Media under Lokpal: Who guards the guardians in India?

There has been instant outrage at suggestions that the media be brought under the Lokpal Bill.

"The idea of bringing the media within the ambit of the Lokpal is "bad and mischievious", say experts who argue that the media is "private" and the ombudsman is an institution "for redressal of grievances and to make the government behave". "It is a mischievous idea," said senior journalist Prem Shankar Jha, rejecting Samajwadi Party president Mulayam Singh Yadav's idea of "bringing media under Lokpal", reports The Hindustan Times.

"Bringing media under the Lokpal would be like dictatorship, "There is no Lokpal like-idea in UK, even after the News of The World scandal," said Dainik Bhaskar editor Shravan Garg.

 Media under Lokpal: Who guards the guardians in India?

Trust in media shows alarming decline. Arko Datta/Reuters

The argument against bringing in media under the Lokpal has been based, largely, on the fact that the judiciary itself could deal with transgressions by media, aided by the Press Council of India, which came into being with the enactment of the Press Council Act, 1978.

The need for Press Council Act 1978 was aimed at "preserving the freedom of the Press and of maintaining and improving the standards of newspapers and news agencies in India."

Over the years, the most significant report submitted by the Press Council was their study into the practice of paid news in July 2010 – a key motivator of those supporting the view that media should be brought under the purview of the Lokpal.

"The phenomenon of 'paid news' has acquired serious dimensions. Today it goes beyond the corruption of individual journalists and media companies and has become pervasive, structured and highly organized. In the process, it is undermining democracy in India. This has anguished the leading sections of the society, including political leaders, thinkers, journalists and media owners. They all have expressed their unhappiness and concern about the pernicious influence of such malpractices," says the report.

It's the area of paid news in the context of elections which causes certain sections of the political classes to be baying for the media's blood.

'The phenomenon of 'political paid news' became particularly noticeable during the 2009 general elections and thereafter during the elections to the assemblies of various states. The phenomenon acquired a new and even more destructive dimension by redefining political 'news' or 'reporting' on candidates standing for election – many such 'news reports' would be published or broadcast perhaps only after financial transactions had taken place, almost always in a clandestine manner. It is widely believed that many media companies, irrespective of the volume of their businesses and their profitability, were "selling" news space after arriving at an 'understanding' with politicians and representatives of corporate entities that were advertisers. Space in publications and airtime were occupied by advertisements that were disguised as "news"', the PCI report adds.

If the Lokpal Bill is required to keep a check on corrupt practices of elected representatives and all bureaucracy, it is patent that there is a need to oversee some aspects of news media in India– aspects that affect a robust democracy.

That's not completely true. Dainik Bhaskar’s Garg says that “there is no Lokpal like-idea in UK, even after the News of The World scandal.”

The News of the World phone hacking scandal has led to the institution of an enquiry by Lord Justice Leveson. "The intention of the inquiry is for Lord Justice Leveson to uncover new truths about the "practice and pressure of investigative journalism," the utility of press regulation and the role of a free press in society," says Reuters.

There are two parts to Justice Leveson’s enquiry; one will look at the entire press, and the second will look, specifically, into the NoTW episode.

In a statement on his appointment, Lord Justice Leveson said, "The press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?"

Who guards the guardians in India?

Newspapers seem to think that they guard themselves. The Hindu is the only paper with an ombudsman. In news television the National Broadcasting Association (NBA) designed a self-regulatory mechanism, the News Broadcasting Standards Disputes Redressal Authority to look into concerns of viewers on objectionable content. At the time  of the announcement of the mechanism, former chief justice, JS  Verma, had said, "This is an initiative taken by the Indian news television industry and I am more than happy to be a part of this. It is good to see that the broadcasters have realised the need to come together to regulate the industry. We would try to resolve the grievances keeping the interest of the audiences and broadcasters."

In the case of television, the NBA has done nothing in the context of paid news. Newspapers and magazines, though they have their own industry bodies do little except to discuss the issue.

While news media does nothing to introspect or self-regulate, trust in media shows alarming declines. "Edelman, an independent public relations firm, in its 2010 Trust Barometer Survey stated that the Indian media has been losing its credibility and trust among the people. The study, which sampled 1,575 people in the 25-64 age group and 200 opinion leaders in India, noticed a sharp drop in trust over the past two years in television news in India.

However, newspapers are ranked higher than other media in terms of credible news with people trusting newspapers more than any other medium: 38 percent of the Indians polled trusted radio and television, while 40 percent trusted news in newspapers. Over the past two years, trust in television news dropped sharply from 61 percent to 36 percent, that of business magazines has gone down from 72 percent to 47 percent, and that of newspapers has gone down from 61 percent to 40 percent. Trust in the media in India as a whole declined by 7 percent (from 65 percent in 2009 to 58 percent in 2010),” says a blogger analyzing the report.

The trend continues; trust in media has further declined from 58 percent in 2010 to 50 percent in the 2011 Edelman study.

The deeper issue, then, is not whether media should be brought under the Lokpal Bill. One needs to debate the state of news media in India and see what needs to be done to ensure that the issue of paid news is addressed and taken seriously by news media, that the relationships between politicians and the press are not detrimental to the citizens of India. As important is the recent explosion in the incidents of sting/investigative journalism, with particular focus on whether these are conducted within the limits of the law.

The best solution is for media houses to get together and evolve a consensus on how these issues will be tackled – including punitive measures for transgressions. The one instance when a TV channel – India TV – was fined, the fallout was that the channel left the NBA.

If the Lokpal issue came to a head because politicians and bureaucrats ignored the sentiment of the people,   the clamour for regulation will increase if news media refuses to acknowledge that there are many issues which cause pain – and harm —  to many stakeholders of news in India.

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Updated Date: Sep 01, 2011 11:40:27 IST