Relevance of U.K. panel’s recommendations to be studied

Amid the ongoing debate over regulation of the media, the Consultative Committee on Information and Broadcasting will on Monday discuss the U.K.’s Leveson Committee report with an emphasis on its applicability for India.

The British government had, in the wake of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, set up a committee, led by Justice Brian Leveson to enquire into the ‘culture, practice and ethics’ of the press, including the media’s relations with politicians and the police. The panel’s 2,000-page report had slammed the media for “sensationalism” and “recklessness”, and recommended a strong and independent regulator. In March this year, political parties agreed to a deal to set up such a mechanism through a royal charter.

Media and agencies

Explaining the rationale for officially introducing the Leveson report’s measures into India’s “political and parliamentary space”, an anonymous source — not authorised to speak about the issue — told The Hindu that India had inherited several democratic institutions from the U.K.: “We share a culture of a free and vibrant press, and there is logic in [seeking to understand] comparative and relevant international experience.”

The other reason, the source explained, was the report’s focus on the relations between media and people in power, “particularly law-enforcement agencies”.

“Even in India, we see that right after a blast, media outlets begin blaming certain outfits based on [information from certain] sources. And this sets the tone for the investigation. Cases of innocent men being acquitted after years in prison are well-known.” The committee report, he said, could be a useful way to discuss the “interplay of different forces in the public domain, especially between the media and law-enforcement agencies”.

“What kind of source-based reportage should be allowed before a charge sheet is filed?”

Regulation

There is a feeling in the government that the absence of reportage in the Indian press about the Leveson report has been “deliberate” because of its recommendation on regulation. “Our idea is to at least look into what is in the public domain on a relevant issue,” said the source.

The government is under pressure from “legitimate institutions”, which have asked it to “act” on media regulation, and citizens who feel that the political class seeks to curb rights.

In early May, the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Information Technology, in its report on “paid news”, indicted the I&B Ministry for not doing anything “substantial” to check the “menace” and recommended that a body be set up to look at media contents “in both print and electronic media”. In April, the Delhi High Court told the government to put in a “statutory regulatory body” for the electronic media. Press Council of India Chairman Justice (retd.) Markandey Katju has demanded that the media be given more teeth.

But the media, civil society, and industry representatives have interpreted the government’s moves as a “conspiracy” to increase state control and stifle freedom of expression. Responding to the criticism that the government was seeking to control the press, I&B Minister Manish Tewari had said the government’s approach was an “essay in persuasion, not regulation”.

Experts familiar with the agenda of Monday’s meeting urged that the debate be not reduced to merely regulation. “It is time to look at the larger issues of ownership, content, incestuous relations between the media and those who exercise power, and this [Monday’s meeting] can be a way of doing that.”

Consultative committees are attached different ministries and include MPs from both Houses of Parliament and are platforms for informal discussion between the government and lawmakers on policies and its implementation.

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