It’s really sad and it’s getting out of hand. If it continues at this rate, some strong medicines will have to be prescribed to remove this cancer that has spread through our media. If left unattended, this could one day lead to death of democracy, of liberalism, of free thought. Media – mostly TV channels really, but equally the press – have stooped to new lows in recent months and weeks. The competition is so intense that media brands are ready to stoop to extremely irresponsible levels of journalism.
Of course, the government has no role to play in clearing the media of the cancer. If it as much as thought of doing so, it would be accused of trying to muzzle the media. It’s best the government stay out of it totally.
I am also not talking about censorship of any type at all. Ensuring freedom of media is a key requirement of being a democracy. So much is enshrined in our constitution as well. Likewise, the independence of the judiciary is another key requirement of any democracy. But having said that, it is also mandatory that all institutions of a country’s democratic structure operate with a certain level of responsibility. The line between freedom and abuse could become very thin at cases. Especially when there is no one to regulate or supervise the activities of these institutions.
Take the judiciary for instance. Many people feel that there is a lot of corruption in judiciary – especially in lower judiciary. But every now and then, the higher judiciary exonerates itself by delivering strong verdicts in some cases, or by acting suo motu in defense of the constitution in others. It is because of this that we still have high confidence in the judiciary. However, without any supervision over the judiciary, the CJI has also conducted himself as a mini-despot at times. One has to depend on his/her permission for lower judges to be prosecuted. Just like one needs to go to the Speaker of the Lok Sabha for permission to prosecute a sitting MP, one needs to go to the CJI for permission to prosecute a sitting judge. In most cases, the permission is denied. Exactly, what the media accuses the politicians about is happening in the judiciary. The judiciary has failed to respond adequately to complaints of corruption in itself.....and there is nothing no one can do about it.
It’s the same with media. Having an independent media is a pre-requisite to having a successful democracy. I am not proposing any censorship. But I would like to draw attention to instances of media’s irresponsibilities recently. And I am not at all talking about media’s strong views on the overnight crackdown by the government on Baba Ramdev. It’s their right to criticize this action and I support this right of theirs. By all means, media should be allowed to express its views. What I am talking about is the total mixing up of media with politics. I am suggesting that by law – media should not be allowed to take political sides. To be called independent, it has to remain totally neutral. What would happen if the judiciary took a political view on things? If it delivered verdicts keeping in mind the political affiliations of the accused? The one thing the judiciary has done extremely well is to remain neutral. The umpire cannot take sides between two competing cricket sides – likewise, the media and the judiciary cannot take sides.
Has media been taking sides? It’s for everyone to see. Times Now is virulently anti-congress. It refuses to put pressure on the BJP for inaction during its six years of governance. It allows the BJP to take over its channel and convert it to a political stage. It allows its spokesmen to actively personalize debates and levy allegations of all sorts. Of course, this is acceptable in politics. If Advani says “This is the weakest PM since independence”, it’s fine at a political rally. But the TV channel should ask itself if it is a fair statement to make. And if it should be broadcast unedited. It cannot take the stand “this is his viewpoint”.....it is not a viewpoint. It’s the politics of a political player. There cannot be another viewpoint expected from Advani. The difference is very fine. But it’s an important difference to understand. Take another example. When Dayanidhi Maran stayed out of media after allegations were levied against him, Times Now said that he was hiding from media. When he came and defended himself, the channel said: He’s under pressure now to respond. Likewise, when the PM was quiet after the Baba’s eviction, this channel accused him of keeping quiet. When he opened up and said that this was unfortunate but inevitable, this channel made it political. It bracketed his statement with the sad story of a person who had been lathi-charged and who had been paralysed. It made the PM look insensitive. This would have been ok, if suspicions of a bias weren’t already there against Times Now. This channel – which is exceptional in its editing and production values – had never ever done this before. For instance, in the UP issues that Rahul Gandhi made much fuss about, it didn’t take this creative route. It’s a fine line.....nothing could ever be proved against this channel. But it still remains the truth. Likewise, there is this other dangerous habit that media has picked up. To declare a person guilty before the trial has even started. So Maran has been declared guilty already. How does it do this? By relying on “scoops” given to it by disgruntled opponents of the charged person within governmental institutions. It simply assumes these scoops are genuine. There is no onus of having to prove anything. If questioned by anyone, media will say that it is being targeted.
That is why, there is need for self regulation. It’s important to recognize that there is a cancer which has spread through media. The cancer of politicization. That’s simply not acceptable. Media must be forced to remain neutral. The industry must set up its own watchdog – backed by a strong law – so that media neutrality is ensured. The same media which strongly demands that the Lokpal authority must be independent of the government, strangely keeps totally quiet when it comes to an independent watchdog over itself. While media demands the PM and higher judiciary be included under the Lokpal, it’s not spoken a word about keeping its editors open to investigations by an independent watchdog. While it argues forcefully that the Lokpal should be backed by strong powers to evict political leaders found guilty (and not have only a recommendatory role), it has never argued that the independent media watchdog should have the powers to evict editors and anchors in media brands.
So media stands accused of two things. First, of taking political sides. And two, of having a different set of rules for themselves. This is of course very convenient for them. They surely have the power and they love to exert it. They reach out to more than 200 million viewers/readers every day....and they have it in them to put pressure on the government. Very smartly, media has stayed out of criticizing the judiciary too much. Likewise, the judiciary doesn’t act against the media much either. It’s this ganging up of two “independent” institutions that is extremely dangerous. It’s a cartelization that can only have harmful impact on our democracy. Remember – all of us ordinary people – count on media’s neutrality in delivering the news. If they are going to be taking political sides, then they should announce this political affiliation of theirs. Why don’t they do that? They are blatantly political, but they want people to think they are neutral. This kind of behavior will swallow up the country’s democracy one day. Media has the power to act like God. That is why media must itself set up a self-regulator. Gods have to be above board. Unfortunately, media in our country isn’t.
The real truth is that there is need for some sort of regulation over media. It cannot be governmental regulation. Maybe the Supreme Court must take strong objections if media usurps its territory – of judging and pronouncing the charged guilty or innocent. Maybe it should prescribe the rules of conduct. Maybe the civil society should demand that an independent watchdog be set up over media. Maybe Anna Hazare – once he himself becomes “independent” (today he’s being accused of being a BJP fan) – should demand media independence. How can he shun criticism of media when he so liberally criticizes politicians? Will media rise up to the occassion and come clean? Will it set up a self-regulation body? I doubt it. Remember absolute power corrupts absolutely, and the media’s a living proof of this....