An ombudsman for regulating the meadia

By Indranil Banerjea

 In India, private television channels have occasionally selectively mobilised public opinion, investigated crimes-corruption, political chicanery, and compelled speedy police inquiries, impartial judicial process, and speedy sentencing. The British tabloid press has been known for its ‘investigative’ journalism, not always on causes that make a difference to the people.

From the revelations about the News of the World and other such papers, they have taken their investigations to levels of intrusive and illegal invasions of privacy, and the bribing of policemen. We must be careful that the Indian competitive investigations and mobilisations of opinion by television media do not culminate in using similar methods.

Private new television channels are already on the boundary between reporting news and making it. They made the civil society’s battle against corruption a national event. Hazare and Ramdev would not otherwise have received the national attention they did. Television mobilised the public and compelled justice in Jessica Lal’s murder.

It was television that exposed the looting of national resources by officials of the Commonwealth Games, and by a cabinet minister in allocating telecom spectrum. But there were also the Arushi, Nithari and other crimes that television investigations trumpeted day in and out, without results. Television investigations can at best be highly selective. They are big city centred and middle class focused. They do little for rural or small town settings and the victims who are poor. This is because their audience sizes determine advertising revenues, and these are mostly the urban middle classes, like the reporters.

Maria Susairaj fitted this demographic. She was from Mysore, College educated, from a well-to-do family, pretty, a Kannada film actress with pretensions to Bollywood. She was tried and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for concealing evidence in the murder of Neeraj Grover. Television news channels frenziedly demanded stronger punishment since her companion Jerome was sentenced to 10- years.

They crossed the line between investigation and pushing their opinion. The court had heard both sides and scrutinised all the evidence. They will be tried again on appeals. The news channels should have let the law take its course instead of trying to influence it when more trials are due. The media should not become investigator, trial and appeal courts.

Bizarre discussions on television, where everybody was a prosecutor, lawyer and judge, after Susairaj was released, overstepped media’s role as purveyors of news and opinion. It crossed the Rubicon from media’s role as purveyor of public policy to judicial pronouncement.

Courts similarly crossed the line when pronouncing on public policy issues like globalisation, etc.

Print media in India, unlike the British and other tabloid papers, rarely cross this line. Tehelka is a meticulous investigative paper. One tabloid that did influence criminal justice was Blitz in 1959. Bhagwandas Ahuja was shot dead by his close friend Nanavati whose wife Sylvia was in an affair with Ahuja. Blitz, gained immense circulation from saturation coverage demanding Nanavati’s acquittal.(In a retrial Nanavati was sentenced to jail, and the jury trials were subsequently abolished).

Print media has not repeated this feat. Indian print (and television news) media need to take strong advocacy positions against cases like those of fake drugs, rape, especially of children, selling drugs without prescription, stealing entitlements from poor beneficiaries, etc. They rarely do.

Instead, they easily publicise selective leaks from investigating agencies like the Enforcement Directorate, CBI, police, and others, so tarnishing reputations of accused before trials. This and the phenomenon of “paid news” where print (and even television news) publish pre-arranged “news” for a fee, should be banned.

Media depends on advertising revenues. That is related to circulation or viewership. Print circulation does not change from hour to hour. Television brings immediacy to news and easy switching from channel to channel can dramatically change viewership from hour to hour. Their reaction is to have “breaking news,” not as an unusual exception but as norm. These days everything is “breaking.”

Profit from television news requires cut throat competition of the kind that ultimately shut down the News of The World in the UK when illegal methods were used to gather “news” If we are to avoid this inevitable result of present trends, they must be controlled.

Independent regulation of media content is vital; not self-regulation by the media themselves. Media have raised the bogey of government censorship. But regulating content should be not by government but a statutorily-appointed independent regulatory body and an appellate tribunal.

Self-regulation has been ineffective in India in every sphere where it exists (chartered accountants, medical practitioners, architects, company secretaries, etc, and national sports associations). Very rarely have self-regulatory bodies disciplined their members.

Similarly, self-regulating of content by the media bodies. Media owners will excuse one another’s offences. The United Kingdom is now talking of a strong Content Authority to oversee media practices and content. India must have an independent content regulator before media moghuls become so powerful that they are able to dictate terms to government and prevent it from effectively functioning in public interest. INAV

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