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

Editors have altogether disappeared, as in the case of the Times of India (Bennett Coleman) group, or have in some cases been reduced to being brand managers, high level public relations men or “editorial advisers”. They have no real editorial authority, which they have lost or willingly bartered for grandiose titles and fat pay packets.

Perils of Untrammelled Freedom of Expression

Newspapers once had a mission. Editors have altogether disappeared or been reduced to being high level public relations men.

By B G Verghese

November, 2011

The new Press Council Chairman, Justice Markandey Katju, has thrown a cat among the pigeons. Many would agree with much of his criticism of the print and electronic media. It was his somewhat intemperate tone and seeming generalisations that caused avoidable offence, damning all for the sins of more than a few. Nor was it justified curtly to dismiss the Independent National Broadcast Authority, set up by the National Broadcasters’ Association, headed by Justice J.S Verma, which has begun to put together some valuable case law.

However, all that is hopefully behind us and there is no reason why Justice Katju should not have a constructive innings at the Press Council, a somewhat moribund body which could certainly do with toning up. Its charter and membership need review and it does need punitive powers to a degree that does not render its true role as a court of ethics and honour to become subservient to the appellate jurisdiction of the superior courts.

There are two views about the merits of an overall Media Council with jurisdiction over both the print and electronic media. Both these deal with news and public affairs, but the audio- visual media has a wider remit and enters homes and minds involuntarily and indiscriminately unlike newspapers and magazines that have deliberately to be read. Further, the audio-visual media are instant and can create virtual reality unlike the print media, news agency tickers excepted, which, because of lagged publication, has more time to be mediated or checked, backgrounded, filtered and edited. The sheer size and continuing growth of all genre of Indian media in multiple languages also makes it difficult for it to be overseen by a single, central agency. Having multiple benches would also tend to alter the character of the entire exercise.

Newspapers are required to have editors who, under the Press Registration Act, carry primary responsibility for all the matter printed, whether news, pictures, editorials, cartoons, letters, articles, commentaries or advertisements. However, editors have altogether disappeared, as in the case of the Times of India (Bennett Coleman) group, or have in some cases been reduced to being brand managers, high level public relations men or “editorial advisers”. They have no real editorial authority, which they have lost or willingly bartered for grandiose titles and fat pay packets. TV news channels have no legally designated editors though somebody or other may perform that role.

Newspapers once had a mission. Rising circulations and viewership have been facilitated by the communications revolution and technological change But rising costs and competition for readers and viewers to attract advertising have transformed mission to commerce. Any enterprise must of course earn its keep. However, when the media becomes business, media barons prefer balance sheets to news content and are inclined to want news slanted to cater to corporate needs and cultivation of the political influence that goes with the territory.

One reform that is needed, maybe by an amendment to the company law or other relevant legislation, is mandatorily to entrench the editor so that he may play his traditional role as the voice and conscience of the paper or channel. Another reform that might guard against family or corporate cabals dominating media boards of directors would be to mandate that every media house shall have a body of public interest directors whom it may choose from a list of national and regional personalities selected for their standing, experience and integrity. Stricter measures are also required to prevent the creation of horizontal and vertical monopolies and conglomerates that reduce freedom of choice and expression.

The fundamental freedom of speech and expression is that of the citizen for whom the media provides a collective voice. By this token, media organs and agencies are trustees of the public weal though they may have declared policies and ideologies. Facts and information are sacred and must be portrayed as objectively as possible, leaving opinions to commentary and editorials, distinctly labelled as such. Today, many newspapers and channels have highly opinionated news columns and newscasts with facts and essential background and perspective taking a back seat. Some would argue that the role of the media is not just to purvey news and investigate what may lie behind it, but advocacy and more extreme forms of “guerrilla” journalism. There may be scope for this but not so much in general interest newspapers and news channels as in opinion and campaign journals and through pamphleteering.

The competition for readers, listeners and viewers in order to grab advertising has led to a dumbing down of content with sensationalism, trivialisation, titillation and, sometimes, local or national chauvinism crowding out more serious and worthwhile content. Trial by the press and publication of unverified allegations against people, communities and institutions has become commonplace. Publish and be dammed, it is, with little regard to privacy, the right of reply or correction. The restraints enjoined by Article 19(2), that permit “reasonable restrictions” for listed reasons, has been ignored. These are all unhealthy and even dangerous trends and Justice Sawant vs Times Now will, hopefully lead to a more robust defamation regime.

Media violations of privacy and legitimate frameworks of confidentiality with impunity, sometime even while official or criminal reports are still work-in-progress, are also a matter for concern. Highly sensitive material is selectively leaked or planted, often by disgruntled elements rather than genuine whistle blowers, to serve an agenda and disrupt the decision-making process. Such “breaking news” amounts to breaking faith.

The demand for more and more access through the very valuable RTI Act is also in some danger of going overboard. If every comment, noting or difference of opinion leading up to decisions is ex post facto dug up to insinuate motives, corrupt intent or other mala fides in hindsight, it will only drive the process underground. The result could be double-entry bookkeeping of another kind, with sanitised, cosmetic minutes for the record while the real deliberations are hidden away, making for secret governance and evasion of responsibility.

Democracy does mean open and participative government. But open government cannot mean concurrent discussion in the market place – and the subtle interference this invites in from populist pressures, foreign chanceries, intelligence agencies and rival company boardrooms.

Many will say that the kind of democratic regulation this critique envisages will mean censorship, usurpation of democratic rights and muzzling freedom of expression. Nothing of the kind. Freedom that degenerates into licence is dangerous. We need to steer clear of this before it happens.

Finally, all such discussion invariably steers clear of reference to the importance and role of public service broadcasting which, being state or public funded, is not dependent on advertising and ratings and can set standards and act as a benchmark. It caters to the citizen and not merely to the consumer. Prasar Bharati has been wilfully driven to the ground by Parliament, Government, the media and public to the detriment of freedom of expression and higher media ideals that serve the public interest.

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