Markandey Katju's forthright comments on the state of the Indian news media and the intellectual competence of many journalists have certainly raised many hackles. One does not have to agree with everything the chairman of the Press Council of India diagnoses or prescribes to see that his observations have hit home. Nor are his concerns confined to how and in what respects journalism and many journalists go astray and let the people of India down.
It's not yet a month since the retired Supreme Court judge was appointed PCI chairman. He has already made it plain that he will speak up, and act to the maximum extent the PCI's statutory powers allow him to act, every time the freedom of the press comes under pressure and each time journalists are targeted by the state.
This is in keeping with the twin objects of the PCI: “to preserve the freedom of the Press and to maintain and improve the standards of newspapers and news agencies in India.” For example, Mr. Katju has criticised as “grossly disproportionate” the award of Rs. 100 crore in damages in a civil defamation suit against Times Now and as “incorrect” the subsequent orders of the Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court on the matter. He has pulled up government departments and statutory bodies for delaying payment of advertising bills for years on end and asked all government departments to clear the bills within one month of the publication of advertisements, failing which they should pay 12 per cent interest on top of the amounts billed. In the latest instance, he has taken up with the Government of Jammu & Kashmir the issue of journalists being roughed up by the Central Reserve Police Force while covering protests in Srinagar.
It is clear that Mr. Katju's critical observations on the performance of the news media, and especially television channels, have found resonance with the reading and viewing public. He has also found support within the establishment.
Inaugurating the National Press Day celebrations on November 16, Vice-President M. Hamid Ansari observed that in an environment marked by “the extremely buoyant growth rates” of the media and “minimal or no regulation” the focus had shifted to self-regulation, individual or collective. But “collective self-regulation…has yet to succeed in substantive measure because it is neither universal nor enforceable” and “individual self-regulation has also failed due to personal predilection and the prevailing personal interest over public interest.” Mr. Ansari wanted the ongoing national debate on the subject to lead to the publication of a White Paper, leading to “further consultations and evolution of a broad national consensus so that appropriate frameworks can be put in place combining voluntary initiative, executive regulation and legislative action, as appropriate.” He noted with concern the absence of media watch groups.
Several senior journalists who participated in a panel discussion on the occasion agreed that self-regulation was either non-existent or had failed. They felt the time had come to give the statutory watchdog, the PCI, more teeth, such as the power to levy fines, provided the threshold of prima facie evidence was raised high so that frivolous complaints would not be entertained. The other issue raised by Mr. Katju is the strange situation of the broadcast media in India having no regulatory framework. He has revealed that he has written to the Prime Minister asking for the broadcast media to be brought under the aegis of the “Press Council,” which could be renamed the “Media Council.”
Responding to the fierce objections expressed by the private TV channels and the News Broadcasters Association, he has asked them whether they wanted to come under an authority like the Lokpal — if they rejected the idea of coming under a statutory Media Council headed by him. The number of satellite television channels is in the region of 600; of this number, more than 100 are categorised as news channels. Justice Katju's concern that influential sections of the media, especially the television channels, often trivialise the news and divert the people's attention from vital socio-economic issues is genuine. As a judge of the highest court of the land, Mr. Katju was known for his libertarian views and delivered many pro-poor judgments. His credentials are strong when it comes to criticising the media for working against the interests of the deprived and the poor, for dividing them on caste and communal lines, and for promoting superstition and obscurantism instead of scientific and rational ideas.
Interestingly, a parallel discussion on the ways of the press and the issue of self-regulation versus statutory regulation is taking place in the United Kingdom. In his deeply insightful George Orwell Lecture, “Hacking away at the truth,” given recently at University College, London (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/nov/10/phone-hacking-truth-alan-rusbridger-orwell), Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger discusses several aspects of media-related issues, including media freedom, performance, the public interest, rogue practices, regulatory issues, media monopoly and domination by the Murdoch empire, and the need to guarantee plurality and a level playing field. Much of this discussion is relevant to India. Among other things, Mr. Rusbridger discusses the functioning of an independent and full-time internal news ombudsman, known as the Readers' Editor in The Guardian (The Hindu has adopted the Guardian model) as “the most local form of regulation” that has proved effective.
With deep insight and rare candour, Mr. Rusbridger discusses the lessons to be learned from the phone hacking scandal and what the press could expect from the comprehensive Leveson Inquiry instituted by the government: “Well, talking of rules and codes, we discovered that the thing that we call ‘ self-regulation' in the press is no such thing. Whatever the original laudable ambitions for, and achievements of, the Press Complaints Commission, the fact remained that it had no investigatory powers and no sanctions…it was simply not up to the task of finding out what was going on in the newsrooms it was supposed to be regulating. The PCC was lied to by News International.” It then committed “the folly of writing a worse-than-meaningless report which, as we wrote at the time, would fatally undermine the cause of self-regulation as represented by the PCC. In the absence of anything that looked to the outside world like regulation, the rogue actions of, I hope, a few journalists, have landed the press as a whole with a series of inquiries which will last not months, but years, and which will, I suspect, be quite uncomfortable for all involved.”
The uncomfortable exercise cannot be dodged and The Guardian's Editor proposes a positive way of looking at it: “it provides an opportunity for the industry to have a conversation with itself while also benefitting from the perspective and advice of others.” Perhaps the time has come for a comparable exercise addressing the specific Indian media situation, the challenges as well as opportunities.