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Damned on air

October 22, 2012

Police, prosecutor, judge and executioner – all rolled into one.

That’s what a large section of the media in India seem to have become, especially television channels.

A verdict is issued in an instant; the more scurrilous the charge, the better it is for viewership.

In the age of live scams, it’s the scandal of the evening that counts when it comes to baring “corruption”.

Airing a live scam is a bit like printing an investigative story an editor hasn’t seen. So, our good television channels are airing information and documents they didn’t know existed and haven’t verified. LIVE.

No checking of facts, no verification. No application of this basic journalistic standard. But since everyone is doing it, how can you lose your television rating points, or TRPs, by not joining the herd?  Those who know the TRP game are aware that it’s directly related to the amount of money you make through advertising.

So, you must air the scam of the evening and then go on to discuss the inadequate information that is currently being provided by anti-corruption crusader and politician-in-the-making Arvind Kejriwal.

It’s become an enjoyable routine, entertaining for those who can watch from the comfort of their homes or the sidelines. Better than the soap opera you chose not to watch on prime time.

Lest this is construed as defence of the powerful – from Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra to Bharatiya Janata Party President Nitin Gadkari – I say put them behind bars if they have committed a crime based on evidence that stands up in a court of law.

As we know, or need to remind ourselves, you are GUILTY only when a court of law says you are, you are INDICTED by a government authority like a commission of inquiry, but your reputation can be TARRED by that strap line running on the bottom of your television screen or the ravings of a TV anchor.

As a young reporter for The Hindu in the 1990s, I attended a rather sensational press conference in Lutyens Delhi.

A businessman’s diary contained names of top Indian politicians against whose names different sums of money were mentioned. It was considered a major scam by those who held the press conference.

After the press conference ended, I called my editor, N. Ravi of The Hindu. He heard me out and then said it would not be correct to use any names. So, the published story didn’t carry any names.

May years later, the Supreme Court of India held that the diary was not admissible as evidence. Ravi had clearly taken the right call. It was a good lesson for a young reporter like me.

In the age of faster, shorter and more sensational, we are missing the journalism standard.

You cannot condemn any individual on live television (or in print) without giving her or him the chance to speak their piece. But what happens when you, the editor, don’t even know the other side is till the charge is made live. The other side goes unheard.

Indian defamation laws are notoriously weak and television channels have made full use of these infirmities. “Defamation is difficult to prove in a court of law. There is a vacuum in the law as far as defending the rights of an individual is concerned,” says senior lawyer Rebecca Mammen John.

Ms. John, like many others, believes that the time has come to put in place a tougher media regulator rather than the toothless Press Council of India to deal with irresponsible reporting by the media.

The word “regulation” was anathema to the media, but given what has been happening many are changing their minds.

A strong votary of regulation is India’s Vice-President Hamid Ansari.

“Collective self-regulation has yet to succeed in substantive measure because it is neither universal nor enforceable. Individual self-regulation has also failed due to personal predilection and the prevailing of personal interest over public interest,” Ansari said in a speech last year.

“Can the constitutional safeguards on freedom of speech be used to evade regulation of the commercial persona of media corporates and groups? Where does public interest end and private interest begin?” the Vice-President wanted to know.

Given that the media, especially television channels, have shown no signs of introspection, it’s likely that the judiciary or the government will come up with a regulatory framework.

Till then, sit back and enjoy the scam-every-evening style of journalism.

Amit Baruah is an independent, Delhi-based journalist. He is the author of Dateline Islamabad and reported for The Hindu newspaper from Pakistan.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.