It was a moment of personal reckoning. As Lord Justice Leveson gave his statement at the QE-II conference centre calling for an “independent self-regulating mechanism backed by a requisite underpinning legislation” on Thursday, November 29, I could not but think of our situation including the current controversies. As a conceptual framework, the 1978 Press Council Act has already incorporated many elements of Leveson’s recommendations.
Unlike Britain, if media houses in India are earnest, then making the Press Council of India (PCI) effective and having a trust-worthy redressal-mechanism in place is eminently possible.
Many in the United Kingdom are not happy with Prime Minister David Cameron’s rejection of the central element of the recommendation saying that the proposed “law would cross the Rubicon and undermine centuries-old principle of free speech.” While one has to wait and see how Britain deals with the comprehensive recommendations, for us in India, the recommendations at many levels are, in reality, suggestions for improvement within a framework we have since 1978.
There is a rich oeuvre of literature about how we as citizens got our freedom of expression, and by extension, media freedom. Any serious student of journalism will celebrate this freedom and would go to any extent to protect it.
It looks ironic when one talks about freedom and regulation of media in the same breath. However, deeper scrutiny reveals that a good, working regulatory framework alone can ensure that freedom thrives with all its vibrancy and gets a protective ring to guard itself from various agencies that are uncomfortable with an empowered media and those who do not hesitate to censor at the very first provocation.
The regulatory framework I propose flows from my own experience as a journalist and an editor. There is a need for a two-tier regulation. A self-regulation within the media house and an independent regulator for the entire media sector.
Since 2006 the Readers’ Editor of this newspaper has been functioning as a self-regulator. The readers and the editors of this newspaper were unequivocal in endorsing its role in upholding cardinal principles of good journalism. It is worth reiterating some of the key elements that govern the Readers’ Editor. “By virtue of the terms of appointment, he or she is independent of the Editor, the editorial personnel, and the editorial process. The key objectives of this appointment are ‘to institutionalise the practice of self-regulation, accountability, and transparency; to create a new visible framework to improve accuracy, verification, and standards in the newspaper; and to strengthen bonds between the newspaper and its millions of print platform and online readers’.” If this system is extended across all media houses, I am sure the chorus to rein in media will lose its bite.
The framework for the sector has to be an inclusive one that inherently supports two important legal provisions. First, it must uphold the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression. Second, it should not undermine the power citizens draw from the Right to Information Act. Hence, the regulatory body should be an independent multi-member one.
Learning from the past voting patterns within the PCI, numbers should not be stacked in favour of the media houses but shall be broad based enough to act against erring media houses too. Right now, the PCI comprises 28 members — six editors, seven senior journalists, six media managers, one representative from a news agency, one nominee each from the Bar Council of India, the University Grants Commission and the Sahitya Academy, three members of the Lok Sabha and two members of the Rajya Sabha. The PCI will certainly be independent if Lord Leveson’s suggestion of excluding serving editors or any serving members of parliament or government becomes a practice here too.
We cannot afford to permit a single individual, however eminent the person may be, to decide on a crucial fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution. It is worth recollecting what Fali S. Nariman and Rajeev Dhavan wrote in 2000. Writing for an anthology to celebrate the 50 years of Indian Supreme Court, these two fine legal minds described the attitude of the Supreme Court judges as typical of the decision-making habits of typical middle-class metropolitan Indians: “technically unpredictable, not uninfluenced by imitative cosmopolitan habits, conditioned by native instinct to a depth not yet predictable by the psychologist or documented even by a novelist, the dramatist or the fiction-writer, and suffering from an over-sensitive opinion of their lonely and unparalleled position.” (Supreme But Not Infallible: Essays in Honour of The Supreme Court of India, Oxford University Press, 2000)
The time to act is now. The erosion of media’s credibility has a ruinous potential to eat into the vitals of democracy too. Citizens need a dependable and credible source of news for them to make informed choices. Justice Katju and the media should start talking to each other rather than talking at each other. It is important that both keep the following prescription of Rajeev Dhavan in mind: “Free speech has to be preserved in the overcrowded spaces of the media, on the streets and in the vast open spaces of our mind against the onslaught of corporatism, doubtful governance and invidious divisiveness. Freedom of the mind and the right to self-expression and argument can only survive if intolerance is met with tolerance, and tolerance is not seen as weakness.”
It is the duty of the media to engage and secure a framework that has the optimum mix of rights and responsibility and above all, the trust of the general public.