It's simple and doable, but it is deliberately being avoided: N. Ram
N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, on Tuesday emphasised the need for an internal news ombudsman in the press and the news channels in the country.
He was delivering a lecture on ‘Media ethics and police-media relations' organised here by the Mumbai police.
“Unfortunately, no one else has taken this up [except The Hindu which has a readers' editor] because you need to look inwards. It is simple and doable, but it is deliberately being avoided,” he said.
Mr. Ram said the 2G spectrum allocation scam and the Niira Radia tapes had widely compromised the independence and credibility of the media. “It is important that the Editors Guild of India has decided to investigate it.” The organisations needed to put in place a code of practice. “It is important to have a code of practice as internal mechanisms are the best. Otherwise, there will be a situation where it will be impossible to stop the public from demanding that the legislative assemblies enact on this.”
He also said the media should reflect and represent all sections of society, whereas the Niira Radia tapes proved that it was very elitist.
Terming ‘paid news' one of the biggest challenges for the media and the press today, Mr. Ram lauded the Election Commission for its role during the Bihar elections this year, when it issued notices against 86 candidates with regard to paid news. “The paid news problem has shown that it is very difficult to police the media,” he said. It was a part of the hyper-commercialisation process.
Talking about media-police relations, he emphasised the need for institutional safeguards for honest investigation. Citing the example of the Central Bureau of Investigation's probe in the 2G spectrum allocation scam, he said everyone was talking about political interference in the probe.
“Were the CBI's hands tied down earlier? Why is it that things have now speeded up and why was there such a long wait? There will be people who will stand against the pressure,” he said. It was a wrong system to let individuals stand up against such pressures. “It is important to have institutional safeguards to protect the fairness and independence of investigation.”
He lamented the lack of police reforms and called for a sustained media effort aimed at this. “It is clear that there is very poor implementation of police reforms by the political players. They give excuses for not enacting legislation on the matter and not following the court directions. There is not much discussion in the media about this.”
Praising the digital media as “a promise waiting to be delivered,” Mr. Ram said WikiLeaks and the disclosure of the Radia tapes proved how digital media was making a mark. He lauded WikiLeaks for following the basic tenet of journalism — verification. “They have authenticated the facts and removed the opinions,” he said.
As for the stir caused by the Radia tapes, he said it was the first instance in which the new media was deployed to considerable effect.
Mr. Ram spoke on the growth of media in India and threw light on the important historical role the press played since the pre-independence era. “To the envy of many countries, the rough estimate of daily readership of newspapers in India is over 200 million. It is a world record in terms of gross reach,” he said. The growth of the digital media would have a huge impact on television and the press here.
While talking about the problems in police-media relations, he said it was wrong to make sweeping statements about the police. “Very often, stereotypical statements and generalisations are made about sections of the police in the media. I think it is not the way to go. Even influential sections of the media do it. It needs to be avoided,” he said. To drive home his point, he pointed to the generalisation that the police were trigger-happy, whereas careful study had shown that encounter deaths have reduced substantially.
Another challenge, he said, was protecting journalists from state power and excesses. “Journalists get beaten up for being in the line of fire. It has happened in Manipur, Kashmir and many other parts of the country. At such times, we look to the police to be absolutely impartial. We need more discussion on how to approach such situations,” he said.
Talking about the ethics the media needed to follow, he said the first and foremost principle was truth-telling. “The journalist must aim for factuality and verification. He must provide context, background and reasonable interpretation,” he said.
“The second principle is freedom and independence,” he said. Expressing satisfaction with the freedom the press enjoyed, he said there was a need for a liberal broadcast law. “The satellite TV is completely without regulation, and that is a historical aberration.”
“The third is the principle of justice. From classical liberal to Rawlsian to the radical and revolutionary, there has been a professional prescription laid down for justice,” he said.
“Finally, the principle of working for the social good combined with a humane approach,” he said, describing the incident in which a man set himself on fire at a public place and a cameraperson shot it, instead of dousing the fire. This led to a wide debate on the media role in the United States.
Elaborating on the framework for the functioning of the media, he said there were four important functions: credible information function, critical function, educational role and agenda-building function.
Mumbai Commissioner of Police Sanjeev Dayal said there must be four basic principles in journalism: responsibility, accountability, responsiveness and trust. He said media power had reached its pinnacle today, but it should understand that an equal amount of responsibility came with this. “In a democracy like ours, the media has a very difficult role to play. It is an important whistleblower, and has to its credit several exposes,” he said.
Many senior and retired police officers attended the lecture.