"The era of defamation hath arrived," said the Minister.
"No my lord, ‘tis the era of the Media….," replied the journalist.
The past two weeks have seen more than one politician resort to the aid of the judiciary against the guardians of the Fourth estate. A lot many journalists cried foul and pleaded the right to free speech and expression, principles embodied in the Indian Constitution. As citizens of a free country whose side are you on? This seems to be the major dilemma these days.
Before we can get to that it is important to understand what really is expected from a free and responsible media.
The phrase ‘freedom of the press’ dates back as early as the year 1644 at the height of the English Civil war when John Milton advocated the right to the freedom of press in his celebrated speech Areopagitica, one of history's most influential and impassioned philosophical defences in favour of this hallowed freedom. In a Miltonian eloquence he defended this right which has long formed the principles and today are the basis for modern justifications of the right to free press.
Fast forward media history to the year 1947 and we see a new sense of urgency to put it in the words of Jo Bardoel and Leen D’Haenens. The American Press was ascribed with a new responsibility instead of a right. Four years of concentrated discussion and deliberation culminated into the Hutchins commission report 1947. The report attributed the new ‘Social Responsibility theory’ to the Media.
Now, the Hutchins Commission Report laid 5 pertinent principles on the Freedom of the Press:
· The media should provide a truthful, comprehensive and intelligent account of the day's events in a context which gives them meaning.
· The media should serve as a forum for the exchange of comment and criticism.
· The media should project a representative picture of the constituent groups in the society.
· The media should present and clarify the goals and values of the society.
· The media should provide full access to the day's intelligence.
This report led to a forked theory of media responsibility where absolute liberty was pitted against responsible freedom. The Libertarians believed that this was a form of curtailment of freedom of the Press because for them responsibility opened the tiny window of accountability and accountability would further pave way for government intervention which was ‘unacceptable.’
Having given this background we move further home to India. The freedom of press in India was largely curtailed in the pre – independence era under the Vernacular press Act 1878. Post –Independence India perceived a new sense of liberty and a ray of hope. The founding fathers of the Indian Constitution wanted to ensure that by no means was a citizen to live in the fear of punishment for expressing himself freely.
Part III of the Indian Constitution provides for certain fundamental rights bestowed on the citizens of the Indian Republic.
Article 19 (1)(a) reads “All citizens shall have the righ to freedom of speech and expression”
Clearly this included the right to the freedom of the Press as well. Questions arose much later when it was perceived that the media was moving in a direction ad arbitrium. This of course stepped up with the onset of the visual media and the introduction of the internet in the country much later.
The 200th Law Commission Report on Trial by Media under the aegis of Justice Jagannandha Rao in 2006 states:
“If excessive publicity in the media about a suspect or an accused before trial prejudices a fair trial or results in characterizing him as a person who had indeed committed the crime, it amounts to undue interference with the “administration of justice”, calling for proceedings for contempt of court against the media.”
The report further states the need for Journalists and the media to be ‘trained’ in certain aspects of the law relating to the freedom of speech under Art. 19(1)(a) and the restrictions which are permissible under Art 19(2) of the Constitution, human rights, law of defamation and contempt.
However, the media seems reluctant to adhere to these guidelines.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
Article 12 deals with the person’s privacy rights and reads thus:
“No one shall be subject to arbitrary interference
with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to
attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right
to protection of the law against such interference and attacks.”
Commenting against the high drama of the broadcast media in an article written on 18th October, 2012 entitled ‘This show is injurious to health’ Shailaja Bajpai wrote:
“Here’s a new statutory requirement: anyone who goes near a media interaction or press conference, anyone who participates in a TV studio discussion, must arrange for an ambulance to be on standby outside the premises. You never know when you might need one.”
Such is the deduction of the media’s own representatives.
If a politician is expected to be accountable to the masses for his performance and his actions in office, the media too is vested with a responsibility to be accountable for its actions. Now it is difficult to draw up water- tight compartments so the key question that arises is how do we demarcate the spheres of influence of the government, the media and the public?
The Civil society was nothing but the creation of the media. The recent reports questioning the credibility of the members of India Against Corruption has left us with a very important question: Is the Indian public easily swayed by sentiments? Are we hasty decision makers when it comes to weighing the truth especially when it involves members of the political class?
In a democracy, progressive politics must be pursued but progressive media must be inherent.
There are three sides of every story today: The political version, the media version and the Truth. In the quest to get maximum TRP ratings for the channel (which I may add is not entirely wrong!) the media tends to go ad captandum vulgus. There is absolutely ‘zero’ variety in the type of news we are exposed to. Watch BBC or CNN and you will find special slots allotted for news related to different parts of the world, Africa, Asia, Latin America. Compare it with the Indian television channels. The same story being repeated, debated and re- debated like a wild goose chase ultimately ending with a missing goose is what the audience today is subjected to. Constructive criticism backed by at least some solution would make do but pure criticism without solution gets the country NOWHERE.
