Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The British government had, in the wake of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, set up a committee, led by Justice Brian Leveson to enquire into the ‘culture, practice and ethics’ of the press, including the media’s relations with politicians and the police. The panel’s 2,000-page report had slammed the media for “sensationalism” and “recklessness”, and recommended a strong and independent regulator. In March this year, political parties agreed to a deal to set up such a mechanism through a royal charter.

Explaining the rationale for officially introducing the Leveson report’s measures into India’s “political and parliamentary space”, an anonymous source — not authorised to speak about the issue — told The Hindu that India had inherited several democratic institutions from the U.K.: “We share a culture of a free and vibrant press, and there is logic in [seeking to understand] comparative and relevant international experience.”

The other reason, the source explained, was the report’s focus on the relations between media and people in power, “particularly law-enforcement agencies”.
“Even in India, we see that right after a blast, media outlets begin blaming certain outfits based on [information from certain] sources. And this sets the tone for the investigation. Cases of innocent men being acquitted after years in prison are well-known.” The committee report, he said, could be a useful way to discuss the “interplay of different forces in the public domain, especially between the media and law-enforcement agencies”.

“What kind of source-based reportage should be allowed before a charge sheet is filed?”

Ten evils donning today's Media groups

There are numerous allegations of  irresponsible journalism. Most recently, the External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid accused Aaj Tak news channel of airing an inaccurate story about purported embezzlement of funds by an NGO headed by himself and his wife. All these demonstrate, to different degrees, the decline of journalistic ethics, the lack of transparency in the functioning of Indian media, especially their financial dealings, and a poorly enforced regime of defamation law.

There are the close personal connections between journalists, politicians and corporations exposed by the Radia tapes, conversations recorded by revenue authorities between corporate lobbyist Niira Radia and a number of senior journalists and leading politicians, leaked to the public. 

  • Siddharth Varadarajan, the Editor of The Hindu, have advocated more effective self-regulation. 
  • Others, such as Prannoy Roy, CEO of New Delhi Television, speaking recently in Oxford, support the idea of independent external regulation.

In a recent seminar the former Chief Election Commissioner, SY Quraishi, revealed that the Election Commissioner had identified 371 cases of paid news in the lead-up to the recent state elections in Bihar, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Assam, Kerala and Puducherry, the magnitude being serious enough for him to recommend making paying for news and publishing it a punishable offence.

There simply is no widely respected, autonomous and effective industry-wide self-regulatory body with the power to impose sanctions on erring media and have its decisions complied with. In India’s version of the ‘Richard Desmond problem’, India TV withdrew its membership of the News Broadcasters Association (NBA), an industry-wide association, after being fined by its dispute redressal authority. The Association was helpless in backing up the authority’s decision with sanctions, thereby severely delegitimising itself. The subsequent failure of the NBA and other existing industry-wide associations to fashion themselves into efficacious self-regulators, commanding compliance from their members, has meant that self-regulation, while attractive in principle, has proved unworkable in practice.


In early May, the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Information Technology, in its report on “paid news”, indicted the I&B Ministry for not doing anything “substantial” to check the “menace” and recommended that a body be set up to look at media contents “in both print and electronic media”. In April, the Delhi High Court told the government to put in a “statutory regulatory body” for the electronic media. Press Council of India Chairman Justice (retd.) Markandey Katju has demanded that the media be given more teeth.


In a study “Representing Citizens and Consumers in Media and Communication Regulation” (published in the May 2007 issue of Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science) Sonia Livingstone and Peter Lunt categorise the interests of the consumer and the citizen as separate from each another
  • The consumer focus is on the “economic”, that of the citizen on the “cultural”; 
  • the consumer is concerned about the “networking” and allied “services”, the citizen’s concern is programming “content”
  • The consumer evokes the “individual”the citizen the “community”.
They elaborate this division in a further psycho-sociological checklist, which describes inter alia 
(i) the interest of the consumer in terms of “wants”, that of the citizen in terms of “needs”; 
(ii) the consumer as representing “private benefit” and the citizen, “public benefit”; 
(iii) the consumer’s as being a “language of choice”, the citizen’s a “language of rights”; 
(iv) the focus of or for the consumer tending to be “short term”, that of or for the citizen, “long term”; 
(v) regulation on behalf of the consumer becoming an action “against a detriment” and that on behalf of the citizen, one in the “public interest”; 
(vi) the consumer’s interest, in the market model of the media, as likely to “rollback regulation”, whereas “continued regulation to correct market failure” may be what is in the citizen’s interest.
and the media fails to understand the needs of the citizens rather fulfills the needs of the consumers ...!
Coming  to the Lessons which can be learned from the Leveson's report !!

  The broad methodology adopted by Lord Leveson, as evidenced in the report, is instructive. To begin with, he announced a set of criteria to arrive at a regulatory framework and sought opinion on it from a cross section of the public. The criteria were meant to ensure that the proposed regulation is effective, credible and durable; that it will adhere to norms of fairness and objectivity; is independent and enforced with transparency and that there is compliance; has remedial or curative powers, and has funding to sustain it.
  • It is not only the people who need protection against excesses of the press, journalists themselves are susceptible to pressure and need what he calls a “whistle blowing hotline” to function with integrity and true to their conscience.
  • Leveson had called for independent self-regulation of the press. One can argue that this phrase is a contradiction in terms—if the press regulates itself then its regulator is not independent-but the judge's plan was clear enough: a regulator funded by the press but run by an independently appointed board with a lay majority and with no serving politicians or editors among its members. There was broad support for such a body, as well as acceptance within the industry that the existing Press Complaints Commission did not satisfy the Leveson test.
  • Crucially, though, the Leveson Act would be no more than "statutory underpinning". The regulatory body would not be created by Parliament: it would be designed and established by the industry itself, would have to decide whether the regulator had met the required standards and would also have to keep the regulator under review and ensure that standards did not slip. Parliament's role would be limited to setting out the standards and establishing the recognition body.
  • “It is,” he says, “essential that there should be legislation to underpin the independent self-regulatory system and facilitate its recognition in legal processes”, but hastens to add that such legislation will not establish any body to regulate the press, nor give parliament or government any right to prevent newspapers publishing any material.
Moral of the Story 

An appropriately structured regulator can enforce a degree of accountability rendering ill practices less likely, it will not be a magic wand that will rescue the Indian media from all its current travails. That will necessarily be a long-drawn out exercise requiring new ideas, multiple interventions and reforms of a kind not adequately contemplated to date. Perusing the recommendations of the Leveson Report and assessing their usefulness for India is the best starting point possible for such an exercise, with real potential to inject new life into a currently deadlocked debate.  And then perhaps India should have its own version of a Leveson inquiry.

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