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Does the media need controls?

As a humble cog in the vast and wondrous machine of the Indian media,I want to extend my personal thanks to Justice Markandey Katju for his recent comments.

Written by Tavleen Singh |
November 6, 2011 12:43:33 am

As a humble cog in the vast and wondrous machine of the Indian media,I want to extend my personal thanks to Justice Markandey Katju for his recent comments. He has been berated by the Editors Guild for his ‘tendentious and offensive’ remarks,but my own view is that we owe the new Chairman of the Press Council a small debt of gratitude. It is true that in his interview to Karan Thapar,he used unusually strong language. He described journalists as illiterate ignoramuses who lacked ‘knowledge of economic theory or political science or literature or philosophy.’ Phew! Justice Katju must have a high opinion of his own erudition to speak this way. But,this is not what I want to thank him for. I want to thank him for admitting publicly that the Government of India (and doubtless all our state governments) use their advertising campaigns,not for the public good,but to control the press.

When he told Karan that he would like the electronic media to be brought under the Press Council so that he could deny government advertisements to misbehaving TV channels,I could hardly believe my ears. Those of us who cover government and politics in Delhi have known forever that the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting uses government advertising to control newspapers,but nobody,to my knowledge,has admitted this openly.

If the government uses its advertisements to coerce newspapers into printing only good news about the government,it amounts to press censorship. It is a tactic Indian officials learned in the days when the Soviet Union was our role model. It is a tactic that has no place in today’s world in which the Internet has made censorship almost impossible even in totalitarian countries like China.

On a personal level,Justice Katju has done me another favour. I have been waiting for some time to find a week in which I could use this space to draw attention to some very bad things that have started to happen in the media and his insulting remarks provide me with this chance. Of these bad things,the worst is the habit that our news channels have developed of media trials. No matter what someone may have done,they have the right under Indian law to be considered innocent till proven guilty. Our news channels deny them this right and this is not just wrong,it is against the fundamental principles of justice. It is time for those who control our major news channels to come together and evolve a code of conduct.

If some public figures are treated as guilty till proven innocent by our TV anchors,there are others who are treated with a reverence that is equally disturbing. Anna Hazare comes to mind as someone who was treated this way. As for the Nehru-Gandhi family,it is as if our TV channels had come to a secret understanding to deify them. The Prime Minister is routinely reviled for his indecision and his lack of leadership but the family who gave him his job is treated as sacrosanct. Why?

Without wanting to sound like Justice Katju,I feel obliged to add that some of the so-called reporters employed by our news channels should have no place in journalism. They rush about hysterically from one sound byte to the next without noticing that instead of reporting a story,they are actually doing no more than shoving their microphones into the faces of different people. There are more than 300 news channels in India now and not one of them seems able to go beyond the manic frenzy of ‘breaking news’. When is the last time you saw a truly memorable bit of investigative journalism on Indian television?

Justice Katju went too far when he described the whole media as ignorant and illiterate but nobody who watches television news on a daily basis can deny that improvement is needed. Junior reporters need basic training in the fundamentals of journalism before they are unleashed on our screens. And,some of our celebrated anchors need to remember that they do not speak for ‘the people of India’.

On account of needing to compete with ‘breaking news’,I am forced here to sadly admit that print journalism standards have declined. No longer do we see the sort of investigative stories that this newspaper was once famous for. The only way for newspapers to compete seriously with television is for them to go deeper into a story than is possible in a news bulletin. Sadly,the opposite has happened and,more and more,we see reporters getting stories from ‘sources’ instead of from their own investigation. But,this must not be taken to mean that we need Justice Katju to whip us into what he considers good behaviour. He definitely needs another job.

Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh

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