After he became the chairman of the Press Council of India last month, Justice Markandey Katju has been criticising the country’s media in several forums.
He has said, among other things, that the media focused on “non-issues” at the expense of “real” socio-economic problems that confronted the nation, such as poverty, unemployment and the lack of medical care; that it was divisive, especially along religious lines; that, instead of actively fostering a scientific temper among viewers and readers, it promoted superstition.
All this was because journalists’ intellectual levels are low, he said. “I have a poor opinion of most media people,” he said in an interview. “Frankly, I don’t think they have much knowledge of economic theory or political science or literature or philosophy.”
Simultaneously, he has been saying that the Council should be given more powers, including the right to regulate the electronic media.
There is some truth in what he has been saying about the media and it won’t be bad if his statements spark some introspection among journalists. But as several columns have pointed out, including one yesterday in HT, the media functions in a larger context; many of its defects are also to be found in other fields of activity and, indeed, in society at large.
Katju says that the media should rise above these defects and point the way, which is a noble aim, but there aren’t any quick fixes for this.
More important, however, Katju has not highlighted a fundamental, structural problem with the media, namely the fact that it has to depend so heavily on advertising for its revenue that this could dilute its autonomy. As I don’t tire of pointing out with regard to newspapers, readers in this country pay very little as cover price, much lower even than in countries such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan. If they were willing to pay more, newspapers would be less dependent on advertisers.
The question of regulation is also more complicated than he seems to suggest. His proposal to increase external regulation has many problems. It also has the potential to dilute the media’s autonomy. In any case, even with its current mandate, the Press Council does not have any real powers. Creating a regulatory body with teeth will produce yet another bureaucratic set-up in a country that already has so much red tape.
Some people have said that self-regulation is what will work. Whether it will, depends on what the specific mechanism will be. As I have pointed out before, a Readers’ Editor or ombudsman can be viewed as one channel of self-regulation.
Here again, readers play a crucial role. By deepening and widening their engagement with the newspaper, they can gradually become de facto watchdogs.