Pressure builds up for a regulator

BY SAMOD SARNGAN| IN Media Practice | 15/08/2014
Advocates of media regulation question the efficacy of the self-restraint exercised by the media and question its lack of accountability.
SAMOD SARNGAN looks at how the TRAI report highlights the shortcomings of self-regulation. Pix: TRAI chairman Rahul Khullar

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) recommendations on media ownership will provide a fresh impetus to the debate on all the important issues: ensuring freedom of the media and preventing its abuse, the need for a media regulator instead of self-regulation, paid news, private treaties, privacy issues, plurality in the media and political and corporate control.

While there is a consensus on the need for maintaining media freedom to sustain the vitality of democracy, there has been an increasing demand for a media regulator with “more teeth” to prevent abuse.

On August 9, Information and Broadcasting Minister, Prakash Javadekar, told the Rajya Sabha that the Centre was committed to upholding the freedom of the press while pointing out that the success of a democracy depended on how the media managed to strike a balance between its freedom and the discharge of its responsibilities. The minister was speaking during a discussion on reported attempts to restrict media freedom.

Javadekar is not alone in his views. The need for self-regulation has been gaining ground. . Politicians cutting across party lines have demanded self-regulation but stopped short of calling for a media regulator, perhaps out of apprehension that it could be construed as a move to curb media freedom.

Calling for media self-regulation, the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in his address at the occasion marking the 125th anniversary of the Malayala Manorama group in March 2014, said that while the media had evolved, some “aberrations” had also crept in. “But the good thing is that these aberrations are also being discussed and debated. It is for the media itself to find ways and means of removing the deficiencies which it suffers from”, said Singh.

However, changes in the media landscape and the commodification of news have taken a toll on the credibility of the media and shattered the ability of the self-regulatory mechanism to deter the “black sheep”.

Despite instances of responsible journalism and the assurance of the Press Commission that self-regulation works best for the media, unrestricted ownership and the overweening commercialisation of the media has, in most cases, compromised the media’s primary objective and responsibility of fair and unbiased news dissemination, thereby severely affecting its credibility,” says TRAI.

Should the media exercise more restraint? Is the media guilty of sensationalizing news? Is there an urgent need for the media to be more responsible? These questions have been discussed time and again on various media platforms, but they remain unresolved. 

Is restrain necessary?  

Immediately after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, news channels agreed on a code for covering terrorism. This happened after journalists came under attack for airing interviews with terrorists and telecasting live visuals of an attempt by security forces to storm terrorists holed up at Chabad House. Rajdeep Sardesai, the then editor of CNN-IBN, described the code as the outcome of "a failure of self-regulation which by its nature is left up to individuals' consciences".

The media also came under scrutiny during the Nirbhaya gang-rape and murder case. While the Union and state governments had a reason to be critical of the media for obvious reasons, the media fraternity too was critical of some of its members. An Indian Express editorial on the widespread protests said: “… the protests, amplified and primed up hysterically by the electronic media, are in danger of becoming even more driven by bloodlust. Justice is qualitatively different from vengeance”.

A case was also filed against a prominent channel for airing an interview with the friend of the victim, who had accompanied her on the fateful day. The Delhi-based media also received flak from its brethren elsewhere in the country for failing to highlight rapes happening elsewhere.

TRAI in its report says: “While there is no dearth of instances of the rightful use of these powers in unearthing scams relating to those in power and in airing the vox populi in the fight against injustice, there are many occasions when this freedom is misused to serve narrow political or business interests. The possibility of misuse of the rights of the media for interests that are not in the larger public good is very real”.

Is the news sensationalized?

The answer is an emphatic yes. The recent ruckus over Shiv Sena MPs and the roti fiasco is proof. Almost four days after the incident, when a prominent English daily carried the story, the incident had acquired communal overtones.

In an op-ed written in December last year, consulting editor and strategic analyst Rajeev Sharma decried the media’s tendency to ignore important issues in favour of sensationalism. He cites two instances: Iran’s nuclear deal with the west which was ignored by a large section of press in favour of the rape accusations against Tarun Tejpal and retired judge A K Ganguly and the visit by the Japanese Emperor to India. Sharma argued that the media was obsessed with “crime, cricket, cinema and celebrities”.

This tendency continues, with the media giving more space to lighter topics, perhaps because reader and viewer preferences have also changed. The wardrobe malfunctions of Bollywood stars or Shah Rukh Khan’s favourite watering holes in London are guaranteed to receive more viewers than an analysis of US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel’s visit.

Is regulation necessary?

Advocates of media regulation often question the efficacy of the self-restraint exercised by the media and question its lack of accountability. Justice Markandey Katju, an ardent votary of media accountability, has questioned the absence of a media watchdog when other professions like lawyers, doctors and accountants have regulatory bodies with powers to revoke licences.

In its report, TRAI points to “serious shortcomings of the self-regulatory model (bordering on regulatory failure)” and underscores the need to “strengthen the media regulatory framework at this point of time”.

Self-regulation is effective only when media organizations have well defined ideas about journalistic ethics and the checks and balances needed to prevent violations are institutionalized. Self-regulation has been ineffective in dealing with paid news, private treaties, and other issues.

TRAI’s recommendation regarding the constitution of the media regulator should be viewed as a testimonial of the media’s lack of credibility in serving as a watchdog. TRAI recommends that the independent regulatory body “should consist of eminent persons from different walks of life, including the media. It should be manned predominantly by eminent non-media persons”.

TRAI clearly believes that a watchdog led by journalists would be seriously handicapped in probing and penalizing violations by its own brethren, hence its recommendation to appoint non-media persons to head the media regulator.

As the fourth pillar of democracy, the media has a well defined role to play. To ensure that it does not come under the shadow of doubt, it should open itself up for scrutiny just as it puts government, social and political institutions under the microscope as a watchdog of the public interest.


 (Samod Sarngan is a Mumbai-based journalist. He has earlier worked with the Press Trust of India, DNA daily and the Zee group. He can be contacted at


Subscribe To The Newsletter
The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

View More