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Free press, not free-for-all

When information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari took office last year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ushered him in with a cautionary tale.

delhi Updated: Aug 15, 2013 23:53 IST
Zia Haq
Zia Haq
Hindustan Times

When information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari took office last year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ushered him in with a cautionary tale. Singh, Tewari recalls, told him the government’s relationship with the media had to be one about “persuasion, rather than regulation”. In other words, no playing big brother.

The Indian press is often touchy about rules, a fear implanted during the Emergency declared in 1975, when a censorious government hacked press freedom.

“This government doesn’t believe in imposing regulation on the media in any form. But the question is, why have our courts been constrained to raise issues with regard to media behaviour from time to time?” Tewari asks.

With a bewildering array of TV and radio channels, the line between the free media and a ‘free-for-all’ is sometimes a thin one.

The government now wants cross-party parliamentary discussions on Britain’s landmark Leveson Inquiry report on the “culture, practices and ethics of the press”.

Leveson, after probing the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World’s hacking of a murdered schoolgirl’s phone in 2012, recommended a tough new “independent regulatory body” backed by law.

India’s media business has changed vastly since 1990, when the cable era began. From just one state-owned broadcaster in 1959, there are over 850 now.

While the statutory Press Council of India regulates the print news media, TV is subject to self-regulation — they have their own oversight panels.

“The model of self-regulation may be clumsy but it has worked. But to strengthen the paradigm of self-regulation, we need to refine the models,” Tewari said at a recent discussion held by the think tank, Observer Research Foundation.

Self-regulation works only if channels are willing to sign up — they are not required to do so by law at present. So, of the 480-odd news channels, only a few have opted for regulation. The government wants a debate around whether the self-regulatory model should be underpinned by some kind of law.

“We need a self-regulatory mechanism, but one that is not voluntary but mandatory. We can’t have an opt-in or opt-out model. Once a television channel gets a licence, it must subject itself to regulation as per guidelines set by an independent regulatory body,” says Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief of news channel CNN-IBN.

Paid news, described as content paid for by a client, but not declared as such, is another menace. Cross-media ownership, in which the same proprietor may own the whole supply chain — broadcast to distribution — leading to an oligopoly-like situation also needs to be addressed.

India’s primetime news shows are the equivalent of blood sport. Hectoring anchors often pronounce people guilty or innocent. “The Tower of Babel becomes the Tower of London where people are hanged without even a trial,” Tewari says.

The government therefore wants the media to address the “tyranny” around television rating points, which are gleaned from just 10,000 meters in mostly urban TV homes. A proposed broadcast audience research council to bring transparency is still held up.

Justice (retired) Markandey Katju, chairman of the Press Council of India, points to a basic difference between regulation and control. “In control, there’s no freedom. In regulation, there is freedom,” he says. Talk of media regulation will still be tricky. But, almost miraculously, both the media and the government agree on the self-regulation model. A good starting point.

First Published: Aug 15, 2013 23:50 IST