If Justice Markandey Katju's conviction that “90 per cent Indians are fools” is accepted as the yardstick to assess the quality of public life, no immediate connection will be made between his robust intervention in The Hindu (“Media cannot reject regulation,” May 2, 2012) and the still-born Print and Electronic Media Standards and Regulation Bill which Congress MP Meenakshi Natarajan proffered to the Lok Sabha. Although the Chairman of the Press Council claimed he “has not read the Private Member's Bill,” only the minusculity of non-fools will deny that both he and Ms Natarajan proceed from the same set of assumptions.

In her rationalisation of legislation to impose a government-appointed regulatory authority on the media, Ms Natarajan noted: “The rights conferred by the Constitution are sacrosanct and should be respected. However, news value has been dwindling every passing day...While the freedom of speech and expression has to be respected, there appears no other option but to regulate the print and electronic media and impose on it certain crucial reasonable restrictions, which are needed for the purpose of protecting national interest…”

On his part, stressing that Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech and expression is circumscribed by Article 19(2) which stipulates ‘reasonable restrictions” for the sake of the larger good, Justice Katju wrote: “The media has become very powerful in India and can strongly impact people's lives. Hence it must be regulated in the public interest.” This is particularly so because the “way much of the media is behaving is often irresponsible, reckless and callous.” In effect he echoed Ms Natarajan's desire to “ensure good quality reporting, which does not only feed news according to TV rating points but also, in accordance with issues of prime national importance.” Of course, great minds don't always think alike. Justice Katju and Ms Natarajan differ on the composition of the regulatory body. The Congress MP preferred a statutory body nominated by the Central government. Justice Katju felt that an “independent statutory body” such as the Press Council can fulfil the functions after its scope is enlarged to cover the rapidly-growing electronic media. Self-regulation, as practised by the electronic media, he thought, was hogwash.

Whether it was Justice Katju's spirited campaign for regulating the entire media, including the social media, which was a factor behind Ms Natarajan's parliamentary initiative, is a matter of conjecture. What is certain is that there is hardly another instance of a Press Council head pressing so forcefully to enlarge the space for Article 19(2). “How many licences of TV channels,” he asked the self-regulation bodies, “have you suspended or cancelled till now?”— as if bans and closures were the ultimate litmus test.

Justice Katju has certainly conveyed the unmistakable impression of having been conferred the onerous responsibility of taming a greedy, irresponsible and reckless entity. There is a visible convergence between his desire to tame the media beast and the political class' exasperation with an intrusive rogue out to unsettle the “national interest.”

At the heart of Justice Katju's crusade is a plea for enlightened regulation (which he carefully distinguishes from control) of the media space. Since most professions are regulated and accountable, why should the media be the exception?

The assumption is erroneous. The media may not be blessed with a regulatory authority such as the ones governing, say, the telecom industry, the power sector and the stock exchanges. However, it is not above the law. Justice Katju must know that the media is not exempt from the statutes governing defamation, obscenity, incitement and official secrecy. Where necessary, the state also has the authority to ban publications and black out TV broadcasts. The police possess powers to prosecute journalists and media houses it holds to be engaged in blackmail and extortion. There is a full-fledged statutory regime that governs the media, including a Working Journalists Act. The Fourth Estate is not above regulation.

If the media is already governed by law, what is the scope of the proposed regulatory authority?

For Ms Natarajan, the answers are unambiguous: to determine the hierarchy of news, to mould the style and tone of reporting and to specify no-go areas. In short, exercise political control over editorial content.

On his part, Justice Katju seems to be driven by two different sets of desires. First, he abhors the fact that the media is also commercially driven. According to him, this explains their desire to pander to the lowest common denominator. In regulating the profit motive, will the regulator therefore determine the rates or the quantum of advertising, as the TRAI has needlessly suggested? Will it regulate the cover price and distribution costs of publications? Will it assault the economic freedom of the media?

Second, what are the ramifications of Justice Katju's passionate desire to be at the forefront of a crusade to instil a scientific temper? The Press Council chairman has already publicised his abhorrence of all editorial content that promotes frivolity, superstition, glamour and sport. He wants the media to be in the forefront of the battle against poverty and for social reform.

It is a noble idea and may even be worthy of emulation by an ideologically-driven niche publication or even a public broadcasting channel. But when one man's passion is translated into a desire to impose a replica of the Soviet Union-inspired New World Information Order, it is necessary to sound the alarm bells. The Press Council cannot control tastes.

Justice Katju is a man of astonishing certitudes. Yet, for all his purposeful interventions he has overlooked one crucial facet of the media environment: the availability of choice. No one is obliged to patronise a publication or be riveted to a screaming match on a news channel. One click of the remote control is enough to opt out.

Many do but many love and are entertained by India's rumbustious democracy. Is it because they are fools? In that case, as Brecht once suggested, wouldn't it be simpler to abolish the people and elect a new one?

The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi. Email: swapan55@gmail.com

More In: Comment | Opinion