Monday, September 5, 2011

We have free media. But do we have a fair media?

There is a story in the newspapers today about a Group of Ministers (GoM) being constituted to look into the report of the Press Council of India (PCI) on the subject of Paid News. The PCI report is dated July 2010 and like many things in the government, it’s being lying in the dustbins till now. No doubt, the recent heartburn the government suffered during the Anna crisis has prompted the constitution of the GoM. Some fear that this is a way for the government to gag the press. What the GoM does will be seen with hawkish eyes – any misadventure will be viewed extremely negatively by the people.

But first things first. A little primer on the PCI is in place here. The PCI was first set up in 1966 based on the recommendations of the 1st Press Commission and it functions under the provisions of the Press Council Act, 1978. It’s a statutory body that governs the conduct of print and broadcast media. The mandate of the PCI is two fold. Firstly, and most importantly, it is to protect the freedom of speech that media (and the people of the country) enjoys. A journalist who feels that his/her freedom to write and express himself/herself is being threatened by the state can file a complaint in the PCI. The second important mandate of the PCI is to raise the standards of the press in India. Unfortunately, the PCI has become a little antiquated in its structure. In an era of 24x7 news TV channels, it’s surprising that it has no representation from the TV industry at all. It is supposed to govern the broadcast media – and yet it has no representatives from the broadcast media. The reason for this press-bias is historical. The PCI is protected by the Constitution and that explains it’s very press-centric constitution….there was no TV at the time the Constitution was made. So far, the Press Council of India has really bothered itself with the press…..and news TV has been left to other industry bodies like the News Broadcasters Association of India (NBA).

It’s this second mandate – to raise the standards of journalism – that has hardly received any attention from the PCI. The website of the PCI lists the cases taken up by it only till the year 2009. I have no idea why there is nothing mentioned for 2010 and 2011. A cursory look at the matters listed shows that the matters are related mostly to defending the freedom of press. It’s time the PCI now turns its attention more seriously to issues of raising the standards of journalism – including very largely TV journalism.

20 out of the 28 members of the PCI are members from the press; grouped under various heads like Editors, Working journalists other than editors, Owners and Managers, manager of news agency etc. 5 members are nominated from both houses of Parliament and 3 are nominated from cultural, literary and legal fields (Sahitya Academy, UGC and Bar Council of India). What is surprising is that very few of the 20 members of the PCI are familiar names. None of the mainstream urban dailies is represented. Most from the editors category are from small publications like Kadambini, Muzaffarnagar bulletin, Filmi Duniya, Saryu, Asian Defence News etc. There are a few journalists who are from big publications like Mathrubhoomi, Hindu and Bartaman. Representatives of news agencies, Parliament and other bodies are better known – with the likes of Paranjay Guha Thakurta (UGC), Milan Kumar Dey (Bar Council), Ananth Kumar and Prakash Javdekar (BJP MPs) finding a place.

It’s time now for the PCI to be reconstituted in accordance with the changed media scenario. There is need for representatives from other media verticals – TV, internet and radio mainly – since the reach of these new media is probably higher than the reach of press. There is also a need for better known faces to be part of this August body. Mainline publications and TV channels must be represented on the PCI – maybe in line with their readership/viewership/listenership as the case may be.

The PCI must take up matters of self-regulation of media, especially TV media. The hyper-competition in the TV business is leading to a drastic drop in the standard of TV journalism. Some of the Hindi channels have blatantly made news TV into a GEC kind of format. I remember seeing a promo on a Hindi news channel which went something like this: “Don’t go anywhere…..coming up after the break is the story of Rape….”. The quality of journalists is pathetic. Most don’t understand the subject of economics and with so many stories related to economics (corruption; CAG; FDI; Black money…..), most journalists are all at sea. There is suspicion of a high degree of corruption within media itself with the phenomenon of paid news drawing attention a few years back

All this apart, there is the huge question of media’s neutrality. I believe in a democracy, where media plays such an important role, its important for media to remain neutral. But the reality in India is anything but that. Generally speaking, Times Now appears to be anti-Congress while NDTV is pro-Congress (CNN-IBN flip-flops). The TOI is anti-Congress (sometimes), while HT is pro-Congress (usually). India Today is anti-Congress; Outlook pro-Congress. What is all this? If media is going to be giving us colored opinions based on what their political orientation is, I am not sure what kind of political discourse we will have in this country. Why, even the opinion polls conducted by these media outfits usually reflects their political views. Of course, there are ample media titles available to choose from, but I think there is need for media to openly declare any party affiliations that it may have. Likewise, just like stock analysts who come on business news channels give a disclosure of any interest they may have in the stocks that were discussed, it’s important for panel members on news channels to disclose their political orientations. I am ok with Chandan Mitra’s anti-Congress stand because he is a BJP MP. But what about Swapan Dasgupta – is he also a BJP rep? What about Vinod Mehta – is he a Congress rep? What about Anupam and Kirron Kher – I am told one of them is going to be soon anointed BJP’s official spokesperson, but neither has declared this. Similarly, the plethora of lawyers who come on TV all seem to be working to a brief rather than giving their independent opinions. We cannot have this kind of backhand political patronage on TV. The editors must take control of what goes on their channels and they must be unbiased.

At the same time, there cannot be any political interference in the working of the media. It’s important that the number of MPs on the PCI are not increased. It’s important that PCI self-regulates media; before media spins out of hand. The coverage of the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai and the recent Anna struggle has left a lot to be desired. Apparently, some 80% of news time was devoted to Anna recently – surely it’s no one’s point that there was nothing else happening in the country that deserved a mention on TV? The newspapers did a much better job – but the intense competition on TV forced almost all of them to try and out-do each other with sustained low-grade sensationalized coverage. In no other country is the media so unregulated……some would call it irresponsible…..and it’s important that we don’t let our media spin out of control.

The real truth is that checks and balances need to be brought back into media. Newspapers are doing a decent job. But news TV is like the wild west. It’s pure sensationalism out there. It’s important the Press Council Act is amended to have more reps from TV and other media. It’s important the PCI steps in vigorously to control the decay in news TV. It’s important for media to be free…..but its probably more important for it to be fair….

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