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Content and discontent

The kindest thing that you can say about the ‘content code’ is that it is ill-conceived. At its worst, it will be insidious and dangerous, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Aug 04, 2007 06:03 IST

The irony is entirely befitting. Just as India marks 60 years as an independent, secular democracy, the government is getting ready to strangle some of us into silence. A preposterous and utterly puerile ‘content code’ to regulate television has been sanctioned by an otherwise affable Minister for Information and Broadcasting. Though when you think about it, this is the same ministry that put the release of the Da Vinci Code on hold till the Church’s self-anointed angels gave their blessings. Fashion TV and AXN were pulled off the air with alacrity by morality minders in the ministry on grounds of “indecency”. And Priyo-da has often said that he stays up late at night to personally monitor television content. I suppose he thinks we should be grateful that we have an official chaperone.

Now, if the government gets its way, the minister won’t need to keep an owl-like watch every evening. The ingenuous authors of the ‘content code’ seem to think news and current affairs should be treated the same way pornography is. The new rules recommend that certain kinds of news programming only be allowed for “late-night viewing”. Obviously, it hasn’t struck the anachronistic censors that the internet has already changed all the old rules. So, your 14-year-old may not get to watch ‘adult-rated’ news on the telly. But he literally has the world in the palm of his hand anyway, so what does he care?

Some of the other proposals are even more ominous. News broadcasts, argues the ‘content code’, will have to be “in the interest of the nation”. National security is that old rabbit that’s pulled out of the hat every time politicians run out of other tricks to keep you in check. They throw the phrase in your face, to make you feel guilty of treason. Most of us in the media are, by and large, sentimental about our national identity, but comfortable enough in our skins as Indians, to be deeply self-critical. The problem arises when loyalty to India gets mixed up with loyalty to the government of the day.

So, does a report on separatist sentiment in Kashmir defy ‘national interest’? Does exposing the barbaric hand of different political parties in communal riots make us ‘anti-national’? When we telecast footage of caste violence in the villages of Rajasthan, and get angry phone calls from sarkari sleuths asking us to “tone it down”, national interest is always the excuse they use.

Television has imposed a microscopic and relentless scrutiny of all our public institutions. Middle-class campaigns for justice have set sail from the shores of news studios. Even our most trenchant critics give the industry credit for converting a passive apolitical people into self-assured activists (sometimes irritatingly so!). And yet, the ‘content code’ demands that news should not “jeopardise any ongoing criminal investigation” and must avoid a “trial by media”. Is this a subtle allusion to stories like the BMW sting, the campaign for Jessica Lall and the hard-hitting reports against the child murderers of Nithari?

Not surprisingly, the ‘content code’ does not permit broadcasters to telecast any material that “casts aspersions against the integrity of the President or the judiciary”. So what happens if the Bombay High Court makes an observation against the new resident of Rashtrapati Bhavan? Is the media expected to remain silent and look the other way in some twisted variation of Gandhigiri? What if journalists uncover evidence, through sting operations or otherwise, of corruption in the judiciary? The recent judgment against Zee News for attempting such an exposé is already a matter of concern. With this ‘content code’ in place, it will be virtually impossible to report against judges, no matter how serious the charge.

The kindest thing that you can say about the ‘content code’ is that it is ill-conceived. At its worst, it will be insidious and dangerous.

It’s quite obvious to anyone with a brain, that public concern has been used by the ministry as an easy excuse for malevolent manipulation of media freedom.

But, all of us who work in the television business also need to confront a horrible, inescapable truth. Journalists may be mad as hell at the government’s attempt to control us. But ordinary people aren’t nearly quite as worked up. Why has there not been a spontaneous outburst of support for us? Partly, it’s because the ‘content code’ is an extremely technical document that hasn’t made its way into the public domain yet. But I suspect it’s also because our viewers are beginning to weary of some of the nonsense they see on their television screens.

The distinction between the Hindi and English news universe is especially distressing. Why do Hindi news channels assume that their viewers are keener on talk-show hosts who dress and look like criminals (as LK Advani famously remarked at the recent Ramnath Goenka debate) or sleazy seductresses? What kind of hideous class assumptions determine that sex, obscurantism, superstitions, faith healers and reincarnations are all that the Hindi-speaking viewer is interested in? And if these channels are determined to produce the television equivalent of a gossip rag, why do they get to exist in the world of news? Let them apply for citizenship to the glossy, easy-viewing zone of entertainment instead.

And yet, in this raging argument over media freedom, how many of us are willing to travel into that lost land called the middle-ground? Somewhere between the unacceptable attempt by politicians to muzzle the media and the shrill protests by irate broadcasters, is a different debate altogether.

Has the time come for the television industry to regulate itself? Do we need an ombudsman or an independent body of people we trust and respect to keep us sane and decent? The answer to that must be in the affirmative.

But does the government have any business playing conscience-keeper? Absolutely not.

This week, the BBC sacked news executives who orchestrated a few phone-ins on an interactive show. It also took action against the editorial heads responsible for mucking up a visual sequence in a documentary on the Queen of England. Mistakes that would be considered innocuous in India cost the BBC a serious dent in its credibility.

We need to raise our standards to that level of accountability before we can get completely self-righteous.

We need to tell the government to get out of our space. But we also need to be open to the same scrutiny we subject everyone else to.

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7