Need for an ombudsman
Regulating the media
By S L Rao
Self-regulation has been ineffective in India, and very
rarely have self-regulatory bodies disciplined their members.
In India, private television channels have occasionally selectively mobilised
public opinion, investigated crimes-corruption, political chicanery, and
compelled speedy police inquiries, impartial judicial process, and speedy
sentencing. The British tabloid press has been known for its ‘investigative’
journalism, not always on causes that make a difference to the people.
From the revelations about the ‘News of the World’ and other such papers, they
have taken their investigations to levels of intrusive and illegal invasions of
privacy, and the bribing of policemen. We must be careful that the Indian
competitive investigations and mobilisations of opinion by television media do
not culminate in using similar methods.
Private new television channels are already on the boundary between reporting
news and making it. They made the civil society’s battle against corruption a
national event. Hazare and Ramdev would not otherwise have received the national
attention they did.
Television mobilised the public and compelled justice in Jessica Lal’s murder.
It was television that exposed the looting of national resources by officials of
the Commonwealth Games, and by a cabinet minister in allocating telecom
spectrum. But there were also the Arushi, Nidhari and other crimes that
television investigations trumpeted day in and out, without results. Television
investigations can at best be highly selective. They are big city centered and
middle class focused. They do little for rural or small town settings and the
victims who are poor. This is because their audience sizes determine advertising
revenues, and these are mostly the urban middle classes, like the reporters.
Maria Susairaj fitted this demographic. She was from Mysore, College educated,
from a well-to-do family, pretty, a Kannada film actress with pretensions to
Bollywood. She was tried and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for
concealing evidence in the murder of Neeraj Grover. Television news channels
frenziedly demanded stronger punishment since her companion Jerome was sentenced
to 10 years.
They crossed the line between investigation and pushing their opinion. The court
had heard both sides and scrutinised all the evidence. They will be tried again
on appeals. The news channels should have let the law take its course instead of
trying to influence it when more trials are due. The media should not become
investigator, trial and appeal courts.
Bizarre discussions on television, where everybody was a prosecutor, lawyer and
judge, after Susairaj was released, overstepped media’s role as purveyors of
news and opinion. It crossed the Rubicon from media’s role as purveyor of public
policy to judicial pronouncement.
Public policy issues
Courts similarly crossed the line when pronouncing on public policy issues like
Print media in India, unlike the British and other tabloid papers, rarely cross
this line. Tehelka is a meticulous investigative paper. One tabloid that did
influence criminal justice was Blitz in 1959. Bhagwandas Ahuja was shot dead by
his close friend Nanavati whose wife Sylvia was in an affair with Ahuja.
‘Blitz’, gained immense circulation from saturation coverage demanding
Nanavati’s acquittal.(In a retrial Nanavati was sentenced to jail, and the jury
trials were subsequently abolished).
Print media has not repeated this feat. Indian print (and television news) media
need to take strong advocacy positions against cases like those of fake drugs,
rape, especially of children, selling drugs without prescription, stealing
entitlements from poor beneficiaries, etc. They rarely do.
Instead, they easily publicise selective leaks from investigating agencies like
the Enforcement Directorate, CBI, police, and others, so tarnishing reputations
of accused before trials. This and the phenomenon of ‘paid news’ where print
(and even television news) publishes prearranged ‘news’ for a fee, should be
Media depends on advertising revenues. That is related to circulation or
viewership. Print circulation does not change from hour to hour. Television
brings immediacy to news and easy switching from channel to channel can
dramatically change viewership from hour to hour. Their reaction is to have
‘breaking news,’ not as an unusual exception but as norm. These days everything
Profit from television news requires cut throat competition of the kind that
ultimately shut down the ‘News of The World’ in the UK when illegal methods were
used to gather ‘news.’ If we are to avoid this inevitable result of present
trends, they must be controlled.
Independent regulation of media content is vital; not self-regulation by the
media themselves. Media have raised the bogey of government censorship. But
regulating content should be not by government but a statutorily-appointed
independent regulatory body and an appellate tribunbal.
Self-regulation has been ineffective in India in every sphere where it exists
(chartered accountants, medical practitioners, architects, company secretaries,
etc, and national sports associations). Very rarely have self-regulatory bodies
disciplined their members.
Nor will self-regulating of content by the media bodies. Media owners will
excuse one another’s offences. The United Kingdom is now talking of a strong
Content Authority to oversee media practices and content. India must have an
independent content regulator before media moghuls become so powerful that they
are able to dictate terms to government and prevent it from effectively
functioning in public interest
Thank you for your