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Revisiting the question of regulation

Every once in a while the question of whether India needs a statutory regulatory body for its press comes to the surface of public discourse.

mumbai Updated: Dec 09, 2012 01:45 IST

Every once in a while the question of whether India needs a statutory regulatory body for its press comes to the surface of public discourse. Earlier this week, the chairman of the Press Council of India, Markandey Katju, once again argued that this country needed such a body. Ever since he took over as the Council’s chairman more than a year ago, Katju, a former judge of the Supreme Court, has been periodically saying that the Indian press needs an independent regulator. He did this on a television programme soon after he took over his current post, but only after criticising journalists for their shallow understanding of political economy, history and other social sciences and their lack of erudition, as some readers might recall!

If Katju wants a regulatory body, what is the status of the one that he heads? First constituted in 1966, it was created by the Press Council Act of 1965. This Act outlines many functions for the Council, including

n helping newspapers to maintain their independence,
n building a code of conduct for newspapers and journalists in accordance with high professional standards
n and ensuring that newspapers and journalists maintain high standards of public taste and foster a due sense of both the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

But the only real power on the ground that the Council has, as outlined in Section 14 and 15 of the Act, is the ability to censure.

At a function in Mangalore on Wednesday, Katju candidly admitted that many journalists did not even respond to the Council’s notices because they knew it had no punitive powers, such as being able to suspend publication licences for newspapers. (The electronic media in any case does not fall under the Council’s purview.)

Many senior journalists and commentators have strongly opposed regulation, viewing it as a thin end of the wedge of state control. Even though such a body would in theory be autonomous, they fear that it will come under the influence of the government of the day. Instead, they say, self-regulation is the best solution.

Katju believes opposition to his proposal is not rational and wants to organise a proper debate on the subject. Although I am wary about creating a regulator with statutory powers, I think having a debate would be a good idea.

It will take place at an interesting time, when the Leveson inquiry, set up by the British government to enquire into “the culture, practices and ethics of the press” has made a similar suggestion in its nearly 2,000-page report published on November 29. The inquiry was prompted by the revelation of widespread violations of media ethics in Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid, where journalists illegally listened to people’s phone messages, among other things.

The report’s key suggestion is that the UK replace its Press Complaints Commission — which like our Council is a toothless body — with a new Board. This Board will also be independent but will have more members and will be able to levy much higher fines, of up to £1m. Another body will check every couple of years that it is doing its job. The British prime minister does not agree with all of the report’s suggestions, but seems committed to setting up an independent body. “We agree with the central recommendation of the [Leveson] report, which is that you need a tough, independent regulatory body,” his spokesman told The Telegraph in the UK.

Katju is arguing for a 48-member statutory body, with equal representation for the print and electronic media and members elected like lawyers are to the Bar Council of India. His ideas are worth debating.