Has the time come to push for regulation of media houses?

Media-bashing is keeping both seminarists and Aamir Khan in business. Between the Press Council's sanitised report on paid news, the I and B ministry's task force attempting yet again to regulate broadcasting, and the recent lampooning film “Peepli [Live]”, the consensus is that the media is a wayward (and increasingly dishonest) beast that needs reining in. The Supreme Court of India concurs: earlier this month it issued a second order restraining the media from scandalous reporting of the Aarushi murder case.

But who will bell the cat? Nobody can agree on who should regulate. Their peers in the profession? Government? A new body with the usual mix of eminences from different fields? All of these have been non-starters so far.

So let's toss a fresh idea into the pot. Who is indispensable to the media and can therefore calls the shots? The advertiser. What if he/she were to decide that they wanted standards in the media they were advertising in? And declined to underwrite spurious news because it was bad for their image too?

Hold it, you'll say, it's the advertiser who is the source of original sin: constantly pushing to fudge the line between news and advertising. How is reform going to begin with him? It could begin with both the more ethical advertisers and with investors. Hypothetically, as media ownership diversifies and more investors come into existing media, they could begin to demand ethical standards in the media they are investing in. They might want assurance that the company they are investing in will not follow unsavoury editorial practices, and thereby harm the reputation of the investor.

If the blue chip companies were feeling ethical they could insist that the media they advertise in stick to professional conduct and transparent practices to enhance their credibility. And how would they do that? By insisting on certification much as consumers do for a whole range of products. A stamp that says this media house is credible because it follows good editorial and business practices. The news it puts out is not paid for by somebody, the people it hires are not crooks, its scoops are not invented, and the sources it quotes really do exist!

I did not think up this improbable scenario, the Swiss did. They've even come up with a certification standard for all kinds of media. It's called ISAS BCP 9001. There is a Media and Society Foundation in Geneva, which has developed it and their head gave me a colourful example earlier this year of how it could work. The salmon exporters in Chile, he said, were required to have quality certification for their product, so they in turn were now demanding it for the TV channels they advertised on. He also explained why this initiative was born in Geneva. Contrary to the bland assumptions one might make about the Swiss, their media faces a lot of commercial pressure. “In Geneva the advertisers are practically in the newsroom.”

Ensuring quality

ISAS BCP 9001:2010 describes itself as a quality management standard dedicated to media industries. What would an agency registered to grant such certification look for? Information quality, for one. Does the organisation have best practices for verification of the information it carries? How fast does it rectify incorrect information? Does it have a clear editorial policy? Does it distinguish opinions from facts?

Does it have rules for interaction with social, economic and political actors? Translation: are those friendly interviews with businessmen on the business news channels genuine or paid for, in cash or advertising? Are the politicians you write about paying you to give their electoral prospects a thumbs up? Are those stars whose movies are releasing on the weekend there on your channel for perfectly kosher reasons?

Then there are laid down ‘relationship with advertiser' norms which require among other things that a total separation be ensured between advertising and information. When it is not, you get what is called paid news.

Quality criteria: does the media organisation provide information and perspectives enabling citizens to participate in public and political life? Does it contribute to the explanation of important developments within a society? Does it cater to the needs of minorities? Does it reflect diversity of opinions, interests and needs? Does it play the role of watchdog?

How does one reconcile all these over-the-top virtues, you ask, with the ground realities of having ratings-driven advertisers to please? But that's the point — can some advertisers, like the government which is the country's biggest advertiser, be persuaded to have other criteria?

Then there are issues of staff quality and management practices: Are the journalists trained? Is there an overdependence on untrained stringers? Some of this country's highest circulated regional newspapers would have a tough time answering that. But if it isn't okay to have citizen pilots or doctors, why is it okay to have citizen journalists? Because media is not a life and death issue? It is fast becoming one, if TV people are persuading a man to immolate himself for the camera.

Is adequate time allowed for content production in the organisation under scrutiny? Is the channel making the organisers of the event being covered pay the costs, as one of our very respectable English news channels does?

How good are the company's recruitment and performance evaluation practices? Does it have a coherent and transparent system for promotions? Does the management have a good policy of corporate information which makes the following available: a list of shareholders which will also reveal if there is any political ownership, the structure of management, financial information, contact information, filing of complaints and complaint resolution?

Is this doable? Early in the process, owners will begin to scream that all this is encroaching on the freedom of the press. But certification is only mandatory if you want the advertiser or investor's money. Media owners have now become used to corporate due diligence when somebody is planning to invest. All it will take is for the potential investors to start demanding some professional and ethical due diligence as well.

The Media and Society Foundation's list of existing certification bodies includes two auditors in India. And its list of organisations which have expressed interest includes Prasar Bharati. One would love to see that broadcaster clear the criteria on ownership-induced bias.

Are we looking at a possible option to the endless flaffing around on regulation? If this government had the gumption it could say that DAVP advertising would from now on be given on the basis of quality certification. And not be persuaded to change its mind. And who knows, some virtuous businessmen-advertisers, big and small, may follow suit.

Cynics will say that another avenue of corruption will open up. But don't bet on it.