Utpal Borpujari

February 16, 2009

Churning time for electronic media

Filed under: Deccan Herald,India,Media — Utpal Borpujari @ 9:48 pm
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Immediately after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, a number of Facebook groups sprouted spitting venom on a particular television journalist for the way she had covered the event. She perhaps became an unwitting target of many, simply because she was a famous name, but the general ire against news channels, for the way they cover news – and much non-news in the garb of news – has seen a major upswing since the Mumbai attacks.


The major complaints against them have been – there is too much sensationalism, lack of concern about national security, and lack of a sense of decorum in general.


Well, the Mumbai attacks acted as a trigger for outpouring of anti-electronic media emotions, something that was being reflected in critical pieces in newspapers, against glamourisation of crime and criminals, promotion of occultism and obscurantism, and in the case of a number of channels, a complete surrender to sensationalism in the pursuit of viewership ratings. The coverage of the recent Mangalore pub attack seemed to reinforce this thought, with the Karnataka government even using it to propagate the idea of a “media ombudsman” to, many allege, muzzle the media.


No wonder, during the hearing of a public interest litigation filed by NGO Common Cause seeking strict government regulation to check obscenity and violence shown on TV channels, Supreme Court Justice G S Singhvi had asked the government of India’s Additional Solicitor General Gopal Subramaniam,  “Can you please tell us if there is even one single day in the 365 days where a family can sit together and watch the programme?” This is perhaps something many would ask the channels if they got a chance to.


The anger has had the desired effect, at least to some  extent. The recently-formed News Broadcasters Association (NBA), representing 14 broadcasters who collectively run 31 news and current affairs channels, has just come out with a detailed set of guidelines on how to cover news events avoiding everything for which they have been criticised of late. This has come even as the Press Council of India (PCI) is understood to be in the process of formally recommending to the government that its ambit should be enlarged to bring the electronic media under its jurisdiction. What also is being debated is the fact that the NBA’s guidelines, the first such attempt at self-regulation by the electronic media, need not necessarily be obeyed by the remaining 150-plus news channels operating in various parts of the country. And that is why there is demand for a regulatory framework of the whole of the electronic media, something that the  industry vehemently opposing, even appealing to Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi not to go ahead with the UPA government’s plans to amends the Cable Television Network Rules for the purpose.


The general refrain among media watchers is that the government should not step in as far as regulating the media is concerned, but at the same time, there must be a regulatory framework to bring the house in order. N Bhaskar Rao of the Centre for Media Studies is among those who strongly believe that there should not be any government regulation of the media, be it in the form of government-controlled ombudsman or regulatory authority. “The further the government moves away form the media, the better. Media itself should evolve a self-appraisal model and moderate itself. And the civil society should have fora to keep a watch on the media. The regulatory process should be independent without any conflict of interest,” he says.


Adds Akhila Sivadas of the Centre for Advocacy and Research, “When it comes to a civil society issue, media has to give all views. It is an issue between the media and government that the latter feels the former requires a watchdog body. But in the final analysis, the media has got to reflect the wider public opinion and develop informed opinion. Does the media tell me what are my laws, my constitutional rights? Just getting two people on a debate is not the end of it, though it may be entertaining.”


For noted author Githa Hariharan, known for her socially-conscientious writing, a regulatory framework in a must, even if its form and nature could be decided through an informed debate. As she says, “I think all rationale people both within the media and outside would want some framework of guidelines, which has to be flexbile and open to debate depending in situation. I think we do have a lively and intelligent media. If there are irresponsible members, that does not mean media is not capable of drafting the framework. Citizens and media should create a debate on this, and as a citizen I will look forward to a debate that will show a way out.”


Rao, however, believes that NBA’s guidelines are driven by the events of the moment. “Even former Chief Justice of India J S Verma (who heads NBA’s regulatory authority) has said that at the moment they are mainly concerned by post-Mumbai developments, which means they are largely only concerned by national security issues. Eventually they have to look into political and cultural issues, the kind of which happened in Mangalore. Moreover their interest is not the content part, but limited to keep the government away, not really to clean up the whole thing.” At the same time, he believes, the PCI is not the right body to take the reins. “PCI in its present form is absolutely trash. They (the government) should take a re-look at the very structure of the PCI. It’s a reactive body, not a proactive body, and in times of expanding electronic media, this won’t serve any purpose. It should be repositioned with different powers, capabilities and skills,” he says.


Sivadas adds, “What we are talking about is a code of conduct. Whatever the government or the industry is instituting, is essentially keeping consumer confidence in mind. In exceptional situation like Mumbai, issues like security come in, in all other issues consumer interest is in mind. What is poison to one could be nectar to the other. Consumer confidence depends on balance in reporting. The problem is not so much about coverage, it is about to what extent public opinion is getting mobilised for debate.”


Quite clearly, the last word has not yet been heard on this, even through NBA’s guidelines have come as a first step towards setting the house in order. It’s churning time for the electronic media, and everyone would be hoping the poison would get separated and the nectar would come out of it.


(published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 15-02-2009)



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