Leveson and the spotlight on regulation

BY Aradhana sharma| IN Law and Policy | 10/12/2012
Recent instances of impropriety in the Indian press make it useful to study how the British inquiry into the ethics and practices of the fourth estate can apply to the Indian scenario,
says ARADHANA SHARMA Pix: Lord Justice Leveson

Regulation. The word invites strong reactions, particularly when spoken of in  reference to the media.  While news media would like to steer clear of it, it has once again found its way into the news. The recent submission of the Leveson inquiry report in the United Kingdom has once again brought to the fore the contentious issue of media regulation. Should the media be regulated and, if so, how?

After his 17-month long inquiry on the “culture, practices and ethics of the press,” Justice Leveson reached the conclusion on the need for statutory regulation –regulation backed by law. While the immediate trigger for the inquiry was the phone hacking scandal and irregularities by the now closed “News of The World” and its staff, the report looked into the general degeneration of ethical practices in the newspaper industry.

Justice Leveson’s view is that self-regulation in the press, through bodies like the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), has not worked and it is time for a regulatory body with a concrete shape and teeth. Newspaper editors and many others have however, gone on to criticise the move to set-up a statutory regulator. To them, any statutory action has the ‘stench’ of the State and should be avoided at all costs.

The primary job of the press, particularly a ‘free press’ in a democratic society, is to hold those in positions of power and authority to account. It goes without saying that there should not be any interference by the government in the functioning of the media in the name of regulation. Justice Leveson has tried to navigate this by specifying that the new system of regulation should be independent of the government and the parliament and guarantee the freedom and independence of the press. However, for now, at a meeting of newspaper editors with the prime minister and other senior government functionaries, it has been decided to fulfil the ‘spirit’ of the Leveson report, without bringing in statutory regulation. The newspapers look eager to comply. After all, any indications of ‘business as usual’ would be counter-productive.

In India, the last few years have seen several instances of impropriety (to say the least) by the media. The latest, in a string of them is the case of Zee TV editors allegedly asking for money for not airing damaging reports on Jindal Steel--silence being bartered for advertising. Earlier, the Radia tapes exposed how the lines have blurred in the practice of journalism -certain interests being furthered in the garb of news and information being conveyed on the pretext of newsgathering. Another prominent and systemic example is of paid news whereby you can pay to have ‘positive’ news about you and ‘negative’ news on your opponent. ‘Sting’ journalism too has taken some innocent victims.

All these and many more omissions and commissions by the Indian media have led to demands for regulation and calls for introspection. The loudest voice is that of Justice Katju, Chairman of the Press Council of India, who on the heels of the Leveson Report, wrote another piece arguing for regulation. The voices have come, not just from outside the media, but also from within. Some, especially those at senior positions, have used the same logic of the newspaper editors in the United Kingdom – self regulate or you will be regulated. Last year saw many a seminar and meetings on media regulation, where different approaches have been discussed by media practitioners, lawyers, civil society activists, politicians as well as government ministers.

There is no single forum in India on media regulation and redressal. The Press Council of India looks at newspapers, but is a largely toothless body, which initially suppressed its own report on ‘paid’ news under pressure from newspaper proprietors. The television media has set-up its own ‘self’ regulatory mechanism - News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA). Speaking at a function last year, its chairman and former Chief Justice of India, J S Verma, did not repose much faith in the workings of media organisations, but said baby steps were being taken in the right direction through self-regulation.

With the history of the Emergency years behind us, the Indian media and even its people are justified in being wary of any government intervention in this sphere. But as a columnist in the UK’sFinancial Times wrotein his column on November 30, “The press cannot any longer expect to mark its own homework.” If the path of self-regulation is to work then it needs to be transparent and involve parties (independent journalists, media analysts and maybe even some civil society members) other than just interested proprietors and token editors.

A large part of the problem is the blurring of boundaries between the business interests and the editorial interests of news organisations. This means that news and news spaces are no longer sacrosanct. Business interests often override news. Interestingly, rather than making the distinction clear, the representation on the regulatory bodies, which can include editors, chief executive officers and even proprietors, only adds to the fog and further fuzzies the picture. There is little clarity on who is calling the shots on what aspects of running and regulating a news organisation.

The refrain of let the market or the audience decide will no longer suffice if the media wants to keep its credibility. Not everyone is tarnished. The black sheep need to be reined in. Those in the media and outside, who want  the news media to have the power to check those in power, need to challenge the status quo and business as usual practices. Debate and intent have their place, but maybe it is now time for action.

On the contrary, being part of the regulatory mechanism, and staying in it, should be incentivised. For instance, advertising rates could be linked to membership and compliance, as can severity of penal action against non-members.

The aim should be to have a regulatory body which is empowered and include all media organisations under its umbrella. ‘Voluntary’ should not come to mean convenience. Allowing organisations to join when interested and walking out when not suitable or when penalised, as in the India TV and News Broadcasters Association case in 2009, will only weaken the case for self-regulation.

(The author is a journalist with 15 years of experience in the mainstream print and electronic media in India. She is presently on a sabbatical doing a PhD in media studies at the Centre for Culture, Media and Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi).

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