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No news is bad news

A news channel loses the right to be regarded as a news channel when it starts presenting genuine stories in a sensational and trivial manner, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Jul 29, 2007 08:54 IST

On Thursday, the Supreme Court finally took a stand on the contentious and controversial issue of television sting operations. The judges asked for an unconditional apology from a Zee News reporter who had conducted a sting operation seeking to reveal corruption in the lower judiciary. Asked the Chief Justice of India, “What public good has the reporter done? Prime facie, he has committed a serious crime.”

I do not want to go into the rights and wrongs of that particular case. And certainly, despite the tenor of the judgment, there is some merit in the argument offered by Arun Jaitley, counsel for Zee News, that the channel had first submitted the tapes of the sting operation to the judiciary and only then broadcast them. Jaitley argued that Zee News had behaved with responsibility and that the intention had not been to denigrate the judicial system.

No matter who you agree with — Jaitley or the Chief Justice — there is little doubt that the case will once again focus attention on the ethics of news television. Moreover, the judgment comes at a time when the Information and Broadcasting Ministry is circulating a draft Broadcasting Bill that many media professionals regard as going against the spirit of a free press.

The I&B minister has often asked for a debate on the role of the press and the limits to its freedom. But despite many rounds of discussions with broadcasters, no serious debate has taken place and no ethical guidelines have emerged.

As a journalist, I am bitterly opposed to any kind of governmental control on the media. I have written in this column about how disturbing it is that the I&B Ministry can simply ban TV channels if they transgress some bureaucrat’s sense of ‘decency’. And I have called for a regulator who maintains an arm’s length relationship from the political establishment and retains the respect of the media.

But I do believe that a genuine and robust debate is long overdue. There are many issues that need to be considered but, taking the Supreme Court judgment as a starting point, let’s focus on just two of them this Sunday.

The first is: when does a news channel lose the right to be regarded as a news channel? Anybody who has watched the staggering decline in quality on the Hindi news channels will know what I am talking about. So far, English news channels have not followed suit, but the trend is dangerous.

It began with the tabloid-isation of real news: genuine stories were presented in a sensational and trivial manner. Then, it went on to include an overturning of normal news priorities. If Rakhi Sawant alleges that a man has kissed her without permission, then this is a bigger story than, say, the nuclear deal, the presidential election or the death of hundreds of people in a natural disaster.

But now, it has gone even further. The Hindi news channels now cover ‘stories’ that would not normally be defined as news. Many of them run comedy programmes featuring stand-up comics who do not even bother to satirise the news (as, say, Poll Khol on Star News or Gustakhi Maaf on NDTV India do). Some even run largely fictional serials that would not be out of place on entertainment channels.

What news there is tends to be manufactured. Is there an outcry about bar girls? Great! That’s a perfect excuse for the channels to run a half-hour programme which consists of a bar girl dancing. Is a man’s wife objecting to his mistress? Terrific, let’s get them in the studio to fight for two hours.

Each time the issue is debated, the Hindi channels offer the same defence: it works. And that’s true. The ratings demonstrate that news channels that carry little or no news do significantly better than those that steer clear of entertainment.

Each time this argument is trotted out, most of us shake our heads sadly and say things like “It’s a business — these channels have to make money” or “What can the channels do if this is what viewers want?”

I have two responses to this. The first is that in a competitive market, the viewer will always call the shots. And so, if the channels are attracting viewers, then good for them. Except — and this is an important distinction — TRP figures alone do not give them the right to be regarded as news channels. To be considered a news channel, you need, self-evidently, to carry news programming.

Secondly, once you stop treating them as news channels, then their TRP figures are not terribly impressive. Star News may have as little to do with news as Star Plus, but Star Plus has millions more viewers. Treat the Hindi news channels as entertainment channels, then all they are is low-budget, reality-based versions of Sony, Star Plus and Zee TV — with ratings that aren’t even in the same league.

Why is the distinction significant? Well, because entertainment channels are not entitled to the freedoms traditionally guaranteed to the news media. Nobody at Star Plus talks about freedom of the press. But all news channels treat themselves as deserving of special consideration because they are journalistic enterprises.

The question that we in the media have to answer is this: why should we regard these reality-based, low-cost entertainment channels as being part of the news business? Ban AXN or Fashion TV and somebody like me may write one or two outraged articles, but most journalists don’t give a damn. But if the government tries to ban a news channel, just imagine how much of an uproar there would be about infringement of freedom of the press.

And yet, the arguments for the ban would be roughly the same. AXN and Fashion TV had violated public standards by running risqué material. Many news channels have violated the standards of our society by showing titillating programming, violent crimes and by encouraging primitive superstition because of their bizarre obsession with ghosts.

It is not my case that any news channel should be banned. I opposed the bans on AXN and Fashion TV, so I am not in favour of any bans. But my point is: are we prepared to let entertainment channels use the freedoms available to news media when they carry no real news?

Intertwined with the ethics of the Hindi news channels, is this whole business of sting operations. I confess to being confused about the rights and wrongs of stings. I am uneasy about hidden cameras and false moustaches. But I also take the point that, often, there are stories that can only be brought to light by using such methods.

Nevertheless, given how all-pervasive TV stings are, I think we now need to have some standards for the whole industry. I am not sure what these should be but here are some suggestions:

I think content is important. If a hidden camera reveals that lawyers are trying to bribe a witness, then this may well be in the public interest. But if the camera shows us that Shakti Kapoor is making a pass at a woman, then this is not necessarily in the public interest, no matter how much it interests the public.
Entrapment is a dangerous area. I am uncomfortable with channels that encourage people to break the law or to do things that they would not normally have done only so that the channel gets a story.
All journalists function on the basis of an on-the-record/off-the-record distinction. If sources are worried that what they say will be secretly taped or filmed, they will stop giving information to journalists. The Watergate scandal was broken because an FBI official leaked information to

The Washington Post

. If Deep Throat had believed that Bob Woodward was secretly filming him, he would never have spilt the beans, and Richard Nixon would have served out his full term.
There is a larger issue of individual privacy versus press freedom. We are willing to compromise on an individual’s right to privacy if we feel that it advances the public interest. But many stings are clearly not in the public interest or, even, within the domain of journalism as we know it. Why should ‘news’ channels be allowed to trample on individual privacy only because they misuse the principles of freedom of the press?

These are complicated issues, and none of us has all the answers. But it is imperative that journalists evolve some guidelines for ourselves.

The Broadcasting Bill acquires a certain bogus legitimacy because the government is within its rights to say that if the media do not have any standards, then somebody else should make the rules. Similarly, Zee News would have been on much stronger grounds if it had been able to tell the Supreme Court that there was a journalistic code of conduct and its behaviour fell within its limits.

Sooner or later, we in the media will find that governmental bodies will step in. And because we have done nothing about setting our own guidelines, we will be obliged to accept somebody else’s.

And if we do not regulate ourselves, then as the events of the last fortnight demonstrate, the government and the courts will do it for us.