It’s been almost a year and a half since Justice Katju took charge as chairman of the Press Council of India. In this time, we’ve heard his views on all aspects of Indians and Indian society — but very rarely on matters directly relating to his remit.
He’s made his concerns known on the issue of paid news and he’s protested against the harassment of journalists in some parts of the country. These are about the only areas he’s got involved in that are clearly within the purview of the Press Council. Yesterday, he was once more into the breach.
“The chairman of the Press Council of India, Justice Markandey Katju, on Monday took up a practice that has become quite common with the central and state governments — of stopping advertisements to newspapers and magazines that have published news articles that were critical of them. Describing the practice as "undemocratic" and betraying a "pettiness of mind", Katju threatened to take legal action if such cases came to the notice of the Council,” The Times of Indiareports.
This is so much hot air. It’s achieved Katju’s objectives — he’s got the headlines. But, as usual, he’s spent all his available time in crafting the sound bites for media, and little or no time on thinking about the practicality of what he says.
How will the Press Council be able to prove (and they will have to, if they want to win a positive judgment after taking legal action) that ads have been cancelled BECAUSE of the publishing of critical articles?
All anyone will be able to prove is that ads are cancelled or that ads are not being released.
While paid news can be proven — because there is a money trail, the issue of blacklisting of unfriendly media by advertisers is another realm altogether — nothing can be proven.
More importantly, why cannot an advertiser stop advertising in unfriendly media? Cases of ads being stopped by large brands in media unfriendly to them is common practice, so why is the government different?
In an ideal world, especially in democracies, mature brands and advertisers will be able to rise above the publishing of the odd negative story and continue to advertise in a media brand because of the positive benefits from the growth and success of independent, free-thinking media. Such brands exist — as do the brands that do not see it this way.
It is for media to take the bitter with the sweet. Ads from government departments is not anyone publication’s birthright — as much as friendly coverage is not the government’s birthright.
The media, if they choose to, can write without fear or favour, but that is a bed that they would have made and they will have to lie in it.
Criticise the government — or any corporate advertiser — and media brands have to live with the decision. No Justice Katju or the Press Council can come to the rescue. And they shouldn’t.