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Media bodies

Toothless tigers?


SANJAY KUMAR SRIVASTAVA | New Delhi, April 26, 2012 17:40
Tags : Media bodies | toothless tigers? |


Media regulatory organisations, unions and associations have failed to intervene positively to resolve challenges faced by the fourth estate from time to time. Can these ever become effective? By Sanjay Kumar Srivastava
The winds of economic liberalisation brought with them elements of the market economy that have changed the DNA of Indian media organisations, said Hamid Ansari, Vice President, India. Nearly half a dozen media regulatory bodies and dozens of journalists associations do not seem to be doing any good to the image of the media in the country. Media in fact is behaving like an unleashed watchdog. Press Council of India, Editor’s Guild of India, News Broadcasters Association, Editor’s Conference, Electronic Media Monitoring Centre – the list of media regulatory bodies is endless. These bodies preach good conduct and unbiased journalism and are responsible to ensure the implementation of such code of conduct. Still there is no control on the content and sanctity of media reports. Journalist unions such as National Union of Journalists, Indian Federation of Working Journalists, Delhi Union of Journalists et al claim to work for the protection of journalists’ rights. However most journalists are no better than unorganised skilled labourers.
Apart from these regulatory bodies and unions, there are several other media organisations such as Press Institute of India, Indian Language Newspapers Association (ILNA), Indian Federation of Small & Medium Newspapers, Association of Small Newspapers of India that find it difficult to live up to the expectations. Under such circumstances, the very reason of their existence is questionable. All that they are known for is the time period for which they have been in existence. Some have been around for two decades and some for five. They keep coming out with their statements every now and then. Whether such statements make any difference or not is another question.
Let us take some examples to understand the effectiveness of these so called regulatory bodies. To begin with, Swatantra Bharat – a regional Hindi daily – published a news on November 4, 1990 with the headline “Ayodhya mein... Kar sewakon par firing – 115 mare, darjanon ghayal”. The paper had originally been given a figure of 15 dead on November 2 but at the last moment: ‘one’ was changed to‘115’. The item remained credited to the news agency ‘Univarta’ even after this change. A complaint regarding this was sent to the Press Council of India (PCI) but no effective action was taken against the said newspaper. Several years after that incident, complaints regarding paid news are still reported and tapes like that of Nira Radia are still unearthed, but once inside the four walls of PCI, they meet the same fate. Thousands of other complaints have been dealt with similar laxity. The PCI merely criticised the issues and wrapped them up.
In 2009, the issues of paid news, private treaty and media net came into light. It was said that media was selling both news and its self respect. The issue was a serious one but the stakeholders showed little concern. Journalist unions said that the true essence of journalism was maligned, however, they also expressed their helplessness in the same breath. They said that the government, the PCI and the election commission are the ones that could do something about it. The government said that it does not want to do anything that goes against freedom of press in the country. The Election Commission said that the political parties did not complain to them and it is the legislative bodies’ job to make and implement laws that govern the media. Under tremendous pressure, the PCI formed a two-member committee to look into the matter. It included Paranjoy Guha-Thakurta and Srinivas Reddy. The committee came up with a 71-page report titled “How corruption in the Indian media undermines democracy”. The representatives of media houses opposed the idea of making this report public and they succeeded in doing so. Finally, a shorter version (12-page) of the report was furnished. It was to be made public on the Internet but that never happened.
On being questioned about the role of regulatory bodies, Guha-Thakurta (a former member of the PCI) said, that “The PCI is a quasi-judicial authority that has no powers at all. It is not even a toothless tiger. It is a toothless tiger that cannot even growl. At best, the PCI can issue strictures or reprimand people. For TV we have self-regulatory bodies like the News Broadcasters Association (NBA). In the famous instance of Farhana Ali vs India TV, the television channel picked up Farhana Ali’s statement from Reuters (without acknowledgement), took her picture from the Internet and added a voice-over in Hindi to make it appear as if she had given a telephonic interview to the channel. The ethics panel of the NBA headed by Justice J. S. Verma (former Chief Justice of India) suo motu (or ex-parte) fined the channel Rs.1 lakh and asked the channel to run an apology on prime time. “I
believe that the I&B Ministry too does not have effective regulations for television and the Department of Information Technology is trying to control content on the Internet in a ham-handed manner,” he says. So what is the solution to this situation? Guha-Thakurta said, “It is an issue for a wider debate. The government has to come up with feasible solutions.” 
Pradeep Mathur, a former Editor of The Pioneer and former head of IIMC, says, “Most office bearers and members of such regulatory bodies are inefficient and unsuccessful journalists. PCI is headed by a former judge, who has no experience of the media.” Mathur recalls an incident when he had to appear before a jury of PCI. He was surprised to see that the jury included a gentleman who was initially a teleprinter operator and was eventually promoted to be a reporter. Two other members of the jury had met Mathur for their job interviews years ago. Mathur says, “Even the Editor’s Guild of India is full of journalists who are good only for issuing statements. There is a bunch of pro-promoter editors in the guild and they do everything to make life easier for their bosses. Credibility and transparency of the media is their last priority.”
Today, when media is facing even bigger challenges in the form of the Internet, new media, market, recession, globalisation and convergence, it becomes all the more important to ensure that these regulatory bodies and associations do what they are expected to do. However, this task is not that easy. One has to realise and accept the fact that media houses raise money from the market and they cannot turn their back on stakeholders that drive this market. It would be an ostrich-act to not accept a newspaper or a television channel or a news portal as a product. Yes, they may not be kept in the same category as FMCG products but the approach needs to change. Journalists would need to ensure quality of the content and add as much value as possible. 
The consumer of the content needs to be given due importance. The consumer must be provided with the kind of meaningful content he/she needs and not what the so-called researches claim. Media organisations need to take care of the social responsibility aspect as well. 
The regulatory bodies and the journalist associations would be very helpful in doing so if they have efficient members and office bearers who are given the required authority. However, the present scenario the absolute opposite. We see television channels airing press conferences where police officials give out names of rape victims. Even print media is not sincere about the quality of content. 
A book titled “Media Monitoring in Asia” published by the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre says that media monitoring in India is not up to the mark. Probably, that’s why Noam Chomsky said in an interview, “Media subdues the public. It’s so in India, certainly.” All these issues can be solved only when sincere efforts are made. The solution will have to come from within the media. Else, media will be reduced from being the Fourth Estate to a mere vendor of content. Hope, someone realises that soon. 
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017