Discussion and debate over the key issues relating to media standards and performance — and in particular what is to be done about them — raised by the Press Council of India (PCI) chairman Markandey Katju continue in different places. Unsurprisingly, given his differences with Mr. Katju and also his chairmanship of the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, a ‘self-regulatory' mechanism set up by the News Broadcasters Association, J.S. Verma, former Chief Justice of India, has come out in support of self-regulation by the media — but has added a stern qualifier to this.
Speaking on “Content regulation in India” at the FICCI Media and Entertainment and Business Conclave 2011 in Chennai on December 3, Mr. Verma cautioned the media that failure to exercise self-restraint and regulate their performance would provide “a justifiable reason” for intervention from outside. He claimed that in the last couple of years there have been improvements in the performance of the broadcast media — which he attributed to compliance with the code of ethics framed by the NBA in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, and also the advisories issued by it from time to time. It is unlikely that this assessment will find favour with large sections of public opinion.
Mr. Verma then seemed to argue against his own assessment by deploring “the lack of decency and public interest purpose” in private television news channels repeatedly telecasting visuals of an assault on a prominent public figure (Sharad Pawar), which was surely not an isolated instance. He also spoke out against media trials that seriously interfered with the cause of justice, citing the negative terms that were used in referring to someone in high office who had been named as an accused in a corruption case and “the lack of due diligence” that harmed the reputation of individuals.
Significantly, while he was critical of the “words” used by Mr. Katju, he conceded that the “bottom line” was the fact that a large section of public opinion was in favour of the PCI chairman's views on the Indian media.
What this signals perhaps is a subtle but significant shift of stand by a former Chief Justice of India who, like Mr. Katju, has an unimpeachable reputation for personal integrity.
The pattern of response to the last Readers' Editor column, “Media and key issues raised by Markandey Katju” (November 28, 2011), was instructive. Most of those who responded agreed with the PCI chairman that it was time to strengthen the governance and regulatory system for the Indian news media, broadcast as well as print.
A distinguished retired senior civil servant and former Governor, A. Padmanaban (Chennai), welcomed the fact that both Mr. Katju and Vice President of India Hamid Ansari had raised several questions that pointed to the need for building a healthy and more balanced media. Starting with the proposition that the freedom of the press must be preserved and protected and the standards of newspapers maintained, he commented that newspapers, barring a few, and news channels did not appear to maintain proper standards conducive to the public good and to the country's progress. Newspapers like The Hindu had a Readers Editor column that highlighted public issues and gave scope for readers to respond and reflect but most others did not have anything like this. Asserting that the position of TV channels was worse, he emphasised the need for an effective self-regulatory mechanism.
Mr. Padmanaban recalled a speech by President K.R. Narayanan at the Golden Jubilee Celebration of the Supreme Court of India in January 2000. “It is heartening that under the leadership of the Chief Justice of India Dr. Anand,” Mr. Narayanan had reflected, “the conference of Chief Justices of India has adopted a statement of values of judicial life as a step toward self-reform of the judiciary. I hope that this statement of values by the judiciary would pave the way for accountable judiciary for India for dispensing quick, affordable and incorruptible justice to the people.” In Mr. Padmanaban's opinion, “a suitable statement of values and self-regulatory mechanism to make the media accountable” was “long overdue.”
V.J. Nambiar emailed from Jakarta to say that the question before the people was how the Indian media could regain their independence and objectivity in reporting. The people's response to the ongoing debate started by Mr. Katju, he noted, was on the following lines: Citizens wanted a media that put the people, the nation, and the planet above everything else, not serve the interests of corporate bodies and politicians; they needed a media that would emphasise the need for a holistic approach to development and the well-being of society as a whole, not economic growth merely for statistical purposes: they wanted the media to emphasise economic growth that would re-create a sense of community, trust, well-being, and environmental sustainability, not just GDP growth for the government to trumpet about.
J.P. Reddy (Nalgonda) observed that the debate triggered by Mr. Katju had opened a Pandora's box about media operations in India. A lot of criticism was seen from the public about the attitude, behaviour, and performance of mediapersons. The media appeared to have their own agenda: with selfish and commercial motives, they turned non-issues into major issues. A section of journalists was critical of the issues raised by the Press Council of India chief and a few among them had even asked for his removal. However, most readers and viewers, besides several senior journalists, supported Mr. Katju's stand. Amid arguments for and against self-regulation, the news channels repeatedly telecast the slapping of Union Minister Sharad Pawar by a miscreant. Where then was self-regulation, the reader wondered, commenting that Katju was perfectly right in arguing against self-regulation.
C.P. Chandra Das said in his e-mail that Mr. Katju was justified in pressing the media to allot more time and space for highlighting the burning issues before the common people. His approach to the overall media was highly balanced, this reader commented.
There can be little doubt where those among the reading and viewing public who take the trouble to respond stand on these media and society issues — and the question of governance and regulation. Trust in media self-regulation, it seems, is at a very low point.