By R Vaidyanathan
A Lok Sabha member of Parliament, Meenakshi Natarajan, was to introduce the Print and Electronic Media Standards and Regulations Bill 2012.The bill provides, among others things, for a regulatory authority with sweeping powers, including powers to ban or suspend coverage of an event or incident that may pose a threat to national security from foreign or internal sources. It even provides for a fine of up to Rs 50 lakh, suspension of a media organisation’s licence for up to 11 months and cancellation in some cases.
Natarajan, a first-time MP representing Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh, is an All-India Congress Committee secretary and a member of Rahul Gandhi‘s core team of youth leaders. The bill, incidentally, was not introduced since she was absent on the day it was taken up. “The bill was based on her (Natarajan’s) views. These are not the views of Rahul Gandhi. Neither are these his views or nor has she got his consent to this bill,” Congress General Secretary Janardhan Dwivedi said.
Earlier, Press Council of India Chairperson, former Supreme Court Justice Markandey Katju, called for regulating social media, saying it would prevent unpleasant material from making it into the public domain. “Social media like Facebook and Google need to be regulated as a lot of dirty and filthy material is available on these sites and these affect the minds of the younger generation,” Katju said during an interaction with women journalists at the Indian Women Press Corps. Katju also supported some kind of regulation for media, and especially electronic media.
“Everybody should have self-regulation. I was scared when I was the high court judge that if I took a bribe I would be impeached by Parliament. A lawyer’s licence can be cancelled by the Bar Council of India and similarly a doctor’s licence can be cancelled by the Medical Council of India for any medical negligence. So everybody is accountable except the media, especially the electronic media. They say we will have self-regulation. Then everybody should have self-regulation, why should there be laws? The very fact that you have laws is that society realises that self-regulation is not all that sufficient. There should be some fear among media,” he said (Read here).
According to Katju, Indian media has been playing a very irresponsible role. “I am not against the media and fight for their rights as nobody else would have. I am not calling for controlling media but regulating them. Maybe a separate committee should be constituted and the media fraternity should be a part of framing its guidelines,” he said.
In the eighties, it was the print media which was in the forefront of exposing corruption and other misdeeds of government and political leaders. But by the beginning of this century TV has overtaken print media in terms of “Breaking News” – whether it is the Adarsh scam or Commonwealth Games or the 2G spectrum scandal. TV as a medium has become the main stream. The print media is struggling to function as a pure news media since TV pre-empts it the previous night. Printed newspapers are thus trying to focus on analysis and backgrounders to stories. TV is focusing on combining views and news bundled into one.
But a significant change has come about with the advent of social media such as Twitter and Facebook. They have captured the imagination of youth, especially since they are fully democratic – with no owner or editorial control. In print and mainstream media, owners appoint editors who vet the news and views to be published. So is the case with TV media.
But in the social media everybody has an equal chance and all are kings and the speed of dissemination is unbelievable. It is not constrained by a sense of controlled partisanship or private agenda because for every viewpoint there are 100 counterviews.
There is a general perception that the print and electronic media are run by Left liberals in our country who do not provide opportunities for other views to surface. This could be due the fact that most of the journalists have been brought up in the Nehruvian tradition of Left liberalism and the Columbia School of Journalism. Even the local journalism schools encourage such points of view. Many an editor has come out of these schools of journalism. So, to that extent, Right-wingers, both of the economic and religious varieties, have found the social media to be an effective tool to counter the perceived Left liberal print and TV medium bias.
Since they are not bothered about being “insiders” or “consensus builders” and they are unpaid part-timers, they focus sharply on the rightist point of view. They also are in the forefront to expose wrongdoing by the ruling establishment.
Two recent examples highlight their success and provide clues to the shape of things to come.
For instance, when the Abhishek Manu Singhvi (AMS) CD hit the social media they circulated it far and wide. In Twitter jargon, AMS was “trending” for many days. This made the case not only popular but also difficult to be ignored. The issue was his alleged sexual dalliance with a middle-aged lawyer in his chambers during day-time and the insinuation is that he promised to help make her a judge. His driver, who was allegedly unhappy with him, was supposed to have made the recording.
The video was removed from some locations on Youtube, but enterprising persons managed to put it in several different locations, some which can be censored and some which were not easily amenable to censorship for technological reasons. The Delhi High Court had given an injunction based on AMS’s petition. But neither the court nor government had the wherewithal to prevent the videos from being distributed globally.
The TV channels, by and large, were silent, and, by doing that, they actually worsened the situation for Singhvi. It was perceived that the mainstream media protects the high and mighty, particularly if they belong to the “narrow elite” of Delhi compared to, say, small town leaders. Both TV and print media were suddenly talking about privacy and consenting adults.
But social media quoted the Swami Nithyananda case and argued that you cannot have different yardsticks for different individuals. It was reasoned that Nityananda was a private individual while AMS was not. Actually AMS was chairman of the standing committee of Parliament and spokesperson for the ruling party. When the mainstream media published his denials and his version of the story, it increased the curiosity of the average reader/viewer. The advantage of social media is that it has millions of writers who are also editors unlike mainstream media, where a bunch of senior editors try to decide what is good for their readers/viewers.
Another important case is the supposed “land grab” by the present president in constructing a palatial residence in Pune for constructing a post-retirement home. As the supreme commander of the armed forces, Pratibha Patil was perceived as misusing her position since the said land was meant to be used by army personnel. The issue was first exposed by Vinita Deshmukh, a staff of MoneyLife (a financial journal from Mumbai) and soon Twitter carried it far and wide.
It appears that the president tried to influence army officers in Pune through some influential people, but even that was highlighted by the social media. In this entire episode, mainstream media was circumspect, as in the case of the AMS videos. The mainstream carried largely denials from the office of the president. The denizens of social media saw this as yet another example of mainstream media not taking up substantive issues involving the powerful elite. When the president finally announced that she would be giving up the Pune residential plans, it was, in a sense, a victory for social media.
So it seems that we are moving from the print era to TV and social media. Social media may not be powerful enough to move voters, but it is already able to take on the powerful. It is interesting to observe that social media participants always ask about sources and verification before jumping to conclusions, With the Right to Information (RTI) Act available in India, social media may begin to get their own feeds using RTI.
In other words they need not get news only from print or electronic media. They are not controlled by business houses or by political parties. In other words, we are entering an interesting era of millions of editors in cyberspace, unpaid and driven by agendas that also include the social good. These social media participants are slowly turning out to be unpaid guardians of our Republic.
Of course, there is talk of regulating or controlling the social media – like Justice Katju wants. It is also interesting to note that he was on Twitter for a short period, but has since wound up his account. Those who talk of controlling the social media know not what they are talking about both from a technological point of view and from the intellectual evolution point of view. It is actually real power in the hands of the middle class captured from the narrow ownership-driven agendas of the elite.
So don’t be surprised if the next major scam is exposed by the social media rather than the mainstream media.
R Vaidyanathan is professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. Views are personal