Media self-regulation has failed: Ansari

New Delhi, 16/11/2011: (from left) Vice President Hamid Ansari; Union I&B Minister Ambika Soni, Justice Markandey Katju, Members of parliament Prakash Jawdekar and Rajiv Shukla alongwith Chairman, Press Council of India at a function to mark National Press Day, in New Delhi on November 16, 2011. Photo: V.V. Krishnan   | Photo Credit: V_V_Krishnan

Vice President Hamid Ansari has come out in favour of a media regulation framework, agreeing with Press Council Chairman Justice Markandey Katju that self-regulation has failed.

“Collective self-regulation has yet to succeed in substantive measure because it is neither universal nor enforceable. Individual self-regulation has also failed due to personal predilection and the prevailing of personal interest over public interest,” said Mr. Ansari.

He was speaking on the occasion of National Press Day at an event presided over by Justice Katju, who has recently raised the hackles of television news channels by asking the government to include them under the regulatory umbrella of the Press Council. The broadcast media, on the other hand, has been insisting that its efforts of self-regulation are sufficient, with any further governmental oversight amounting to an attack on the freedom of the press.

Mr. Ansari questioned whether such freedoms were being manipulated by media companies for their own purposes. “Can the constitutional safeguards on freedom of speech be used to evade regulation of the commercial persona of media corporates and groups? Where does public interest end and private interest begin?” he asked.

Involve all stakeholders

Pointing to the experience of developed nations such as the U.S., U.K., and Australia, Mr. Ansari indicated that a comprehensive regulatory framework was essential. The ongoing national debate on the subject should involve all stakeholders, lead to the publication of a white paper and help evolve a national consensus on the shape of such a framework, “combining voluntary initiative, executive regulation and legislative action”, he said.

Justice Katju also dismissed the idea of mere self-regulation. “There has to be some outside regulatory mechanism. You can't say there will be self-regulation, that means nothing,” he said, pointing out that every other profession – medicine, law, education – faced independent regulation. Even politicians would ask why they needed a Lokpal if self-regulation was sufficient, he said. “You alone are saints and everyone else are sinners? Then what is this paid news, what is the Niira Radia tapes?” he asked.

You cannot escape it

If television channels were unhappy with the idea of coming under the authority of the Press Council – “because the current Chairman is a very undesirable and wicked person” – then they were free to come under a different framework, but they could not escape regulation entirely, he said.

Participating in a panel discussion at the event, several senior journalists also agreed that the time had come for a media regulator. “We need some kind of disciplinary authority. Self-regulation alone does not work,” said The Hindu’s Editor-in-Chief N. Ram.

“I don’t want government advertisements to be withheld, I don’t want channels to be taken off air, but there must be some sort of fine, some sort of sanction…not just a censure that can be buried in a corner of the paper,” said Mr. Ram, adding that the threshold of prima facie evidence must be raised simultaneously to prevent arbitrary action by a regulator.

'Media is jittery'

Indian Institute of Mass Communication director general Sunit Tandon felt that previous experiences made the Indian media jittery of outside regulation. “We have been scarred by the experience of the Emergency and so we fear any form of regulation,” he said. “But every stable democracy has mechanisms for media regulation…The media cannot claim press freedom when their own credibility is so endangered.”

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