Baby B or not, stop censoring the media

It is surely the first sign of censorship when you prevent the media talking about the astrology of celebrity babies.

Okay, perhaps not. But the 10 rules released this week for the impending birth of baby Bachchan are funny, sensible and restrictive, all at the same time.

And they come amid the most recent debate about how to "tame" a press supposedly out of control.

Telling someone you work as a reporter can often garner the reaction of, "Oh, that's really cool." But those same people will generally rail against the "scum" of the press and its obsession with celebrity — even when they read it themselves.

The UK has seen a great deal of debate this year, particularly after the News of the World's phone hacking debacle, about what stories are in "the public interest". Even most celebrities, who seek out publicity, claim they are not newsworthy.

But the moment you try to restrict what is reported, or how something is reported beyond standard legal parameters, you start on a dangerous slide towards censorship.

The 10 rules released this week for the impending birth of baby B are funny, sensible and restrictive, all at the same time. AFP.

Television news has more power than print and online because of the immediacy and impact of moving images, and because of the control of those choosing those images.

Retired Justice Markandey Katju has criticised the media as "anti people" and that the media is not choosing the correct stories to cover. The Broadcasting Editors Association seems to agree and has dictated exactly what stories may be covered.

Let's break down the 10 points, which were reported by The Indian Express:

• "No pre-coverage of the event" —  This is a bit unreasonable because, in most contexts, it restricts the freedom of the press to report upcoming stories of interest. You wouldn't tell media not to say, "A major vote is expected in parliament today on the future of the Lokpal Bill".

• "Story of birth of baby to run only after, and on basis of, official announcement" —Technically you do need an official confirmation to ensure accuracy, but in an age of 24x7 news, it is now accepted to report on reports, eg "It is being reported that a baby has been born somewhere in India". This is more an attempt to hem the event into a stage-managed PR exercise.

• "Story not to run on breaking news band" —  Utterly unreasonable. If an announcement isn't a "breaking news" update, then what is it?

• "No camera or OB vans at hospital or any other location related to the story" — This treads the difficult line between invasion of privacy and the right to report from public spaces. There have been repeated stories in the UK of photographers on sidewalks being prevented from taking photos of buildings or events citing anti-terrorist legislation. It seems difficult to restrict a press presence outside a hospital unless it restricted access to said hospital for patients.

• "Go for photo-op or press conference if invited" — Again, stage-managed PR, ie "Do it our way or not at all."

• "Not carry any MMS or photo of the child" — But if there's a photo-op, then isn't there a photo of the child? Some celebrities use their children, such as Michael Jackson, who bizarrely paraded them in public, but with their faces hidden. Generally, ethically, it is reasonable to protect the innocence of children from the actions/life/profession of their parents, unless those parents state or act otherwise. Former UK prime minister Gordon Brown had an agreement with the press never to show his children in pictures or on TV, until the moment the family walked away from Downing Street for the last time. He did not, despite calls for him to do otherwise, use his children as props.

• "No astrology show to be done on this issue" — I wouldn't class this as news, nor is it reasonable to speculate on a child's future life — it is no business of the press. That said, this is a restriction of free speech.

• "No 11.11.11 astrology show to be done" — Ditto.

• "Duration of story to be around a minute/90 seconds" — This is a mix of stage managing and of trying to limit a story the media has decided is of public interest. We would all like limits sometimes on celebrity news, but what story will the authorities or broadcasters restrict to 60-90 seconds next? Undesirable election candidates? Human rights abuses? Corruption allegations?

• "Unauthorised entry into hospital not permitted" — This one is totally reasonable to the extent it shouldn't even need to be stated. If reporters are investigating mysterious deaths in a hospital or the safety of patients, then unauthorised entry would be almost required. The birth of a baby, almost ANY baby, is not justification.

Laws matter. Ethics matter. I am a firm believer that journalism must restore a central, principled ground upon which to base its work. One of those principles is to "educate and entertain" — we must balance the need to tell the public about stories they need to make informed choices in elections or life or even what clothing suits the weather. But that should be tempered with stories that entertain, to counteract the doom and gloom that too often makes people switch off to "public interest" news.

But even as a general guide, those rules and principles do not determine what is "news".

Why should journalists get to decide what is news and what isn't? In all fairness, we don't own a monopoly on news values anymore, not with the power of the internet. Men and women, trained as journalistic professionals and working for defined organisations or as freelancers, make decisions about what information (news, not opinion obviously) is printed, posted or broadcast, theoretically unbiased by individual opinions or values. "News is what is new", as my journalism instructor always taught.

To me, a celebrity baby is not interesting. But it forms part of the balance of "educate and entertain" and so can be covered, however the press sees fit and to whatever extent they choose.

And if it's not illegal, then even preventing astrology on a baby, however pointless, is still censorship.

Published Date: Nov 09, 2011 12:15 pm | Updated Date: Nov 09, 2011 04:49 pm

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