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Editorial: Restraint in the media

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

The TV news channels that went overboard in more ways than one during the terrorist attack on Mumbai last month, and indeed displayed lack of judgment in the way they telecast live action, may have asked for more trouble than they bargained for—with Parliament apparently getting ready to consider clamping some restrictions on what the channels can and cannot do. Even before the latest episode, the channels have been resisting broadcasting regulations that the government has proposed.

At the same time, they have not put out a public code of their own on the basis of which they will practise self-regulation. All that they have done is to form a broadcasters’ association which has put together a panel to whom viewers can take complaints. This panel put out some kind of an advisory shortly after the Mumbai attacks began, but that seems to have been ignored by all concerned in the race that ensued for grabbing audience share with sensation-seeking programming.

The media functions under the Constitutional guarantee of free speech, and that is a powerful protection. The real guarantee of freedom, though, is public support for what the media does.

If that support wanes because the media does not do credit to itself, both Parliament and the courts will find it easier to try and put restraints on the media’s functioning—and that is the situation that now presents itself. Restraint has already been imposed on the results of exit polls being televised before all polling is over (and the way the Election Commission organises elections, this takes weeks), which could easily be challenged—except that no one knows the mood of the courts.

There are moves to give more teeth to the Press Council, which may have been a good institution when it was first set up but which long ago lost credibility within the media. The courts themselves have occasionally given judgments involving prior restraint—which technically runs counter to the guarantee of free speech. The stock market regulator, meanwhile, has been concerned about the nexus between the media and share trading activity, with the ex-chairman of Sebi talking pointedly of “anchor investors”.

If Parliament now gets into the act with other ideas on reining in the TV channels, then the media may come to rue the lack of self-regulation.

While many media organisations (including this newspaper) do have formal codes of conduct and clearly enunciated corrections policies, and a few have/had ombudsmen and “reader’s editors”, the plain fact is that the standards of journalism in both the print and electronic media vary quite widely. That is only to be expected when there are dozens of newspapers and channels.

But even the better-run TV channels did not do much credit to themselves during the Mumbai attacks—as the feedback coming through in a variety of ways should have made clear by now.

The point is that the media’s right to function freely is one of the most precious features of India’s democracy, and almost any kind of restraint or control imposed on the media will be a step backward, and should therefore be resisted.

However, the ball is in the media’s court, and it is up to those in charge of media organisations to see the danger that now presents itself. They must take effective action to show that they are aware of growing disenchantment. The simple truth is that the media will best protect itself and its freedom if it seeks out the high ground.

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First Published: Sun, December 14 2008. 00:00 IST