The great Indian media hoax of self-regulation

Published in the Times of India (on May 10 and removed shortly after)

With a comfortable gap of time after the revelations of paid news, private treaties and the Radia tapes, the media is once again on the offensive to guard its independence. The trigger this time is a private member’s bill, the Print and Electronic Media Standards and Regulation Bill, 2012. The proposed legislation has been widely and energetically panned by the industry, with the Congress subsequently distancing itself from the Bill. The Bill is not available in the public domain; however based on news reports, some provisions could perhaps lend themselves to state censorship. While the merits of the Bill are debatable, what is striking is the complete lack of self-consciousness with which the media termed the attempt as an attack on democracy, without addressing its own corruption and its deleterious impact on democracy.

Free and fair media is pivotal for a functioning democracy. News media (both print and electronic) informs on issues of public interest though reportage, and offers a platform to debate issues of importance in the public domain. With both, news media shapes public opinion, which is the very currency of democracy. However Indian news media today is neither free nor fair. It is patently ideologically motivated and voluntarily subservient to power – and is thus damaging our democracy. The Radia tapes brought to the fore the illegitimate nexus of the media with both corporations and politicians. A little earlier, paid news and private treaties also made the news. Faced with this onslaught on its credibility, there was much collective public fulmination. Yet nothing changed. No enquiry was instituted against the journalists who in the words of Siddharth Varadarajan, editor, Hindu became “couriers and stenographers and foot soldiers in the war one set of corporate fat cats is waging against another” to indict or exonerate. No framework for effective self-regulation was proposed. This must be presumed to be by design.

In the aftermath of the Radia tapes disclosures, Rajdeep Sardesai, Editor in Chief, CNN-IBN and outgoing President of the Editors Guild of India (an elected post) made a baffling speech to other media professionals at the Press Club. The speech was baffling because instead of proposing measures to improve media credibility, the speech only railed against sanctimonious judgment on the unfortunate few caught yapping with the lobbyist Niira Radia given the industry wide “rot”. Then in a fantastic admission of the failure of self-regulation, Mr Sardesai talked of how the Editor’s Guild couldn’t even ensure that the editors sign a pledge to resist paid news without norms of disclosure, “We got about 18-20 editors only answering and giving that pledge. A majority haven’t done so. It required the election commission to intervene […] we could have a code of conduct, we could devise it but are editors going to be willing to adhere to that code of conduct […] It’s not just financial corruption; there is corruption, which is moral and ideological”.

Media is a powerful profit-making industry. With private pecuniary interests increasing overriding public interest, it is obvious that self-regulation is no regulation at all. Even so the response is certainly not regulation by the State. Yet precluding the State doesn’t automatically mean self-regulation. Media independence is predicated on the citizen’s freedom of speech under Article 19(1)(a). The Supreme Court has held that the right to know is vital for freedom of speech. As an industry, media has been afforded the luxury of self-regulation in its conception as an adversarial fourth pillar of democracy, highlighting state and (de facto state) corporate excess.  It stands to reason then that media independence must be qualified with its accountability to the public for free and fair reporting in the public interest.

With this premise, there are there are many possible options to enforce accountability without impeding freedom of the media. For instance, there could be two-pronged approach, which relies predominantly on self-regulation with limited secondary external regulation. The media can define its own code of conduct to define standards of ethics, content, coverage, reporting norms etc. These standards should be enforced though in-house mechanisms in all media houses. For newspapers/channels above a certain circulation/viewership/revenue threshold, an independent ombudsman position should be mandatorily instituted for enforcement of norms. The ombudsman would serve as a support mechanism for reporters asked to suppress or promote coverage for extraneous reasons, and for readers to file complaints. The second step in this process could be a caucus of all the media ombudsmen where unresolved complaints are further adjudicated, and monthly performance reports published. The hope is that peer pressure and transparency will result in a somewhat improved performance. The third and final step in this process could be an independent statutory authority with power to adjudicate appeals and levy penalties on both the media houses and ineffectual ombudsmen. Since this Authority would only adjudicate appeals against violations of the industry defined Code of Conduct, media independence will not be curtailed. Majority non-media persons (barring State and Corporate representatives) should man the Authority.

In 1991, the British media faced with the imminent threat of external regulation after a series of ethical breaches by some publications, set up the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). The PCC functioned with a fair degree of efficacy, and was able to avert statutory regulation. However the PCC too has come under severe criticism, notably in the News Of The World episode where it was scorned as “toothless”. The PCC has since announced that it will move to a new regulatory body with more “teeth” to deal with misconduct of the press. The Indian media should learn from the PCC – both on the need to preemptively set up a system of accountability if it wants to guard its independence – and to ensure the system’s credibility by giving it real teeth.

Other articles of media accountability

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