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Thursday, October 6, 2022

Do we need a media council?


Tags : Nation | Zee News | Congress | Coalgate scam |

Recently the nation was acutely perturbed when two senior editors and business heads from Zee News were arrested for unethical conduct, based on a complaint from Congress MP and industrialist Naveen Jindal. Jindal’s company alleged that the executives had demanded Rs 100 crore by way of advertisement money as a part of a quid pro quo deal for not airing negative news against the firm in connection with the Coalgate scam. This incident raised some pertinent questions like – should the electronic media be regulated by a media council? Should there not be some checks on the media so that they would not misuse their capacious powers?

These are very difficult questions as they cast aspersions on the very edifice upon which our democracy was built, that is the freedom of the press. Restrictions on the freedom of the press have generally been unpopular in India. Whenever an exasperated state tried to restrict press’ freedom, it met with stiff opposition and ultimately abject failure.

In numerous landmark cases like Romesh Thapar vs State of Madras, Brij Bhushan vs State of Delhi or Sakal Papers Limited vs Union of India, the judiciary held that restrictions on press freedom were unconstitutional. Patanjali Shastri, the erstwhile Chief Justice of India had observed in the Romesh Thapar case (which was one of the first cases concerning press freedom in the country) – “ Freedom of speech and of the press lay at the foundation of all democratic organisations, for without free political discussion no public education, so essential for the proper functioning of the process of popular government, is possible.”

While these were indeed landmark decisions that safeguarded the media as the fourth pillar of democracy and every citizen ought to proudly reminiscence about, we should desist from being elaborately solaced by the same. The moot question is – has the media lived up to its proud legacy? Unethical practices abound and numerous allegations are being made about the electronic media. The Press Council of India chairman Markandey Katju has been strongly advocating the setting up of a media council that would replace the present council that has proven to be inefficient in more occasions than one. This body would regulate the activities of both the print as well as the electronic media.

This can be done if the Press Council Act (1978) is amended. This hardly requires any verbal dexterity. The new body needs to possess punitive powers, otherwise it will be ineffectual. Only if licenses are cancelled will the broadcasters refrain from indulging in unethical practices. Most professions are regulated in a similar fashion. If a lawyer indulges in unethical practices, the Bar Council of India has every right to revoke his license.Why then, should we not hold the media to similar standards?

The existing Press Council could be expanded from the current 28 members to say 50 members, with equal representation for both the print and electronic media. This body could also consist of academics, writers and jurists of unimpeachable integrity, who will exert a moral authority in the council. Critics of this idea often raise the bogey of censorship and say that self regulation would suffice. However it is quite clear that self regulation is not working. Broadcasters have clearly crossed the threshold of ethical conduct on many occasions. This has piqued a disconsolate public.

There is a similar outrage in Britain over the misdemeanours of the media. It started when in July 2011, it was revealed that News of the World reporters had hacked the voicemail of a murder victim Milly Dowler. The public outrage forced British Prime Minister David Cameron to order a public inquiry of this scandal by a committee headed by Justice Leveson. The Leveson inquiry has exposed the nexus between the media and the police and also shed light on many other unethical dealings of the media.

Justice Leveson’s core suggestion is to replace the toothless Press Complaints Commission with a new “Board”, which would still be an independent body with more outsiders and possessing punitive powers to impose exacting fines (up to one million pounds). He has suggested that there needs to be a ‘verifying’ body which will check every three years if the board is performing well. There is also a concrete suggestion to make this body accessible to the poorer citizens who are victims of media capers.

We could learn a lot from the Leveson inquiry. A similar exercise can be carried out in India to see how best a media council can be established. This has to result in concrete measures which have the sanction of law. Mere embellishments would prove inadequate Thomas Jefferson once said “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.” A free press and protection of the right to freedom of expression are seminal in any vibrant democracy. Indian journalism has a proud legacy of exposing serious wrongdoing and for holding public bodies to account. This should not be besmirched by prosaic events. A media council will go a long way in extenuating the blemishes.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017