Media Mints Money Ethics Take Back Seat
In these times, when nationalism and patriotism are under serious pressure from forces of fundamentalism and sectarianism, promoted from both within and without, this seminar truly constitutes a wellspring of hope.
The media world is changing. The changes are faster, after globalisation and many proprietors claim that media is a product like any other consumer item. The products will sell, if they are good, the market forces will determine their viability. The disgusting tendency of dominating sections of India’s national media is to not only trivialise news, but increasingly drill blind admiration for an alien and immoral lifestyle into the minds of impressionable youth. In this context it is noteworthy to refer to the fascination with which ‘sex surveys’ are manifested by some leading papers and magazines. They are seeking to promote irreverence for Indian traditions by encouraging pre-marital sex, adultery, alcoholism, etc. One of the most popular fictions of our time is that there is an autonomous entity known as ‘The Market’, which can legitimately influence and determine our behaviour and choices. Proponents of this myth, directly or indirectly, argue that the Market is always right, which is not the case. I strongly contest this mindset. In my opinion, the Market is itself product of an underlying philosophy and ideology. What we are witnessing in India today is nothing more than a conflict of Indian as opposed to alien worldviews. What I am trying to say here is that the issue of Market vs. Ethics has not been caused by the journalistic fraternity, it has been driven by the financial interests of some dominant media barons, and we should keep this in mind if we are looking for solutions to the problem. If we can hit certain media houses where it hurts, we can make them change their tune. Also, journalists should not forget the original purpose of their joining the profession, which is to inform the people and guide their thinking.
Now I turn to the trial by media. Freedom of media is the freedom of people as they should be informed of public matters. It is thus needless to emphasise that a free and a healthy press is indispensable to the functioning of democracy. In a democratic set up there has to be active participation of people in all affairs of their community and the state. It is their right to be kept informed about the current political, social, economic and cultural life as well as the burning topics and important issues of the day, in order to enable them to consider broad opinion in which they are being managed, tackled and administered by the government and their functionaries. To achieve this objective, people need a clear and truthful account of events, so that they may form their own opinion and offer their own comments and viewpoints on such matters and issues and select their future course of action.
However, the right to freedom and speech and expression does not embrace the freedom to commit contempt of court. In this backdrop, the media was in focus in its role in the trial of Jessica Lal murder case. The concept of media trial is not a new concept. The role of media was debated in the Priyadarshini Mattoo case, Aarushi Talwar’s murder case, and likewise many other high profile cases. There have been numerous instances in which media has been accused of conducting the trial of the accused and passing the ‘verdict’ even before the court passes its judgment.
Trial is essentially a process to be carried out by the courts. The trial by media is definitely an undue interference in the process of justice delivery. In fact, no editor has the right to assume the role of an investigator to try to prejudice the court against any person. The law as to interference with the due course of justice has been well stated by the Chief Justice Gopal Rao Ekkbote of Andhra Pradesh High Court in the case of YY Hanumantha Rao vs KR Pattabhiram, wherein it was observed by the learned judge that: “… When litigation is pending before a court, no one shall comment on it in such a way there is a real and substantial danger of prejudice to the trial of the action, as for instance by influence on the judge, the witnesses or by prejudicing mankind in general against a party to the cause. Even if the person making the comment honestly believes it to be true, still it is a contempt of court if he prejudices the truth before it is certain in the proceedings. To this general rule of fair trial one may add a further rule and that is that none shall, by misrepresentation or otherwise, bring unfair pressure to bear on one of the parties to a cause so as to force him to drop his complaint or defence. It is always regarded as of the first importance that the law which we have just stated should be maintained in its full integrity. But in so stating the law we must bear in mind that there must appear to be ‘a real and substantial danger of prejudice’.”
