January 25, 2020
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Pressed For Justice

Thoughts about media norms

Pressed For Justice
Mass Media In Contemporary Society
By P.B. Sawant
Capital Foundation Society Rs 400; Pages: 220
THE Press Council, of which the author of this slender volume, Justice P.B. Sawant, is the chairman, is a relatively fledgling institution, established about 30 years ago. It was nearly snuffed out soon after its birth when it was embroiled in the case arising out of the removal of B.G. Verghese as editor of The Hindustan Times in 1975. The then Indira Gandhi government let it lapse after its term expired. Still, the revived council did not receive the public attention it has been enjoying in recent years under Justice Saw-ant's stewardship. The reason: he and his team have been steadfastly going about their task of safeguarding the freedom of the press against diverse threats and homing in on the central purpose of toning up professional standards.

Justice Sawant's speeches collected in this publication bear testimony not only to his professional approach to judging the role of the media, essentially newspapers and periodicals, but also to his ingrained commitment to freedom of expression. In the Larry King Show on CNN recently, there was a very interesting self-introspective discussion among senior American correspondents on what went wrong with their handling of the Lewinsky affair. As one of them put it, the race for ratings had driven them overboard.

In the absence of such an effort by even the large newspapers in our country, there is nobody to tell them, in Justice Sawant's words, that the 'rot' in the political system has been seeping into the Fourth Estate. To quote: "For the last few years commercialism has entered the press in a big way... That is why we see sensationalisation of news and events, encroachment on the privacy of individuals, blackmailing, character assassination, obscene and indecent pictures and language and so on and so forth." He has started with unearthing on behalf of the Press Council the nexus between money power and journalists through a probe into the 'bribes' which journalists received in the shape of subsidised housing, handouts from CMs' discretionary funds, etc.

About 800 complaints are received every year by the council, apparently very few touching on the evils listed by him. About a third of the complaints are by the newspapers and journalists against the authorities for encroachment on their functioning and the remaining two-thirds against the press by aggrieved consumers. The focus of the bulk of them is on professional lapses and breach of the code of ethics. This is the bread and butter job of the council which has over the years evolved a set of guidelines, or a code of conduct, for the press.

But now voices are being raised that the council is a paper tiger, lacking 'teeth'. The sceptics want the council armed with powers to penalise offending publications. Justice Sawant effectively answers the criticism: "The council has been devised and designed essentially as an internal regulatory mechanism of and by the press and its composition brings it out abundantly. Consequently, disapproval, warning, admonition and censure of newspapers, news agencies and journalists and strong observations against authorities are the only weapons in its armoury." Acting as a court of law with powers to hand down punishments will destroy the character of the council and also put it in the dock in courts of appeal. "The remedy will be worse than the disease."

As he sees it, the option can be between King Log and King Stork. If the publishers, editors and journalists "who have to respond positively" to the decisions of the council do not heed them, they may "invite an outside agency" to monitor their conduct. There are two aspects to the matter: the findings have to be scrupulously fair (and also seen to be fair), and the other newspapers and the community of journalists have to hammer them home if the offending publication defies the directions. The value of moral admonition has to be raised in the scale of punishments.

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