I am impressed by the level of readers’ engagement with the complex issue of media regulation and encouraged by their responses. However, some readers felt that I have been dealing with the situation in the United Kingdom and glossing over the state of media in India. The story of the British media helps us to analogously understand the dynamics of the Indian media. In fact, such delineation is warranted, and, has led to this series getting extended by a couple of weeks.
In 2011, India and Britain witnessed a renewed demand for a system of media regulation that actually delivered results. The constitution of Justice Leveson Inquiry in the U.K. and the appointment of Justice Markandey Katju as the Chairman of the Press Council of India (PCI) happened around the same time. Unlike the studied and multifaceted deposition before Justice Leveson, the responses from the Indian media to Justice Katju’s observations were shrill and totally antagonistic. We are witnessing a situation where the general public seems to unreservedly endorse Justice Katju while the media rejects his views without any rigorous self-reflection.
Justice Katju irked broadcasters when he wanted them to come under the purview of the PCI, and the print media when he sought more powers to the PCI. In a resolution the PCI asked “the Union government to amend the Press Council Act, 1978, by bringing the electronic media within the purview of the Act, renaming it as The Media Council, and giving it more powers.” He also infuriated a section of the digital media activists as the resolution explicitly demanded that social media too come under the ambit of the PCI.
He raised three objections against the Indian media. His first objection was: “The media often diverts the attention of the people from the real issues to non issues. The real issues in India are socio-economic, the terrible poverty in which 80% of our people are living, the massive unemployment, the price rise, lack of medical care, education, and backward social practices like honour killing and caste oppression and religious fundamentalism etc. Instead of devoting most of its coverage to these issues the media focuses on non issues like film stars and their lives, fashion parades, pop music, disco dancing, astrology, cricket, reality shows, etc.”
His second objection was: “The media often divides the people: Whenever a bomb blast takes place anywhere in India (whether in Bombay or Bangalore or Delhi or anywhere) within a few hours most T.V. channels starts showing that an e-mail or SMS has been received from Indian Mujahideen or Jaish-e-Muhammad or Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islam claiming responsibility. …The senders of such e-mails and SMS messages are therefore enemies of India, who wish to sow the seeds of discord among us on religious lines. Why should the media, wittingly or unwittingly, become abettors of this national crime?” His third objection was: “…the media should propagate rational and scientific ideas, but instead of doing so a large section of our media propagates superstitions of various kinds.”
Is it prudent to dismiss Justice Katju’s argument that “self-regulation is no regulation and news organisations are private bodies whose activities have a large influence on the public and they also must be answerable to the public?” He cites his own domain, higher judiciary, as an example and says: “may I remind you that even judges of the Supreme Court and the High Courts do not have that absolute right. They can be impeached by Parliament for misconduct.” I think it is not only unfair but also self-destructive to dismiss some of his scathing and inconvenient observations.
Public interest vs. what-public-is-interested-in
To my mind, Justice Katju got his diagnosis right, but his prognosis needs more accommodative space. His entire interpretation of the multiple maladies confronting the media flows from his doctrine of ‘public interest’. The media is a site where both ‘public interest’ and ‘what-public-is-interested-in’ get sufficient play and is mediated by editorial judgment. Problems arise only when ‘what-public-is-interested-in’ subsumes ‘public interest’. And they become ugly when the narratives that fall under the category of ‘what-public-is-interested-in’ come with ulterior motives.
Years ago when I was an editor of a television network, I realised the importance of balancing ‘public interest’ and ‘what-public-is-interested-in.’ The public interest content gives credibility and the ‘what-public-is-interested-in’ narrative generates revenue, though the demarcation is not totally cast in stone. A regulatory framework will be effective only when it takes both these requirements of the media into account.