It is not a matter of dispute whether the Media should play an effective critique to the Government and the Opposition but what is wrong is the fact that the media cannot simultaneously seek to play judge and jury. As a citizen of a free country I expect to learn the news as it ‘Is’ not what the media wants it to be. Repeating the same visual snippets throughout the day is evidence enough of the bankruptcy of information in the media. A skewed television debate that seems a miniature version of the Indian Parliament with a moderator who seeks to cut off every sentence of the panellist doesn’t get the citizen anywhere.
These lapses could be forgiven if the Indian media was learning independently but today when the viewer tunes in to the news one is exposed to a bitter face-off between panellists ranging from four to sometimes six in number trying to make themselves heard. Paucity of time cannot be an excuse for 24/7 news channels. A structured debate is what the audience prefers.
A typical modern day democracy is the result of the interplay between four major mechanisms : the political authority, the corporates and professional sector, the market and finally We the People.
Today the scenario is an apprehensive political class trying to make itself heard, a belligerent media trying to make a strong statement on the day’s events and a public that is torn between apathy towards the former and disbelief towards the latter.
No part of this article is meant to challenge the authority of the fourth estate, However, with power comes responsibility. In a working democracy, the media is one of the most important functionaries but what happens when the media fails in doing justice to all sides of the story? The public is being drilled throughout the day with one part of the story. The rebuttals and debates form a negligible amount of primetime. This is not to say that a political exposé is wrong. What is wrong is the media trial that is conducted within television studios to a point when the public can only remember the negativity that the media has quite successfully engraved in their minds. Every political and media circuit has its fair share of intellegentia and ignorantia.
The media proselytization has its worst effects on the youth of our country. Ask a young person if joining politics has crossed his mind. ‘No’ is the simple yet firm answer. Ask them why, and the first dialogue you will hear is, “Have you seen the newspapers or are you not having a television at home?” “Why should I dirty my hands in this political muck?” A major reason for this is our media today is a NEGATIVE Media which is far from inspiring young minds. It specialises in highlighting the negatives of the government kindling strife and anger in these gullible minds.
Today’s journalists may have a degree in journalism but why do they forget the difference between news, opinion and comment? Why is everything so convoluted? We are unfortunately living in an era of a performed media rather than an informed one. Not to sound demeaning but in the quest for truth journalists and reporters sometimes get so muddled in trivia that is irrelevant to the debate resulting in a juvenile display of lopsided information.
However in conclusion I must confess that today it is not only the media that is at fault. The members of the audience too are to be blamed for this. As citizens we share the responsibility of bringing out the positive aspects of our country. The world is watching us. We do not live in isolation. The repercussions of what happens within India allows for the formation of a negative international opinion of the country as whole.
The need of the hour is for the government, the opposition, the media and the people to work towards building the society but not by embittering the people against the State. The government deserves its fair share of criticism, but criticism must not culminate into a concordia discors.
With criticism must come appreciation. Credit must be given where due. It essential to show the working of various policies & schemes that are helping the people. After all no one can be 100% wrong, not even the government; a truth that may not go down well with many readers nonetheless the fact remains.
Perhaps the easiest way to overcome the impediments of an over- enthusiastic media is to allow them self- regulations with guidelines. To start with why can’t prime time debates have lesser panellists focused on the topic. This would give the audience time to appreciate the discussion. Without a proper understanding of the issue, the audience is unfortunately fed with only half the information. Half – knowledge is dangerous, in politics it is fatal. The second more important point is to have a moderator who can allow the panellists to give their views without inhibitions. Specific time allotted to the speaker allows the audience to enjoy the debate with a free mind. The third point which also demands our attention is the congeniality between the debaters and the moderator. It has oft been observed that a few panellists simply choose to over- ride the moderator and a few media-persons who ensure that it is only their voice that gets heard.
It would be unfair to say that there are no worthy journalists. P Sainath tops my list of journalists par excellence. Dedicated, committed and inspiring work that they do is laudable. We just need more of them. It is this tribe which works on the principles aforestated in the Hutchins report which must bloom in this thriving democracy.
An uninformed political class, an ill -informed media and a mis- informed public is the perfect recipe for a modern Indian social disaster. We must ensure in whatever capacity we stand we must choose the path of reason. We are all gifted with the freedom of choice. Just as a certain amount of sanctity is accorded to the Constitution at another level there is a sanctity accorded to the media too.
It is with this thought in mind that this post is written for you. Here’s hoping the media will take cognizance of a concerned citizen.