SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Towards a common code

Unregulated growth…

Unregulated growth…   | Photo Credit: PHOTO: KAMAL NARANG

SEVANTI NINAN

The formation of a regulatory body for TV channels raises more questions than answers.

Taming the wilder elements in television news has become enough of a civil society concern for a panel of diverse professionals to lend their names to a regulatory exercise being attempted by the News Broadcasters Association. Eleven years after the government first introduced a bill to attempt regulation for the television industry as a whole, and got nowhere, we now have something in place that will function as a news broadcasting industry ombudsman. Its members are a combination of acceptable, people-like-us eminences, and editors of some channels that are habitual offenders, topped off by a former Chief Justice of India, J.S. Verma. All male. Together they are expected to validate an exercise which will keep the government or courts off the backs of the TV news industry.

Filing a complaint before the commission is going to be rather more expensive, long drawn out and complicated than filing let’s say, a right to information application. The fee is Rs. 1,000 per complaint, and “the Authority shall also have the power to impose costs not exceeding Rs. 10,000/- (Rupees Ten Thousand Only) in favour of or against complainants.” First the complaint has to be made to the channel which is given 30 days to respond. Only then, if not satisfied with their response, can you persist with complaining to the regulatory authority, and within a month, because there is a 60 day outer limit. If they think there is not enough ground for holding an inquiry, they can refuse to admit it. They will proceed if they think it is in the public interest, and give the organisation a chance to reply.

Elaborate measures

Apart from the above, frivolous complaints are discouraged by insisting that the complainant provide complete details of the offending broadcast including its text, “state in what manner the broadcast violates or offends against the Code of Conduct and/or is otherwise objectionable”, enclose evidence that complaint has already been made to the broadcaster, and explain why its response is unsatisfactory. The complainant also has to append to the application a declaration certifying that the facts are correct and that the matter is not a subject of any proceedings pending in any court of law.

So what exactly are the code of ethics and broadcasting standards that we can expect this body to implement? What their published document describes as “the broad paradigms accepted by the members of the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) as practice and procedures that would help journalists of electronic media to adhere to the highest possible standards of public service and integrity?”

Well, here are the issues on which they hope to lay down standards of compliance: impartiality and objectivity in reporting, ensuring neutrality, reporting on crime and safeguards to ensure crime and violence are not glorified, depiction of violence or intimidation against women and children, sex and nudity, norms regarding issues of privacy, endangering national security, refraining from advocating or encouraging superstition and occultism, and sting operations. Additionally, they will expect the channels to correct mistakes promptly and facilitate viewer feedback.

Acting on its own

The question is, how much does this body intend to do suo moto, even if complaints are slow to come, and are few and far between? There are crime shows on air on news channels that would pretty much go out of the window if some of these standards were to be adhered to. As for the superstition and occultism bit, will someone keep a daily log of what passes for news on Star News, India TV and News 24, two of which have their editors on the regulatory body?

And how about expecting channels to scroll some of these norms on a daily basis, even as they habitually air violations of the code? How are people to know that all this is no longer kosher?

Then there is the very basic issue of nomenclature. What constitutes news? Hasonge ya Phasoge, Gudgudi and other evening laughter shows? Evening prime time shows on how a reincarnated man intends to take revenge on those who killed him in his last birth? (India TV, October 6). Crime shows? How about the range of Arushi murder spinoffs, such as running any videos anyone might have made back in the past of the girl, or a reporter standing on the roof a neighbouring house and conducting a soliloquy on the mobile phone tower and how much it knows about the case? Apparently TAM Media Research now has a categorisation for channels depending on what percentage of their content is actually straight news. Will the new authority consider making recommendations to the government on what to do about channels whose content for much of the day does not remotely resemble news?

Assuming a complaint against a channel is upheld on any of the specified counts. What is the maximum punishment? A fine going up to Rs. one lakh, and the possibility of recommending action against the channel to the government.

It will be interesting to see what sort of case law eventually emerges from this initiative. What, if any, is the responsibility of news channels in the matter of running live with whatever the police release to them? When they shriek about the latest mastermind one week will they be obliged to apologise on air when the police change their minds the following week? How will they respond when the cops say with a straight face as they just did, that Toqueer, who was alleged to be behind the Delhi blasts’ terror email, was a media creation?



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