The answer to who guards the media shouldn't be 'no-one'

Even the most fervent defenders of media's independence from any form of control by the government are giving up in the face of mounting evidence that the Indian media is not serious about regulating itself


Prasanna Mohanty | November 30, 2012

“The press has to be accountable to the public in whose interests it claims to be acting and must show respect for the rights of others… The answer to the question who guards the guardians, should not be ‘no-one’.”

This is the stark observation of Britain’s Justice Leveson who headed the inquiry into the infamous hacking scandal involving the Rupert Murdoch's ‘News of the Word’ tabloid (which has since shut down).

But it could just well be said about our own media too.

Much like the British media, our media - both the print and electronic variety - has come under increasing public scrutiny and contempt in recent times too.

Its misconducts are variously described in such colourful expressions as “paid news”, “media trial”, “private treaties” and much worse as is now in evidence. No less than the supreme court recently tried to put fetters on the way at least the court proceedings are reported by the media, sparking a full-fledged debate on the nature of the freedom of expression. Justice Leveson’s description of the British media as “reckless” and “outrageous” would very well fit our media. Just as he recommended a regulatory body, independent of the media and government, backed by legislation, the chorus for having a similar body for our own media has grown too.

Thus far Indian media houses have reacted in a predictable manner, strongly batting for “self-regulation”. Media is the watchdog of the government and it embodies constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech, goes the argument. But it is increasingly sounding hollow and deceptive, not only because of the growing incidents of improper behaviour, bordering on the criminal as is evident in a string of cases in the last few weeks, but also the manner in which the self-regulating mechanism has not worked so far. For most part, the media seems more interested in furthering its own vested interests. The self-regulation has made no difference to paid news, private treaties or media trial.

Self-regulation should mean that when a media house or journalists transgresses the basic ethics of the profession, the rest write about it, talk about, make noise and ensure the errant ones are made to pay for it by naming and shaming. Instead, every media house looks the other way when a transgression occurs with clear understanding that under the industry's unwritten or unspoken code of silence every other media house shall look the other way when it is on the wrong side of the ethical line.

Instead, self-regulation is at best self-certification where in every media house gives itself a good conduct certificate while using it to create an illusion of effective internal regulation to fend off all talk of external regulation.

The media is close to losing the argument against external, mandated regulation. Even the most fervent defenders of the media's independence from any form of control by the government are giving up in the face of mounting evidence that the Indian media is not serious about regulating itself. One such is Vinod Mehta, a senior editor known for his fierce defence of the media's independence from its owners, not to talk of the government. Rubbishing the claims of self-regulation, Mehta told CNN-IBN recently that self-regulation is a sham and that the media now needs external regulation. When an editor with such credentials for independence and integrity says that, you know things are bad, real bad.

Our prime minister, like his counterpart in the UK, may have ruled out a statutory regulator for our media for now. But for how long, is the question that must agitate the media.



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