Few of us could then have anticipated the direction, velocity and momentum of this theme over the last month, over which it has attained prime status as the most relevant theme for our national ethos. Those who had hesitantly planned programs, talks and seminars around this theme several weeks ago deserve kudos for their incipient astrological talent.
Make no mistake about it: if the press has been given the exalted status of the fourth pillar of democracy, it has to face the slings and arrows of scrutiny just as much, if not more, than any of the other 3 pillars which are subjected to minute gaze and accountability. You should not be allowed to have your cake, eat it too and not even show it on your whiskers. Exalted status and even more humongous power must come with heightened accountability.
It would be wrong to see today’s theme in a narrow, semantic or pedantic sense, limited to merely the role of the press in judicial proceedings as the title seems, at first blush, to suggest. For me, that would be piecemeal. Reform cannot happen without a holistic approach, starting from the sub judice rule, to the larger role and responsibility of the media, to the peculiarities of the visual and social media as opposed to the textual media, to the role of government and, above all, to the voyeristic depths to which society itself has sunk. Since words have to be an assault on the senses for real reform to occur, I do not intend to mince my words.
First the larger picture. While no one can deny the media’s sterling work as conscience keepers and unravellers of wrongdoing, we cannot, equally, deny that Indian news has plummeted in the wrong direction of the equation between sense and sensationalism, between news and noise, between civility and chaos, between balance and extremism. Terrorism is a global scourge but the time may not be far off when we may have to invent the new offence of verbal terrorism, visual extremism and content fundamentalism, arising from daily events on the visual media. The only saving grace is that the several and alarmingly growing aberrations and distortions in media still remain a proportionately small exception.
Undoubtedly, it has much to do with the toxic triangle of viewership, ratings and revenue. Add to this liberal and spicy doses of politics, glamour, insidious government control, premeditated and motivated stands, ambitious anchors and a public baying for blood, and it is bound to become a heady cocktail which will make, jointly, the manufacturers of whisky, vodka and rum blush. The Delhi High Court graphically and rightly told us that today the best substitute for action thrillers are certain news programs. There is humor here, but more pathos and a cry of anguish. It is astonishing how so many business houses, so many channels, so many anchors and so many journalists have mortgaged their calling, their training and their consciences to the lure of temporary pelf, power and property. They have done this by becoming spokespersons of ideologies, viewpoints, persons, authorities and vested interest lobbies.
The techniques are well known and widespread. Non level playing field debates, deliberate interruptions, gleeful verbal blood sport, conscious invitation of biased and malicious participants, strategic cutting off of mikes, formulation of one sided themes, unevenly numbered viewpoints and many, many more are standard tactics for driving TRP ratings and advertisement revenue. Serious news items are presented as popular crime thrillers and extremist and fundamentalist anchors have given birth to media terrorism, a potent threat to democracy itself. I have here with me on my mobile phone clips of 30 seconds each from 3 programs, given also to the National Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA), which I am itching to show here on screen to give you an idea of the depths we have plumbed. Some outdated notions of propriety restrain me. But I have no answer to a simple question: media in UK, USA and several other democracies is no less aggressive and intrusive. But why do I never see the kind of scenes captured on these clips and many more embedded in your eyes and mind, in the channels of those countries?
Society in general is certainly not exempt as a principal accused. Viewership would not drive this engine unless society treated salacious as sane and was prepared to believe the worst about everyone else. As society loses its moral compass, compassion and analysis is replaced with glee at others’ misfortune and with irrational and illogical reactions. Make no mistake about it: it is we, you and me, who give this whole circus legitimacy and strength. Divided we stand and hence we let dog eat dog and let the devil take the hindmost.
The sub judice rule died long ago; even its obsequies were performed and bones interred in the forgotten recesses of our memory. In one sense, the theme today is textually wrong. I wonder if there can ever be pros of a trial held by the media? Was such sup-plantation of sovereign courts and institutional mechanisms ever contemplated by the wisest framers of our fantastic Constitution? The object of a media trial is intended to create a perceptional reality. The merits and the outcome are irrelevant and immaterial. Demoralization of the investigator, defamation of the entire police force and derailment of the inquiry be damned. No second thought is today given to taking a side vigorously, pronouncing a verdict and proudly playing the role of judge, jury, prosecutor and persecutor rolled into one. This apparently is the best way to whip up a frenzy.
