Press Council of India Chairman Markandey Katju along with criminal lawyer Majid Memon at Mumbai University function. HT photo/Kunal Patil
Justice Markandey Katju is in the news. His revelations about the distortions in appointing judges and the political pressures that often come into play are a serious indictment of the existing system.
The truth and timing of his allegations will continue to be debated, but this piece would like to focus on Justice Katju's official avatar. As chairperson of the Press Council of India (PCI), Katju's term is soon coming to an end. How will he be judged?
There is no doubt that Katju, through his public utterances, brought PCI - a toothless body capable of censuring media outlets at best and bringing out fact finding reports that no one ever quite reads - back into the public focus. But Katju showed remarkable lack of discretion and restraint in these utterances, thus diluting the value of even his more constructive interventions. He revealed a penchant for identifying the problem correctly, but his diagnosis was often disturbing.
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Katju's desire to immerse himself in all kinds of public debates - most of which had little to do with the media - also reduced his weight. The final problem was his selective approach with media-related cases, where he often did not stand up for the press against state authorities or did not use his PCI platform to initiate discussions on key issues related to the churning in the media.
Take this one by one.
Katju's pet theme was media regulation. He felt that self-regulation was no regulation, it had failed, and there was a need for PCI to be awarded more powers in cracking down on the media when it stepped out of line. He also wanted the broadcast media, particularly television news, to be brought under its ambit.
There is little doubt that media in India is facing a real credibility crisis. The hunger for TRPs has led to irresponsible and even dangerous reporting. Editorial filters have got diluted. And so Katju's point about the need for a corrective was and is right.
But he went overboard in his dismissal of self-regulatory mechanisms. There are such mechanisms which have partly worked. In the past few years, the News Broadcasters Standards Association (NBSA) dealing with news channels, and the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC) dealing with entertainment channels, have been effective in dealing with complaints. Both are industry bodies, channels have voluntarily submitted themselves to their authority.
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They are in their nascent stage, but provide a model which can be built upon. The problem with Katju's prescription is that it can become a tool in the hands of the state to suppress free press. He has sought to allay these apprehensions by saying it can be a media-dominated regulatory body but must have the 'power to punish'. But in a political culture like India, the regulator - if the government has a role in appointments - is often susceptible to playing games for the regime.
Katju's other pet theme was the supposed illiteracy and lack of skills of journalists and their tendency to sensationalise, their lack of understanding of broader issues and the media's role. What one can concede, once again, is that journalists are facing a credibility crisis. Many are reduced to stenographers of those in power; getting a sound byte is often seen as the ultimate skill for a TV reporter. But these are often a product of the larger structural crisis in the media and the editorial direction.
The real issue was Katju's prescription - that journalists must have to compulsorily study journalism before entering the profession, and like medicine and law, they must possess licenses to practice their craft. This betrayed a lack of understanding of the medium. Most of the world's best journalists have had no journalist degree. When journalists come forms diverse academic disciplines - economics, political science, history, anthropology, sciences- they add value and depth to a story.
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The biggest training ground for any reporter is the field, the newsroom, and with the right editors, this is where the learning is maximum. This is not to suggest that kids interested in the media should not go to journalism schools - they are increasingly doing so and this adds to their skills. But to make it compulsory, and regiment the profession like any other field that requires technical, specialised knowledge, would be a mistake.
Katju, to his credit, did bat for free expression. He took up the case of two young Mumbai women who were hauled up for their Facebook posts after Bal Thackeray's death. He spoke against the harassment of Delhi journalist Iftikar Gilani. He published a report on the state of the media in Bihar, where there were concerns that then chief minister Nitish Kumar had managed to silence critical elements in the media.
But it is also true that Katju often went quiet. When a resident editor of a national paper was facing state harassment in Hyderabad last year, Katju kept quiet. When there were repeated instances of news websites taking down articles - probably owing to political or corporate pressure - the PCI did not think it fit to comment.
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When there was large scale retrenchment in news organisations, PCI did not even initiate a discussion on the issue. Of course, media outlets are allowed to hire and fire depending on the contracts with employees. But in times of such intense media churning - changing ownership patterns, editorial purges - PCI could have been the platform to at least begin a conversation.
Instead, Katju went quiet since the middle of the last year. And he has now returned doing what he does best - talking about issues other than the media. He backed the government's stance on contentious issues; he continued to comment on Pakistan being a fake country which should reunite with India; his remark about the idiocy of 90% of Indians is still recalled. All these superficial comments only made Katju an object of mockery, and reduced his weight as the holder of a serious position.
Katju's current intervention has the potential to kick start a process of judicial reform. But when his term as PCI chief ends, he must be evaluated strictly on the basis of his role in office and contribution in expanding the space for free media. On that parameter, despite provocative suggestions, the retired judge does not quite pass with flying colours.