‘I am a votary of liberty; my criticism of the media is aimed at making them better'

MARKANDEY KATJU: "All freedoms are subject to reasonable restrictions in the public interest, and are coupled with responsibilities."   | Photo Credit: S_S_Kumar

I have expressed my views relating to the media in several TV interviews I gave as well as in my articles in some newspapers. However, many people, including media people, wanted clarification and amplification of some of the issues I had raised. Since some controversy appears to have been raised about what I said, a clarification is in order.

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Today India is passing through a transitional period in our history, the transition being from feudal agricultural society to modern industrial society. This is a very painful and agonising period in history. The old feudal society is being uprooted and torn apart, but the new modern industrial society has not been fully and firmly established. Old values are crumbling, but new modern values have not yet been put in place. Everything is in flux, in turmoil. As Shakespeare said in Macbeth, “Fair is foul and foul is fair.”

If one studies the history of Europe from the 16th to the 19th centuries, when the transition from feudalism to modern society was taking place, one realises that this transitional period was full of turbulence, turmoil, wars, revolutions, chaos, social churning, and intellectual ferment. It was only after going through this fire that modern society emerged in Europe. India is presently going through that fire. We are going through a very painful period in our country's history, which, I guess, will last another 15 to 20 years. I wish this transition would take place painlessly and immediately but unfortunately that is not how history functions.

In this transition period, the role of ideas, and therefore of the media, becomes extremely important. At a particular historical juncture, ideas become a material force. For instance, the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity, and of religious freedom (secularism) became powerful material forces during the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, and particularly during the American and French Revolutions. In the age of transition in Europe, the media (which were only the print media at that time) played a great, historical role in the transformation of feudal Europe to modern Europe.

In my opinion, the Indian media too should play a progressive role similar to the one played by the European media [during that age of transition]. This it can do by attacking backward and feudal ideas and practices like casteism, communalism, superstitions, women's oppression, etc. and propagating modern, rational and scientific ideas, secularism, and tolerance. At one time, a section of our media played a great role in our country.

Manner of functioning

When I criticised the Indian media, and particularly the broadcast media, for not playing such a progressive and socially responsible role, I was furiously attacked by a section of the media for my views. Some even launched a personal attack on me saying that I was an agent of the government. When serious issues are raised about the functioning of the media, it was expected that those issues would be addressed seriously.

By criticising the media, I wanted to persuade them to change their manner of functioning — not that I wanted to destroy them. The Indian media have a historical role to play in the age of transition, and I wanted to remind media persons of their historical duty to the nation. Instead of taking my criticism in the correct spirit, a veritable diatribe was launched against me by a section of the media, which painted me as some kind of dictatorial monster.

More focus on entertainment

The media should regard me as their well-wisher. I criticised them because I wanted media persons to give up many of their defects and follow the path of honour which the European press was following, and which will give them the respect of the Indian people.

I mentioned that 80 per cent of our countrymen are living in horrible poverty; there is massive unemployment, skyrocketing prices, lack of medical care, education, etc. and barbaric social practices like honour killings, dowry deaths, caste oppression, and religious bigotry. Instead of seriously addressing these issues, 90 per cent of the coverage of our media goes to entertainment, for example, the lives of film stars, fashion parades, pop music, disco dancing, cricket, etc, or showing superstitions like astrology.

No doubt, the media should provide some entertainment also to the people. But if 90 per cent of their coverage is devoted to entertainment, and only 10 per cent to all the socio-economic issues put together, then the sense of priorities of the media has gone haywire. The real issues before the people are socio-economic, and the media are seeking to divert their attention to the non-issues like film stars, fashion parades, disco, pop, cricket, and so on. It is for this lack of a sense of priorities, and for showing superstitions, that I criticised the media.

What I said

One should not be afraid of criticism, nor should one resent it. People can criticise me as much as they like, I will not resent it, and maybe I will benefit from it. But similarly the media should not mind if I criticise them. My aim in doing so is to make them better media people.

