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Leave it to the editor

The Press Council chairman,Justice Markandey Katju,has criticised the media for excessive focus on Dev Anand — but the council’s mandate is to protect editorial freedom,not curb it

Written by Mukul Mudgal |
December 19, 2011 3:35:56 am

The recent criticism of the front-page coverage given to a matinee idol’s demise raises significant questions about the freedom of speech and expression,and the freedom of the media to choose their priorities and the nature and extent of the coverage of such an event.

Dev Anand’s stature in the film world was not only as an adored hero,but also as a director who dared to raise critical issues affecting our society. Furthermore,his career stretched from the pre-Independence era until the start of the 21st century. Few,if any,Bollywood stars have had such a span of active association with films. This apart,Dev Anand’s phenomenal good looks and charisma made female audiences swoon and male audiences envious.

Did the death of such a person merit front-page coverage and is the media watchdog’s criticism of such coverage justified? The Constitution of India,under Article 19(1)(a),grants the freedom of speech and expression which can only be restricted by a law made by the state imposing reasonable restrictions on such right in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India,the security of the state,friendly relations with foreign states,public order,decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court,defamation or incitement to an offence.

Significantly,the Supreme Court in the Sakal newspapers case held that freedom of speech or expression could not be curbed even by a law made by the state on the ground that such a law promoted the general welfare of a section of or a group of people.

The mandate of the Press Council of India,under Section 13(2)(a) of the Press Council Act 1978,is to help newspapers and news agencies maintain their independence. Section 13(2)(b) of the Act provides that a code of conduct is to be built,for high professional standards among journalists.

The criticism of the media coverage deemed unwarranted could at best fall within Section 13(2)(c),which requires the Press Council to ensure maintenance of high standards of public taste and to foster a due sense of both the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

The front-page placement of a news item relating to the death of a cinema icon could not fall within the scope of such mandate of the Press Council. No one doubts that the event merited coverage. Surely,how such coverage is to be given and on which page the news item should figure,depends upon editorial freedom,which the Press Council is statutorily mandated to protect. Many reputed publications known for not emphasising glamour have carried extensive write-ups on Dev Anand.

Of course,this is not to belittle the monumental contribution made by some journalists who have extensively covered non-glamorous issues affecting our polity in great depth and with earnestness. However,public interest does depend upon the choice of the majority of readership.

Farmers’ deaths also need to be covered,but the manner of such coverage would eventually depend upon the editorial choice — best left to the editor. The Page 3 coverage of freeloading non-entities is indeed obnoxious to many,including the author of this piece,but the solution lies in choosing to ignore such coverage and getting on with pages which contain serious reading material. There is obviously a section of readers that derives its thrills from reading which party was attended by whom. A serious reader would,with the passage of time,avoid newspapers that concentrate on the vacuous and inane,and subscribe to publications which promote issues of note.

Of course,the Press Council of India,within its statutory mandate,is bound to ensure high standards of public taste and the rights and responsibilities of the citizenry,but this cannot be done by curbing editorial freedom.

The writer is a former chief justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court

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