The Supreme Court’s repeated warnings and sermons appear to be just ink on paper! From Saibal’s judgement in 1961 to Rajendra Gandhi in 1997 to Sail’s judgement in 2005, the Supreme Court, it seems in retrospect, puts great weight on a legal principle which a large part of the fourth estate appears to have forgotten. In Gandhi, the Court said : “A trial by press, electronic media or public agitation is the very antithesis of rule of law. It can well lead to miscarriage of justice. A Judge has to guard himself against any such pressure and he is to be guided strictly by rules of law….“. And in Sail, it focussed on the visual media: “The reach of the media, in the present times of 24?hour channels, is to almost every nook and corner of the world. Further, large number of people believe as correct that which appears in media, print or electronic". Lord Denning castigated the fictional notion that no judge will be influenced by the media and said “This claim to judicial superiority over human frailty is one I find difficulty in accepting.” And Cardozo, as far back as 1921, analyses beautifully “ the forces which enter into the conclusions of Judges" and observed that "the great tides and currents which engulf the rest of men, do not turn aside in their curse and pass the Judges by". The fact that violation of the sub judice rule is contempt of court does not seem to matter and seems par for the course nowadays. Perhaps the Court’s misplaced benevolence in the wrong cases has led to this pass. A few examples of genuinely egregious defaulters made by the courts will definitely be a deterrent.
No doubt, judges have to be balanced, cautious and not tilt at windmills. A new development over the last three decades, which did not exist at the birth of the classic sub judice rule, is the fact that judicial intrusions, right or wrong, have increased exponentially in every known sphere of human endeavour, especially in India. Judicial review exists of everything and everyone with virtually no per se no go areas. No one can therefore suggest a chilling effect or a self imposed gag order by the press regarding reporting on any or all such topics. But just as it is difficult to define an elephant, though we all know one when we see one, most of us understand genuine reporting as opposed to some of the filth which blows the sub judice rule to smithereens.
Lastly, remedial measures without which much of this remains empty theorising and incantation of hope. It must start with awareness: awareness of lapse, awareness of accountability and awareness of urgent necessity. Second, it must start with the recognition of the paradox: external control must be eschewed, self regulation is the key and yet peer regulation has failed. The Press Council is worse than a toothless tiger because the latter can at least roar. No less than its own Chairman has called for a repeal of the Press Council Act. In relative terms, the NBSA has no doubt fared better for the visual media but remains woefully inadequate to combat the degree and scope of the menace. The problem is the conspiracy of silence, the incestuous ambiance of a peers exclusive club, the chalta hai attitude and the clear tribe feeling of all of having been there and having done it. It appears that this old boys cartel is just too big for NBSA to bust.
Third, though the menu card of NBSA powers is wide and comprehensive—viz to warn, admonish, censure, express disapproval, impose a fine upon the broadcaster and /or recommend to the concerned authority for suspension/revocation of its license—it has never in actual practice lead to the last and very occasionally to the penultimate penalty. It is now time to name and shame especially by peers and to impose the maximum penalties without inhibition. If the Doctor has to even attempt to cure, the medicine has to be bitter and urgent. As the industry’s conscience keeper, the NBSA must get its teeth into the issue. Its advisories must increase and their slightest violation should evoke baring of its teeth, followed not merely by snarling but by biting and biting hard. Only a few egregious violators need to be made examples of. The Authority has nothing to lose except its passivity and much to gain. A clear message sent to a few, consistently and even handedly applied, will lead to a tangible and decisive change in temperature, content and direction and invite huge applause from a sickened public.
Fourth, NBSA must be recognised by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting as the self regulatory body for the news genre. The NBSA’s guidelines must be notified under the Cable TV Act and regulations. This will then bind all news broadcasting entities, whether or not they are members of the NBSA. Otherwise, we have been seeing the farcical spectacle of several channels, after exhibiting shocking programs, calmly exiting from NBSA membership if caught with their hands in the till and about to be subjected to the harsher penalties. Post exit, they merrily continue with their indefensible ways. Incidentally, there is a very good precedent provided by the Advertising Code which is included as a notified Code under the same Act.
Fifthly, there is a most urgent need for an Independent Ratings agency. Content is decided by the 30,000 measuring meters (some say the latest mid 2020 figure is 44000) spread across our country of 130 crore people. Additionally, they are subject to several sleights of hand by undisclosed algorithms to arrive at the King of media viz TRP. It is this concept that exercises mesmeric and hypnotic control over everything. I have frequently wanted to award the Nobel Prize for Miniaturisation to those who extrapolate from a sample size of 30,000 (or indeed of 44000) to a country of 130 crores!
We owe it to India and to ourselves to achieve, even partially or fractionally, this wish list.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.