Published by media.syndicate PDF File
Media (print, audio and visual) is a guardian of Public Interest among other things. In a Democracy, media has prominence next to Judiciary, Legislature and Executive - custodians of the constitution. In general, the sentiment that media should not be regulated by the state is accepted. In India, media has been allowed to regulate itself through its own institutions like Press Council of India (PCI) and Editors Guild (EG). With the growth of media business and its commercialization, there are some new trends in media business and newer practices among media professionals. The problem of media bias has been known from a very long time. Sensationalism and trivialization of news were some of the effects of the new trends in media. With the exposure of the Paid News phenomenon, the credibility of the media and the very basis of the journalistic ethics is presently under discussion. Public Interest has been compromised as an institutional practice. In this context, there is a need to strengthen the regulation mechanism for the media. Many of the available suggestions fall within the self regulation framework. Here, the opportunity for Citizen Activism through social groups as public ombudsman is mooted.
Media as a guardian of Public Interest
The role of media in preserving the public interest in a democratic setup is very well understood. Media provides critical feedback to the three limbs of the constitution – The Judiciary, The Legislature and The Executive. Media has the responsibility of informing the Public at large with facts and figures in the appropriate form so that their participation in governance becomes possible. It has the mandate of directing the public opinion along the right track. Historically, journalism, in India has been considered to be sacred.
Regulations and Business Trends
In recent decades, media business has been commercialized. Increased competition has resulted in a fall in journalistic standards, and public interest by and large has been compromised. The Government, aligning itself to strong public opinion favoring press freedom, has allowed self regulation of media. In India, the Press Council of India (PCI), an organization mainly composed of professional journalists and eminent people from different fields, has been assigned the role of regulating media affairs.
From a long time, the problems arising from media bias and yellow journalism were known to both the working journalists and to the general public. Yellow journalism with its tabloid manifestations was easily recognized whereas the media bias problem was misleading the general public. The main stream media reflected one particular set of ideas, prescribed in general a particular approach for addressing problems reiterating similar policies and solutions.
Hindus, Traditionalists and Brahmins, Dalits¸ Poor and Uneducated, and Women constantly complained of media bias against them. The bias was apparent, but still it was not considered seriously. For a very long time, political adversaries of The Congress were neglected by the media. Policy alternatives were never covered seriously. Still, self regulatory mechanisms were never activated in the media circles. No one found it necessary to do something more in this direction.
Recently, with the media houses becoming bigger and more powerful, the increasing competition gave rise to sensationalism and trivialization of news which were noticed both by discerning media professionals as well as by the general public. Impact of such news on the youth was discussed. Ineffectiveness of the media in public education as well as inability of the media to create a strong public opinion were evident. Journalists were lured with gifts by the powerful and the wealthy. With journalism influenced by leftist ideology, journalists in general deviated from conservatism in their view point.
Editors became rich and joined the elite class. Journalists were accused of blackmailing. Corruption - both financial and ideological – was not unknown in journalism.
As the motive of profit making became deep rooted, journalism became subordinate to the bottom line. Advertisement revenues became indispensable. Dependency on the governments was unavoidable for sustenance. PR (Public Relation) business entities came into the picture. Those who had self interest in public debate owned media houses and editorial policies were formulated preserving their own interests.
Till this point of time, a fairly distinct demarcation was observed between the news content and the advertisements. A reader would have distinguished an advertisement from the news. Editorial preferences were noticed but it was viewed as the considered opinion of the editorial board within the boundaries of freedom of expression.
Existence of Paid News phenomenon, revealed in 2009, exposed the blurring of the distinction line between the news and the advertisement. According to PCI, paid news is “Any news or analysis appearing in any media (Print & Electronic) for a price in cash or kind as consideration.” Paid News was found to play a significant role during elections trying to mislead people in favor for or against a particular candidate. There is a realization that, this new trend may undermine the democratic process and can have serious destabilizing effects.
Public scrutiny of Nira Radia tapes in the background of 2G spectrum scam, has once again confirmed the influence of money on the working of the media.
Implications and Examples
Paid –news is a fraud operating at three levels.
1. The reader does not distinguish the paid content from other news/views
2. The person who is paying hides his/her expenditure from legal scrutiny (EC)
3. Income of Media Company is not disclosed in the balance sheet.
A couple of examples are cited. Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd (BCCL) started a paid content service in 2003 called Medianet. In 2005, it initiated Private Treaties with Corporates – about 200 companies entered private treaties with BCCL exchanging their equity to the advertisement space. The deal size with each of those companies was 15-20crores making BCCL biggest private equity investor with a worth of approximately 4000 crores. Paid news service is being argued as the remedy for corrupt PR agencies influencing the journalists of BCCL. CNN-IBN initiated Exclusive Partnerships with companies, Gillette being one of the known examples. During elections, media houses offered several packages to the contesting candidates for a price. Advertorials, advertisements in the form of editorials, were offered for sale. Although, very little material is available which can act as clinching evidence that pins responsibility for such malpractices on particular persons and organizations, a huge volume of circumstantial evidence is available. Fortunately, there is a wide agreement in the media circles about the presence of Paid News.
Suggestions for Reforms
Self Regulatory mechanism of media has come under scrutiny with the revelation of Paid News phenomenon. Present regulatory mechanisms involving PCI is not very effective. Additional checks by the government agencies required to curb the Paid News menace could interfere with the self regulatory mechanism of the media. Following reforms have been suggested to tackle the corrupt practices in media.
1. Amendment of Representation of the People Act 1951 making incidence of paid news a punishable electoral malpractice
2. Empowering Press Council of India to adjudicate the complaints of “paid news’ and give final judgment in the matter.
3. Making the recommendations of the Press Council binding on the authorities
4. Expanding purview of PCI to include Electronic media
5. Media professionals should declare their commitment to good journalism
6. Additional self regulatory mechanisms like Peer review and Public Review of media performance
Readers responsibility – Public Review
Educating readers about the role of media in Democracy and expected deliverables from publications could go a long way in addressing the emerging corrupt practices. Learning to identify media bias, acquiring the ability to distinguish paid content from the legitimate news accurately would help in sustaining citizen activism to monitor media. NGOs and emerging media channels could take the responsibility of institutionalizing the Public Review Process for evaluating the media performance.
Public Review of media could take the following forms
• Media watch activity
• Identify Paid content and help the general public to filter it out
• Act as ombudsman, from public perspective
• Assist present mechanisms like PCI and EC to ensure public interest.
Media, the fourth estate, is a vital organ of Democracy. Regulatory mechanisms of media are to be made effective with additional assistance from government agencies without basically changing the Self Regulatory framework. Public Review as a new regulatory mechanism for media involving Citizens and Non Governmental Organizations has to be institutionalized. Focus on higher journalistic standards ha to be sustained by addressing media bias, sensationalism / trivialization of news and Paid News.