J.S. Verma fires latest salvo in the war against Markandey Katju's comments

The former Chief Justice of India and current head of the television news media's self-regulatory mechanism, J.S. Verma, has fired the latest salvo in the war of words following the recent controversial comments of Markandey Katju, the former Supreme Court judge and new head of the Press Council of India (PCI).

“Everyone knows the Press Council has failed in its mandate, and how ineffective it has been. So why not wind it up or scrap it?” Mr. Justice Verma said in an interview to Outlook magazine. “[PCI] is run on public money, so why not save some money?”

While he was reportedly criticising the institution itself and not any particular individual, Mr. Justice Verma was dismissive about Mr. Justice Katju's recent statements. “As far as the comments of [Katju] go, all irresponsible talk is best ignored,” he said.

Mr. Justice Verma heads the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA), the self-regulatory initiative of the News Broadcasters Association (NBA). Since his appointment as PCI chairman a month ago, Mr. Justice Katju has been demanding an expansion of his mandate to include regulation of the television channels as well as newspapers, to create a comprehensive new Media Council.

On Friday, Information and Broadcasting Minister told news agency PTI that such a suggestion was before a Group of Ministers headed by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee.

In a recent interview, Mr. Justice Katju dismissed the electronic media's attempts at self-regulation, saying that that it “simply isn't working” and that a “danda” is needed to put some “fear in the media.” He also made a series of criticisms on the shallow quality of news reporting, and the intellectual calibre of Indian journalists.

His comments have triggered condemnation from various TV industry associations, with the NBA shooting off a letter to the Prime Minister, asking him “to intervene and request the Chairman, Press Council of India to engage himself constructively with print media matters, which is the mandate he has under the Press Council Act and not to exceed his remit and to exercise restraint on commenting upon areas which are outside his jurisdiction.”

Mr. Justice Verma warned against a casual dismissal of the NBSA. “We work pro bono, ours is not a body that involves public expense,” he said, contrasting it to the Press Council which is run on the tax-payer's money.

Meanwhile, the first signs of dissent within the PCI itself have now been expressed, with two Council members issuing the Press Association's (PA) objections.

The PA — a group of journalists accredited by the Central government which includes PCI members Kalyan Barooah and Rajeev Ranjan Nag — denounced Mr. Justice Katju's remarks against journalists, arguing that “to paint the entire media with the same brush also reflects his lack of knowledge about the fourth estate and its contributions and impact.”

“We wish to point out to Justice Katju that the PCI was not only set up to penalise the media by functioning as a regulatory body, but also to protect the rights and freedom of working journalists. But his recent utterances reflect his strong bias against the Indian media,” said the PA statement. It urged the PCI chairman to return his focus to the business of the Council and the long list of pending complaints dating back to several years.

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