Need for regulation

Role of the media

Many newspapers and magazines in India played a notable role in moulding public opinion during the freedom struggle. India, unlike many countries, still has a growing print medium. Television, because of its immediacy and opening of the economy, has rapidly become the more powerful purveyor of news. The internet has yet to take off as a news medium but in time will become important.

The press has developed norms of behaviour — sometimes violated — over its long history. Television and the internet need such norms. All media need independent regulation when content is false, against social norms or the public interest.

The print medium has had a tradition of experienced editors, trained journalists, cross-checking of reports, separating news from opinion, and relatively balanced reporting. However, the growing dominance of the profit motive (dependent on size of circulation) has led to unethical practices by some newspapers. Some papers charge for publishing handouts, pictures of individuals, and favourable reporting. Some have lowered the status of the editor in relation to the marketing management. This has led to looser controls on news quality. But on the whole, print medium remains a bastion of balanced news reporting.

The print medium has in the past investigated and publicised social evils and unacceptable acts: the sale of women in ‘Kamla’, the Bhagalpur blindings by police, the exposures of the Jain havala, the Telgi fake stamp paper case, and now the expose of Madhu Koda that incriminated well-known politicians and bureaucrats, the Kuo oil scandal are some of the instances.

In a society in which the police are inefficient if not corrupt, the government prosecution very tardy and the judicial process painfully slow, these investigations are valuable in raising issues and bringing at least some cases to justice. However rarely is an exposure followed up over the years to show outcomes. This is necessary.

There are also avoidable mistakes — for example, in the allegations in print that the parents murdered teenager Arushi. But print has been a thorn in the flesh of errant officials. The Right to Information Act will only strengthen their efforts. But they do need conscientious reporters and good editors who insist on getting all reports verified.
Television unlike print is a relatively new medium. It has yet to develop the institutional arrangements, principles and the mores of print. The oldest, leaving aside the unadventurous Doordarshan, is NDTV, also the most objective.

Sting operations

Television lends itself better to ‘sting’ operations by which some public person is tempted before a hidden camera to commit acts that incriminate him. A sting can be protested as illegal. But if based on good information and exposes an evil, it serves a public purpose when the police investigations favour the rich and powerful.

There are a growing number of entertainment programmes that depict abhorrent social and illegal acts like marriages of under-18s, multiple spouses, etc. ‘Reality shows’ often allow vulgarity, obscenity and bad behaviour on screens in prime time when families including children, are watching. These must obviously be self-censored and if not, need external regulation.

Television reporting has also effectively exposed and pursued issues that have led to action against the rich and powerful —the Ansal cinema fire that killed many, the Nanda scion who killed people with his speeding BMW and tried to conceal his part in the killings, the Jessica Lall murder case by a politician’s son and his subsequent release on parole when many poor prisoners are not given parole, are only some instances in which television brought criminals to justice that they tried to escape from by misusing a corrupt  government system.

In our society which allows the rich and powerful much latitude and active help to escape consequences of their acts, the fourth estate has a socially responsible and necessary role. But the journalists who file the reports must be trained to be sure and have multiple checks to ensure veracity. Editors must ask questions and not merely accept a story as a ‘scoop’ or as ‘breaking news.’ Perhaps journalists must be professionally recognised. If they violate a code of ethics they might be disbarred. Media entities must be headed by professional and qualified editors, not businessmen or managers.

Self-regulation in India has been ineffective, as witnessed among accountants, doctors, architects, sports bodies, and others. It is invariably weak, slow and soft. An independent regulatory body that reviews content, lays down a code of behaviour, punishes violations of the code, functions with total transparency, wide consultations, and reasoning, is necessary for all the media and especially television.

This might help avoid the sorry instances of the past when for example, television reporters made mistakes in Kargil and during the 26/11 invasion of the Mumbai hotels and the CST railway station, by their reporting and put the lives of security people in danger.

Training, professional status for journalists in all media, professional editors, an independent regulator, codes of behaviour and ethics whose violations are punished are necessary if media is to play its vital role in our society.

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