There is an explicit desire among the innumerable erudite readers to know what constitutes a liberal media, to contest some of its presumptions, to compliment its work ethic and finally, to take the dialogue process forward. The latest ‘reverse sting’ operation by Jindal Steels on Zee TV has once again raised questions of the efficacy of self-regulation in media.

I intend to share some crucial developments that are taking place within the media regulatory framework. These developments are bound to have a profound impact on our larger information ecology. One of the fundamental requirements for self-regulation to work is an idea of ethics governed by fine boundaries that shall not be breached at any cost. Can media invoke the idea of self-regulation when it constantly breaches its self-declared ethical boundaries? This four-part series is an attempt to provide the background and offer some leads to understand the new dynamics that are at work.

Last year, the question of media regulation became a major topic in two countries where the legacy media was seen as a credible institution — the United Kingdom and India. Both have a body to ensure that self-regulation works. In the U.K., the self-regulatory era began with the creation of a “voluntary Press Council in 1953, which aimed to maintain high ethical standards of journalism and to promote press freedom.” In India, following the enactment of Press Council Act in 1965, the Press Council of India was first constituted on July 4, 1966 as an autonomous, statutory, quasi-judicial body with Justice J.R. Mudholkar as Chairman. The Indian Press Council was abolished during the Emergency by repealing the Act, and it was reconvened in 1979 after an Act was passed in the Parliament in 1978. However, by early 1990s, there was a sense of inadequacy.

The growth of tabloids had created a situation in the U.K. that forced the government to look into the larger legal framework covering the functioning of media. The David Calcutt Committee was set up with the task “to consider what measures (whether legislative or otherwise) are needed to give further protection to individual privacy from the activities of the press and improve recourse against the press for the individual citizen.” Calcutt, displaying a great sense of restraint, avoided suggesting new statutory controls, but recommended the setting up of a new Press Complaints Commission in place of the Press Council. Many editors and senior journalists played a significant role in getting the Press Complaints Commission started. The concern of these journalists was to retain the narrative within the self-regulatory mode and not to concede space to the lobby that was seeking a “punitive framework”. An independent Press Complaints Commission came into operation in 1991 and it had a formal Code of Practice to govern its judgment. Apart from abiding by the Code, all publishers and editors committed themselves to ensuring secure and adequate funding of the Press Complaints Commission.

In India, the crisis came with the communal mobilisation in the run-up to the desecration of the Babri Masjid in 1992. A section of the media became the mouthpiece for bigotry and carried a series of inflammatory articles. The Union Government sought the opinion of the Press Council of India regarding “whether a procedure can be laid down to ensure that newspapers/magazines censured by the Press Council for breach of guidelines in connection with communal writings, can be deprived of incentives from government, such as advertisements et cetera, and whether the Press Council would be in a position to suggest what action should be taken when it holds a newspaper/magazine guilty of breach of guidelines.”

Like the Calcutt Committee, the Press Council of India also exhibited restraint. The June 1993 Press Council of India’s recommendation reads: “… the moral authority presently exercised by the Council is quite effective and the Council does not need any punitive powers in showing the Press the path of self-regulation. The Council, however, decided that if the newspaper is censured twice for any type of unethical writings within a period of three years, copies of such decisions should be forwarded to the Cabinet Secretary to the Government of India and to the Chief Secretary of the concerned State Government for information and such action, as may, in exercise of their discretion, be deemed to be appropriate in the circumstances of the case.”

Over the next three weeks, I will examine how media lost the advantages it gained in the early 1990s.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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