Before I begin this post, a few of declarations :
a) post 26/11 I believed, and still do, that some news channels should have lost their licenses because I believed that they put lives at risk
b) post 26/11, my revulsion at private news channels was so great that I stopped watching TV news.
The National Broadcasters Association had come up with a code of conduct and those who watch television news will be best suited to talk about whether those are followed or not.
Over the last few days, the Indian Express has been carrying stories on Congress MP, Meenakshi Natarjan‘s private member bill on “Print and Electronic Media Standards and Regulation Bill, 2012“. I have tried to get a copy of the bill, but that is work in progress. The proposed bill calls for the creation of a body that can take suo moto action against media houses, confiscate their property, suspend their license to conduct business and gag them. As far as I know it hasn’t called for public flogging, but then I haven’t read the bill. AS i pointed out on twitter
Meenakshi Natarajan’s proposed bill makes Draconian seem like a soft liberal person who goes on candle light marches
I still don’t understand how such an unconstitutional bill even came to be drafted, especially by someone whose bio reads law graduate? I may understand the why of it, but not the how of it ? How can you have an authority that investigates without anyone complaining ?
According to the Bill, this Authority is exempt from the Right to Information Act and can even order the search and seizure of documents or records of a media organisation.
The Bill lays down standards which it says the media “must” follow. These include: “prohibition of reporting any news item based on unverified and dubious material”; “exercising due care while reporting news items related to judiciary and legislature,”; clearly segregating “opinion from facts,”; “maintaining complete transparency and impartiality in internal functioning” and “prohibition of reporting news items which are obscene, vulgar or offensive.”
It also lays down that the electronic media shall not “showcase clippings from entertainment programmes or from those aired on entertainment channels for more than 15 minutes of its daily broadcast time.”
This bill’s approach seems to be the same approach taken by eminent civil society members on corruption. there is a problem. let us hit that problem with a sledgehammer and the problem will go away. Unfortunately the world doesn’t work that way. You cannot have vague legislation ‘unverified or dubious material’. If you want verified news – go read a history book replete with multiple citations.
Laws exist, be they laws on defamation or laws on incitement that can handle any breach by the media. Those laws can and should be applied if required. I remember a TV news channel that falsely implicated a maths teacher of procurement (she was accused of pimping her students) losing its license for a given period, I cannot think of a single person who disagreed with that. channels have been fined, channels have been told to move shows to other times, channels have been requested not to carry troop movements – and channels have complied. There are laws that exist, and every business knows that they need to comply with the law. Why do you then need additional laws? Meenakshi Natarajan’s proposed bill is in the same space as Jan Lok Pal. Instead of applying the laws that exist, you build one draconian monolith that has no raison d’etre.
I also believe that it is a wake up call for a media that has gone over the top. It needs to self regulate. The role of the NBA needs to be strengthened, it needs to have teeth. Currently out of 400 odd news channels, it exerts authority on 10% of those channels. ( i am talking about TV news, because Print is less pervasive and more fragmented). Also the Press as a whole needs to get its act in place. The kind of arm twisting that went into suppressing the paid news report and replacing it with a bland equivalent needs to stop. There needs to be a separation of powers between that part of the industry that monitors and that part that puts out content.
Also, the reason why the media has gone nuts is that is run for reasons other than profit. Stop political funding of news. Stop state funding of news. Have a TRP system that is more universal, which will tell advertisers and clients exactly what they are paying for (and not the viewing patterns of less than 10,000 people.) Have legislation on the cross ownership of media. Bring in addressability. But no, politicians will do none of this, because the fall out will be so great and their political obsolescence will be so rapid – that they would be out before the ink is dry on the bill. So, they come up with silliness like this. The bill won”t be passed is, hopefully, a given. But, someone who introduced a bill like this deserves censure.
Finally, if the Congress Party says it doesn’t know about the bill or that the bill doesn’t reflect its policies then maybe it needs to have words with its M.P. who introduced the bill. The bill is not an independent member’s bill, it a Congress MP’s bill. And this particular Congress MP is an aide of Rahul Gandhi. If none of them knew about it, then either the organisation is terribly inept, or the MP has crossed the line on discipline.
do also read Anant Rangaswami on First Post on why the proposed bill was a non starter