role in on-the-spot, I-was-there reporting. Citizen journalism is likewise narrow-focussed, subjective and unmediated. The worm’s eye view is limited.

Disinformation is in constant competition with information and is the mainstay of psychological warfare. Social media, in wrong hands, can play havoc as it did during and after the Kokrajhar riots in Assam in 2012 year, causing thousands of North-easterners to flee Bangalore, Hyderabad and Mumbai for fear of revenge killings. Likewise, the more recent Muzaffarnagar riots were sparked by the uploading on the internet of a two-year old clip of some killings in Pakistan that was mischievously morphed to generate communal passions here.

One antidote to such negative trends could be a genuinely autonomous public broadcasting service. Unfortunately Prasar Bharati has been emasculated by the Government, Parliament, the advertisers, entertainment world and the commercial media all of whom would prefer to see and label it as an official trumpet.

The private commercial channels must earn their keep and therefore cater to the up-market advertiser. A public service broadcaster like Prasar Bharati is on the contrary charged with catering to the extraordinarily diverse publics of India, that is, to the common citizen. With so many living below or scarcely above the poverty line, while all consumers are citizens, not all citizens are advertisement-relevant consumers. The tragedy is that difference has simply not been understood in this information age when access to information empowers and enlarges democratic participation and accountability.

I have spoken of the troughs but not the peaks of the Indian media. These are there too and we must draw inspiration from them. Overall, however, ethics and social responsibility must remain the watchword of the Indian media.

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