In spite of that, it is generally seen that high-profile civil litigation is not just decided in the courts; it also is decided in the court of public opinion, thanks to media. No surprise, litigation involving well-known companies or individuals always has grabbed the attention of the news media, especially when it involves sensational charges. The magnitude of the coverage and the filter through which the media reports on litigation can create a “clear plaintiff bias in civil cases.” While small companies can find themselves under the media spotlight in a particularly novel suit, the media tends to focus on allegations against established and respected corporate defendants. These larger companies tend to have household names, and allegations against them can make good “copy”even if the allegations are seemingly spurious, commonplace or unproven. The same is true for litigation involving celebrity defendants.
Now I come to the issue of media’s role in elections. A free, fair and fearless media is an essential component of a democratic polity. In elections, it is required to inform and educate the voter on issues involved, the policies and programmes of political parties and candidates and their track records so that they are in a position to make an informed choice. One of the positives about media’s role in elections has been its persistent targetting of candidates with a criminal record. The media generates public opinion against some of the more notorious gangsters who had been winning successive elections with their money, muscle and manipulative skills. The judiciary laid the ground by barring certain notorious criminals from contesting elections. Not to be left behind, they put up members of their families as proxy candidates. It is a matter of great satisfaction that in 2009 parliamentary elections, most of the criminals that contested elections in UP and Bihar were defeated.
However, negatives outnumber the positives so far as media’s performance in the polls is concerned. Although media claims that it has its fingers on the people’s pulse, it has almost always failed to correctly read the public mood. In elections after elections, media went awfully wrong in its predictions. Its unanimous view that no party would get a majority in UP in last assembly elections was turned out to be a mere guesswork. In the last general election, the dominant media theme that both national parties were shrinking was off the mark. It also failed to underline the issues that concern the lives of the people. It indulges in sensationalism and frivolous reporting instead of informing and educating the voter.
More often than not, debates on news channels are exercises in mud-slinging. There happens to be a lot of thunder but hardly any light. One thought the public broadcaster is better placed to reflect the true character of the campaign. But that is not to be. DD news failed the nation once again. Campaign news was dominated by the Congress trio Sonia Gandhi, Dr. Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi with a smiling and charming Priyanka thrown in off and on. The “balancing act” was performed by briefly mentioning NDA’s prime ministerial candidate and someone from the Third Front. Public broadcaster turned out to be dynasty’s private channel. Unhealthy competition and the greed to make money during election season led media to flout with impunity norms of media ethics and guidelines issued by the Press Council of Indiathe statutory body set up for self-regulation. Their objective was to attract eyeballs to increase their TRPs and maybe to demonise a party they didn’t like.
In this regard, our media should learn a lesson from Japan, which was recently struck by earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which caused massive damage to property besides claiming huge casualties. But the media refrain from telecasting the scenes of casualties and collateral damage. What is more, the campaign by Anna Hazare against corruption held recently in New Delhi was given tremendous space in the media, both print and electronic, whereas similar campaigns by other people have been simply ignored–this media bias is beyond comprehension.
Given this perspective, the public disgust over lack of professionalism and ethics in media is so manifest that it should draw the attention of parliamentarians and citizens concerned. The claims of certain associations representing media houses that they are self-regulating their conduct is a hoax. The government, therefore, must act as a facilitator to evolve a broad national consensus for enacting a fresh law to set up a body that would have under its purview all segments of mediaprint, electronic and Internet. In-depth consultations with all stakeholders in the media must be undertaken, including political parties and media institutions before finalising the contours of the proposed law. The proposed body should be armed with jurisdiction to annul the licence/title or even withhold advertisement support to publications/channels which blatantly violate the norms, code, guidelines and directives of the proposed body. The proposed body’s jurisdiction should also extend to Union and State Governments so that it can deal with complaints against their policies or decisions detrimental to media’s independence and freedom–an essential component of a democratic polity. Further, the proposed body should have the powers of decisions that can be challenged only before the Supreme Court of India. Only a body empowered with such authority and enjoying credibility would make recalcitrant publications and stubborn channels fall in line while ensuring independence and freedom of media.
(Based on the speech delivered at a seminar in Bhubaneswar)
By Deepak Kumar Rath