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Norms of press freedom

December 15, 2012

“A RESPONSIBLE press is an undoubtedly desirable goal; but press responsibility is not mandated by the constitution, and like many other virtues, it cannot be legislated,” Chief Justice Warren Burger of the US Supreme Court ruled on behalf of a unanimous court in June 1974.

In the nearly four decades that have elapsed since that ruling, the power and reach of the media, print and electronic, has grown exponentially. But, with it have grown also its transgressions and excesses. The Indian media has been concerned over them.

Early this week, Shoma Choudhury, managing editor of the highly regarded weekly Tehelka, wrote a comprehensive critique entitled ‘Can the media bail itself out in time?’ It asked pointed questions: “It is indisputable that the Indian media is coasting in several danger zones now, but are we, as a fraternity, sufficiently willing to acknowledge that? Are we putting in the correctives?”

The honest answer is that the Indian media has no such plans. The electronic media is far worse. As Shekar Gupta, editor-in-chief of The Indian Express, remarked: “We have TV anchors who would have taken us to war with China, Pakistan and Australia at the same time if they had their way.”

The Press Council Act, 1978, created a behemoth which has failed to win the confidence of the public and the media. Two major flaws have reduced it to irrelevance. One is its composition — seldom have editors of the leading dailies found a place on that body. The chairman has invariably been a former judge of the Supreme Court, an office which experience has shown, does not necessarily inspire its holder to admire the ethos of a free press.

The second flaw in the Press Council’s set up is that it was foisted on the press by law. There was no consultation. There can be no denying that some chairmen were judges of a liberal outlook, some ranking editors served on the council and that in some significant areas, the council gave helpful rulings, most notably on the arbitrary grant or refusal of government advertisements.

All in all, the Press Council of India is a wreck but the problems which face the media and worry the public demand solutions. A purely voluntary body set up by the press will have problems, however. The National Broadcasting Standards Authority headed by a former chief justice of India, J.S. Verma, has four eminent citizens as well as four serving TV editors.

Its membership is voluntary and a mere 25 of 300 channels are part of it. The owner of a TV channel walked out of it when he was fined Rs1 lakh.

Therein lies the relevance not only of the Leveson report but some proposals made in it which suggest ideas that can be usefully applied in Indian conditions.

How do we set up “an independent self-regulatory body … governed by an independent board” which functions uninfluenced by the government or the media? It cannot “be considered sufficiently effective if it does not cover all significant news publishers”. The ball is passed to the media in the hope that it will agree to set up “a genuinely independent and effective system of self-regulation”.

Lord Hunt, chairman of the former Press Complaints Commission, based his model of self-regulation on “contracts between the regulator and publishers”.

Another suggestion was an independent trust board. The Leveson report recommended legislation only “to underpin the independent self-regulatory system”. It would not “regulate the press” but would endow the arbitral system with the authority of law; the entire edifice would be for the media to set up.

The best course is for a small group of India’s print and TV journalists, academics, lawyers and writers to consult all concerned and put forth a model for legislation which does no more than underpin a regulatory system created by the press itself.

It will be a long haul but an urgently necessary one, before public grievances pile up and the government exploits them to interfere with the press.

First, the participants must agree on some fundamentals — a voluntary monitoring organisation which includes all the main newspapers, periodicals and TV channels, and a code of conduct formulated by the press itself which the body would enforce. To be credible, it must comprise respected citizens and leading figures in the media.

It must provide a speedy mechanism which would cover the redressal of grievances by citizens as well as journalists.

Then legislation should be enacted to confer on that body the power to impose fines and give binding directives; for example, all publication of replies, and on arbitrary refusal of government advertisements.

This body should publish an annual report, containing a fair and candid survey of the working of the press and the injection into it of any malpractices. Such an audit would ensure transparency as well as accountability.

The writer is an author and a lawyer.