May 30, 2020
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Freedom Must Be Earned

The media has to accept that a regulatory mechanism has become necessary. This is best done from within before outside forces interfere

Freedom Must Be Earned
Freedom Must Be Earned

Imagine India without its media. Suresh Kalmadi would be circling the globe organising the Delhi Olympics. Bundles of currency notes would not have made a spectacle in Parliament. No minister would be in jail. VIP sons who shoot bar girls dead and police bosses who rape under-age girls and then drive them to suicide would be roaming free, their hobbies undisturbed. Cricket-fixing, money-laundering, pesticide poisoning, Swiss bank accounts, they would all remain strictly in the private domain. In short, the country would be at peace and all would be well—for the few who rule India.

The many who are ruled, however, would not want such an India. The media has been their accessible lifeline, giving them information that makes life meaningful and the opportunities to fight for a healthier India. In turn, this gave the media a chance to inspire and lead, to play a nation-building role and set an example in handling social responsibility with maturity and vision. Here the media failed.

And here, let it be understood, the media means the television news media.

In India’s current situation, the difference between print and visual media cannot be over-emphasised. It’s not just oranges and apples. It’s more like Greek and Mongol civilisations. Print, when it was alone in the field, acquitted itself reasonably well, the black sheep remained identifiable as black sheep. In TV journalism, there is so much muck flying about that black sometimes looks grey while white sometimes looks blue and sometimes like Cheshire cats. The Justice Markandeya Katju-triggered quake’s epicentre is undoubtedly in journalism of the channel kind.

Justice Katju overstated his case, but there’s no denying his core point—that the media runs after the trivial and the divisive while ignoring real issues. The main reason for this is a recent trend of seeing news as a commercial product to be traded for profit. In print, this remained in isolated pockets. In TV, news commodification developed a generic character leading to the dumbing down of the medium as a whole.

Other problems piled up on top of this: Competitive boasting, anchor egos, a blurred border between freedom and licence. When anchors claim an interview to be exclusive although the same interviewee is appearing in all the channels the same night; when the anchor thrusts himself/herself arrogantly forward as the show’s star; when that strange animal called party spokesperson appears again and again saying the most predictable inanities; when anchors shout about what India wants to know tonight and deliver lectures that stretch the concept of freedom of expression to its limits, it is the concept of freedom of expression that takes a hit.

Freedom must be earned. By overdoing things, the media lost its moral power. It has no one to blame but itself.

The government is itching to step in. A government which had refused to recognise public disgust at corruption and attributed the Anna Hazare movement to media mischief. These “elected representatives of the people” would love to do their things unwatched by the people. Regulations that put the government in the driver’s seat will make a bad situation worse. Unfortunately, the solutions Justice Katju suggests—such as punitive powers for an enlarged Press Council—will only play into the hands of the government. Organisations like the News Broadcasting Standards Authority and the Indian Broadcasting Federation, hastily put together to give an impression of self-regulation, have proved useless. None of them had teeth anyway.

The media has to accept that a regulatory mechanism has become necessary. This is best done from within before outside forces interfere. If architects, nurses and agriculturists can have their own professional organisations, it should be possible for journalists to have one that would be more than decorative. Perhaps Justice Katju can put his present assignment to best use by helping device a system like the Bar Council, run by professionals subject to statutory rules and vested with statutory powers which include procedures for disciplinary action. There must of course be provisions to prevent the disasters that overtook the Indian Federation of Working Journalists and the Medical Council of India. The government’s role must be limited to passing helpful legislation that would, for example, discourage growth of monopolies and make corrupt practices like paid news cognisable offences.

Ultimately, though, there is no substitute to promoting a public service broadcasting system that would give the people a choice. Since this would be a body of professionals and run on a non-profit basis, tax and other benefits to make it viable would be justified. Untrammelled by commercial pressures and vested interests, such a service would purvey news with detachment and thereby win viewer confidence. We live in a competitive world and one way to beat commercial competition is through competition that puts professional excellence above everything else.

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