While criticising, however, fairness requires that one should report the words of one's opponent accurately, without twisting or distorting them. That was the method used by our philosophers. They would first state the views of their opponent, in what was called as the ‘purvapaksha.' This was done with such accuracy and intellectual honesty that if the opponent were present, he could not have stated his views better. Thereafter it was sought to be refuted.

Unfortunately, this practice is often not followed by our media.

First, I did not make a statement about allmedia people but only of the majority. There are many media people for whom I have great respect. So I wish to clarify here that I did not paint the entire media with the same brush. Second, I did not say that this majority was uneducated or illiterate. This again was a deliberate distortion of what I said. I never used the word ‘uneducated.' I said that the majority is of a poor intellectual level. A person may have passed B.A. or M.A. but yet may be of a poor intellectual level.

I have again and again said in my articles, speeches, and TV interviews that I am not in favour of harsh measures against the media.

In a democracy, issues are ordinarily resolved by discussion, persuasion, consultation, and dialogue, and that is the method I prefer, rather than using harsh measures. If a channel or newspaper has done something wrong I would prefer to call the persons responsible and patiently explain to them that what they have done is not proper. I am sure that in 90 per cent or more cases that would be sufficient. I strongly believe that 90 per cent of people who are doing wrong things can be reformed and made good people.

It is only in extreme cases, which would only be about five to 10 per cent, that harsh measures would be required, and that too after repeated use of the democratic method has failed and the person proves incorrigible.

This statement of mine was again distorted and a false impression created that I wanted to impose emergency in the country. Cartoons were published in some newspapers showing me as some kind of dictator.

The truth is that I have always been a strong votary for liberty, and the proof of this is my judgments in the Supreme Court and the High Court in which I have consistently held that judges are guardians of the liberties of the citizens, and they will be failing in their duties if they do not uphold these liberties. However, liberty does not mean licence to do anything one wishes. All freedoms are subject to reasonable restrictions in the public interest, and are coupled with responsibilities.

We may now discuss the question of self-regulation.

Self-regulation by broadcast media

At present, there is no regulatory authority to cover the electronic media. The Press Council of India governs only the print media, and even in cases of violation of journalistic ethics by the latter, the only punishment that can be given is admonition or censure. I have written to the Prime Minister requesting him to initiate legislation to amend the Press Council Act by (1) bringing the electronic media also under the ambit of the Press Council, and (2) giving more teeth to the Press Council.

The electronic media have strongly opposed bringing them under the Press Council. Their claim is of self-regulation. But even Judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts do not have such an absolute right. They can be impeached by Parliament for misconduct. Lawyers are under the Bar Council of India, which can suspend or cancel their licence for professional misconduct. Doctors come under the Medical Council of India, which can suspend or cancel their licence. Auditors are in the same position. Why then are the electronic media shy of coming under any regulatory authority? Why these double standards? If they do not wish to come under the Press Council of India (because the present Chairman is a wicked and/or undesirable person) then the NBA (News Broadcasters Association), and BEA (Broadcast Editors Association) should indicate which regulatory authority they wish to come under. Are they willing to come under the proposed Lokpal? I have repeatedly raised this question in several newspapers, but my question has always been met either by stony silence on the part of the NBA and the BEA or by dismissing the very question as ‘irresponsible.'

TV news and shows have a large influence on a wide section of our public. Hence in my opinion, TV channels must also be made accountable to the public.

If the broadcast media insist on self-regulation, then by the same logic, politicians, bureaucrats, and so on must also be granted the right of self-regulation, instead of being placed under the Lokpal. Or do the broadcast media regard themselves so holy that nobody should regulate them except themselves? In that case, what is paid news, the Radia tapes, etc? Is that the work of saints?

In fact there is no such thing as self-regulation, which is an oxymoron. Everybody is accountable to the people in a democracy — and so are the media.

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Printable version | Oct 18, 2021 3:40:00 AM |

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