Monday, October 31, 2011

Is Media Council the new Lokpal?

The new chairperson of the Press Council of India(PCI), Justice Katju, has suggested the creation of an electronic media watchdog – the Medical Council – to monitor the conduct of electronic media. Electronic is the word here. All is fine with the print media.

Justice Katju raises these concerns in the backdrop of ‘frivolous’ TV debates, ‘government advertisement’ and ‘obnoxious behavior’. He has also talked about giving the Media Council ‘teeth’ which can be used (to bite away the freedom of the media- he didn’t say this) in extreme situations.

His concerns are genuine. However, I do not believe that the problems he has raised correspond to the solution he’s offering. Yes, we must evolve from frivolous debate to meaningful, disciplined thought-sharing. India is developing and this must reflect in the quality of debate that we engage in- on TV, in writing and in our law-making bodies. But seriously, how will the Media Council help? Justice Katju complains that the panelists on TV debates have no discipline. But who are these panelists? They are politicians, government servants, entrepreneurs, actors, the common man and, yes, media persons too.

Let’s go a little farther- the culture of TV debate had not really taken off in India until private news channels pioneered it. The result? Greater public awareness and participation in politics, increased sense of ‘image’, responsibility and responsiveness among politicians and other office-bearers, and demystified governance(though not fully). No one in his right mind will oppose these developments.

So what went wrong? The trouble begins when politicians use the forums of open debate and dialogue to propagate their own agenda, popularize rhetoric and promote party ideology- to the extent where they act downright rogue, not letting others speak and downplaying others’ points-of-view. It is only fair to point out that politicians alone are not bad debaters. The trouble is with the majority of Indians. However, only politicians have the courage to sabotage a TV debate. Also, it carries clear advantages for the politicians to sabotage a debate in a country where it is acceptable to do so. Again, it would be unfair to ignore the fact that many politicians, media persons, and common Indians show proper respect for the debate, the issue and for other peoples’ viewpoints. However, when things do go wrong, all that the TV anchor can do is moderate and steer the discussion towards consensus, if one is possible, otherwise towards conclusion. It is but natural to get emotionally involved in a debate unless you’re trained or experienced enough to maintain objectivity. But some people just won’t stop shouting and, more often than not, the debate turns into a mere rant. The one who rants louder wins.

But where does the TV anchor’s or editor’s fault lie- in bringing up an issue that concerns different people in different ways and, therefore, merits debate; or in asking uncomfortable, forbidden questions; or in attempting to uncover issues that the country’s leadership has conveniently chosen to push under the carpet or plainly dismiss; or in not playing chicken and bringing issues of real importance to the fore- where?

I, for one, am a huge fan of the media. There, I said it. I admire the media as an institution a lot. Yes, there are biased, flippant news channels and I’ve simply opted out of watching them. But that doesn’t solve the problem. The panelists are pretty much same on every news channel debate- usually because they’re the key persons involved in the issue. They’re either bad debaters or become so if uncomfortable questions and differing viewpoints surface during the debate. How the Media Council or its patrons and advocates plan to solve this problem, I’m curious.

Media has become the default scapegoat for all evil in the country. The government should first reform its own institutions before targeting the media. The media only reports what is happening in the country. Of course, when nothing is happening, they have to create news. But most of the time, there’s something or the other going on that needs to be reported. If injustices against a certain sect are reported by the media, which is only the right thing to do, they’re accused of “fanning sectarian flames”. And the perpetrators of the injustice are innocent? Every once in a while there are whistleblowers from the media fraternity who risk their lives to act on conscience and report wrongdoings. After losing faith in the Legislature and the Executive, the only hope that people have is from the Judiciary and Media, the fourth estate.

