The Leveson report on the British press should jolt the Indian media into acting against ills such as paid news, and focus on being an agent of progressive social change

After an inquiry lasting a year, Lord Justice Leveson has delivered a damning verdict on the decades of “outrageous” behaviour by the media. If anything, this verdict would apply in even greater force to a large section (not all) of the Indian media which has since long been shamelessly indulging in malpractices — paid news, the Radia tapes, and even blackmail and extortion.

The Zee exposure is only the tip of an iceberg. Lord Justice Leveson in his report has said that malpractices in the media are not aberrations but common practices. This comment applies equally to a large section of the Indian media, though it must also be said that there are many upright and excellent journalists in India.

Lord Justice Leveson has said that: a section of the media acted as if its own ethical code simply did not exist; it “wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people”; there has been “reckless disregard for accuracy.”

Paid news

Everyone knows that paid news is rampant in India, but when the two-member committee (of Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and K. Sreenivas Reddy) set up by the Press Council submitted a damning 72-page report, it was shamelessly sought to be suppressed at the instance of some members of the Press Council (before I became its Chairman). The first thing I did on becoming Chairman was to place the report on the Press Council’s website.

Madhu Kishwar, a senior journalist, said on Rajya Sabha TV that many media people can be bribed and manipulated. The huge salaries which many top media people get (some are said to get packages worth several crores annually, often linked with TRP ratings) enable such media people to lead fancy lifestyles with huge cars, houses and bank balances, thereby making many of them (not all) docile hirelings of their corporate masters.

Need for regulator

Lord Justice Leveson has called for the setting up of an independent statutory regulator of the media, which is precisely what I have been pleading for since long. However I have clarified that: 1. I want regulation, not control, of the media, the difference between the two being that whereas in control there is no freedom, in regulation there is freedom but subject to reasonable restrictions in the public interest. 2. This regulation should not be by the government or any individual but by an independent statutory authority (which can be called the Media Council) and 3. Most of the members of the proposed Media Council (which should have representatives from the broadcast media also on it) should be mediapersons, not appointed by the government but elected by media organisations.

This media council should have punitive powers including the power to suspend licences and impose fines, but such punishment should be given by the majority decision of the Media Council, and not by the chairman alone. This is really a form of self-regulation and judgment by one’s peers (as is done by the Bar Council).

Some mediapersons have quoted Jefferson who said that if he had to choose between a government without a free press or a free press without a government, he would choose the latter. While I have great respect for Jefferson, I regret I cannot accept this statement, for two reasons. First, if there is no government there would be anarchy, and a free press cannot exist in an anarchy.

Second, in a democracy, the media must help people in their struggle for a better life. Therefore, freedom of the media by itself has no value. It has value if it helps people secure better lives. If the media uses its freedom to perpetuate poverty and other social evils like casteism, communalism and superstitions by propagating backward ideas, should we permit such freedom? Certainly not. Therefore, freedom of the media is a good thing only if it helps to raise the standard of living of the masses, and this it can do by spreading rational and scientific ideas and combating backward and feudal ideas like casteism and communalism.

Voice of the future

Historically, the media arose in western Europe as an organ of the people against feudal oppression in the 17th and 18th centuries. At that time, all the organs of power were in the hands of feudal authorities (kings, aristocrats, etc). Hence the people had to create new organs which could represent their interests. The media (which was then only the print media) was a powerful organ created by the people. In Europe and America it represented the voice of the future, in contrast to the feudal organs which wanted to preserve the status quo. Everyone knows of the great role played by Voltaire, Rousseau, Thomas Paine, John Wilkes and Junius who fought against feudal oppression, and helped greatly in the transformation of feudal Europe to modern Europe.

In my opinion, the Indian media should also play such a role. Today the Indian people are suffering terribly from massive poverty, unemployment, skyrocketing prices, an absence of health care and good education for the masses. The Indian media should help our country abolish these great evils, the way the European media did. Only then will it win the respect of the people.

Some people have misunderstood me and thought that I wish to gag or muzzle the media at the behest of the government. The truth is that I have always been fighting for media freedom, as my track record shows. However, I have also been saying that the media must act responsibly, particularly in a poor country like India.

No freedom can be absolute. Man is a social being, as Aristotle said. Hence freedom cannot go to the extent of damaging society, because in turn, we will be damaging ourselves.

(Justice Markandey Katju is Chairman, Press Council of India.)

Keywords: Leveson report

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