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The case against over-zealousness

Some regulation of television is warranted. The purpose should be to ensure accuracy, authenticity, objectivity, fairness and, of course, observance of the law including libel, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Jul 28, 2007 23:11 IST

I have been perusing the Government’s proposed content code for television and I’m baffled. My conclusion is that such codes are damnably difficult to devise and bureaucrats are the wrong people to try. But let me not race ahead of myself. To begin with, we need to accept a few simple facts.

First, some regulation of television is warranted. Second, the purpose should be to ensure accuracy, authenticity, objectivity, fairness and, of course, observance of the law including libel. Third, we all understand what those terms mean but any attempt to closely define how to achieve them inevitably leads to confusion, if not controversy. Fourth, we all want the highest standards for our media. Fifth, we all instinctively know and recognise when these are not met. And sixth, an effective but simple mechanism for redressal, which is independent but understanding, must exist.

The question is how should this be implemented? You could leave it to editors and proprietors because they are most concerned when their channels transgress. Or you could leave it to the courts, who aggrieved individuals have every right to petition. The danger is when the government steps in and takes on the task itself. Of course this has been done in several western democracies. Britain is the one I know best. There the stress is on light regulation, easy, simple and unobtrusive, and largely left to commonsense guided by the accepted though changing mores of the times.

The Government of India has devised a content code that is the opposite. It’s detailed and explicit and therefore its confusing, if not also meaningless. At times its so narrow it could endanger journalism. At others it’s so broad it virtually says nothing useful at all.

Let’s consider a few examples. The code defines nine themes which, as far as I can tell, are areas where special care is needed. Theme 5 is ‘libel, slander and defamation’. It says: “the subject-matter treatment … shall not in any way defame or malign any individual”. According to the Oxford dictionary ‘defame’ or ‘malign’ means speaking-ill of someone or attacking their good reputation. So are exposes banned? They, of necessity, defame or malign.

The same theme also says you can’t “present a distorted picture of reality by over-emphasis or under-playing certain aspects that may trivialise or sensationalise the content”. This sentence itself demands interpretation. What’s over-emphasis or under-playing? And who is to decide? And when does this trivialize or sensationalize? Would putting an item into a headline be considered over-emphasis? Would that be sensationalization?

In the week that Pratibha Patil is sworn-in as President, I’m particularly concerned about theme 9, which spells out general restrictions. According to this you can’t “in any manner cast aspersions against the integrity of the President”. Pray why? Would Watergate or the Monica Lewinsky revelations have been possible if such constraints applied in America? And if fresh evidence, clinching or otherwise, is forthcoming in one or more of the accusations Mrs. Patil faces, should it be deliberately withheld? Why would it be wrong to broadcast it?

Now turn to the specific guidelines for news and current affairs. Some of these are ludicrous: “(Do) not give undue prominence to the views and opinions of a particular person … on matters of political or industrial controversy and matters relating to current public policy.” So where does that leave ministers and the prime minister? Do we treat them on par with ordinary people even though they’re decision-makers?

Sometimes they’re not particularly helpful: “If an individual or organisation’s privacy is being infringed, and they ask that filming, recording or live broadcast be stopped, the Broadcast Service Provider (the channel) should do so unless its warranted to continue”. What does this mean? To take a personal example, if I persist with questioning Pamela Mountbatten about her mother’s love affair with Nehru and she objects, even though she’s written about it candidly in her book, do I stop and switch off the cameras or do I continue in the belief its warranted? And beyond that, do we, as Indians, have a right to know the truth about our first prime minister’s love affairs or is that invasion of a dead man’s privacy?

And sometimes the code is simply gobbledygook: “News should not jeoparadise the security of the nation and care should be taken that news broadcasts are in the interests of the nation.” Is someone somewhere scared of the news?

The folly lies in trying to be too explicit, in attempting to set rigid guidelines for flexible and changing situations, in trying to lay down the ethics and standards that apply as if it’s possible to do so in simple, straight-forward steps.

This is a bad effort, even at times a silly one. The Government needs to start all over again.