I’ve been part of NDTV debates and, to be honest, they were educated, enlightened, objective discussions. What is ideally the job of the opposition has now been taken up by the media. All that the opposition does is walkout. That is against national interest and blackmail. Isn’t it the responsibility of the Parliament and legislatures to debate issues of national interest and solve the country’s problems? Why not question them?
And, finally, what does Justice Katju have to say about the propagandist national media operating in Kashmir? It deeply pains me even to recall how each one of the 112 deaths (and thousands of injuries) caused by the CRPF during the 2010 unrest went unreported(by GOI sponsored media in Kashmir). It hurts and pinches me and my fellow Kashmiris and it will continue to. DD Kashir (Kashmiri) is supposed to be the premier news channel of Kashmir. Sadly, however, it does not represent even the ground realities, let alone the Kashmiri sentiment. Deaths caused by militants are reported as they should be. But deaths caused by the army go simply unreported on the pretext of national interest! It is highly disgraceful to watch the show “Sarhad ke do rukh” (literal: the two sides of the Frontier) on DD Kashir. The said show highlights developmental work in Indian administered Kashmir and poor living conditions in Pakistan administered Kashmir. It is also amusing at the same time in that it doesn’t acknowledge the extreme living conditions, lack of development, human rights abuses that exist in Indian Kashmir while highlighting the same in Pakistani Kashmir. To me, it looks like a courtship dance that the GOI and agencies are performing to woo Kashmiris. Purpose? We all know. Integral part. Truth & reconciliation. Need I say more here?

Some enterprising young people from Kashmir launched their private 24x7 news channels which were doing very well. However, they reported what DD Kashir failed to- human rights abuses, war crimes, popular uprisings, views of local leaders. They were banned. So was Press TV –the Iranian news service. It’s a gruesome trend. What it translates to is this: In presence of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), the Indian Army can have their way in Kashmir and go unreported, unquestioned, without trial and without punishment. On the contrary, under the Public Safety Act(PSA) even juvenile delinquents can be (and have been) detained, tortured, denied bail and trial for an indefinite period. This too, will go (and has gone) largely unreported. Can the revolutionary Justice Katju answer these questions? Will his Media Council advise the GOI and agencies to restore media freedom in Kashmir? Or will it further crackdown on whatever little is left of ‘media’ in Kashmir? And, finally, who will guarantee the independence of this Council? Is it the beginning of another Lokpal story?

In my humble opinion, instead of clamping down on media houses, the PCI should fund an independent 24x7 debating channel. TV anchors who conduct live debates work under immense timing constraints. This new 24x7 independent channel should highlight public opinion, the government’s stand and the opposition’s concerns in the shape of debates, vox populi, listen hours, etc. at length and especially when the Parliament is not in session. The problem of unruly debate is much deeper. It has its roots in our inability to listen and accommodate other viewpoints. I think this is a question of mindsets and is beyond my ability to comment upon.  It was also reflected when the Indira Gandhi government called off state governments in Punjab, Kashmir and elsewhere and used a heavy hand to deal with dissent. If it’s in the leadership of the country, it’s in the masses. Nations become great by looking up to their idols as most people are good followers. If leaders set terrible examples for the masses, the Media Councils can’t ensure good media behavior. Or guarantee its own good conduct for that matter.


  1. To be honest, the politicians who are educated are even more skilled at harnessing the media interview or debate to their advantage, especially guys like P Chidambaram and Subramaniam Swamy. In truth media should have their own freedom and never controlled by an external party's agenda.

    I believe the RTI Act, coupled with an Open Data Policy, the debates like you have mentioned above and intelligence on behalf of the educated Indian citizen is good enough to avoid the need for a lokpal. what do you say?

  2. "This new 24x7 independent channel should highlight public opinion, the government’s stand and the opposition’s concerns in the shape of debates, vox populi, listen hours, etc. at length and especially when the Parliament is not in session"--we have the loksabha TV for this.

    Media deals with a lot more must consider in totality justice katju's about all the issues he's highlighted.from paid news to dividing people, media has become a master in distortion. the fact that this debate has come up is to show how powerful media is and how it can use/misuse its power. corporate interests above people is their they should put a disclaimer saying that "news reported here is our interpretation and may not be 100% accurate"


If you liked this post, please let me know !