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Sunanda K Datta-Ray: The leaning pillars of democracy

The media and the judiciary need to reform themselves to change the society

Sunanda K Datta-Ray 

Seeing my astonishment at the judge’s peon who rushed up to ask for baksheesh because my family had won a property suit, my lawyer said loudly for everyone to hear, “In a few years the judge sahib himself will come running for a tip!” I recounted this anecdote at a recent meeting in a high court to enthusiastic applause while senior advocates and judges on the platform sat in stony disapproval.

The occasion was a discussion on the role of the judiciary and media in the reformation of society organised by the Society for Justice, Peace and Protection of Human Rights. While most of the judges and lawyers quoted eminent British luminaries to pat themselves on the back for the judiciary’s glorious record, I threw a spanner in the works by highlighting the gulf between theory and practice and, warning that the grand edifice of the highest judiciary rests on the rotting foundations of under-staffed, lazy and corrupt lower courts.

I tried to make my observations less unpalatable to the judges by including the media in my strictures. Lee Kuan Yew once told the International Press Institute that it was unrealistic to expect the media to curb governmental corruption when media institutions were themselves corrupt. Not so long ago, I stumbled into a meeting where the Press Council’s 37,000-word report “How corruption in the Indian media undermines democracy” was being discussed. It was just as well I had another engagement and couldn’t accept the invitation to speak, for had I opened my mouth I would have given grave offence.

The journalists in the meeting were waxing indignant about the money paid to other journalists by political parties and business houses. No other source of corruption mattered. Describing that occasion to my legal audience, I mentioned the six British World War I correspondents who were requested in the name of patriotism not to report some blunder by the commanding officer. Not one did, living up to the rhyme, “You cannot hope to bribe or twist/ Thank God, the British journalist./But seeing what the man will do/ Unbribed, there’s no occasion to”.

All six correspondents ended up as peers of the realm. In India, they would have been nominated to the Rajya Sabha, made ambassadors or sent on foreign missions. Patronage is as persuasive as money power. The Press Council report cites censoriously a newspaper proprietor being made a Rajya Sabha member at the behest of a corrupt politician, but nothing about the government that enabled the businessman to oblige the newspaper proprietor!

Nikhil Chakrabortty who refused a Padma Shri saying that for a journalist to accept official honours and claim to be independent is like wearing a chastity belt in a brothel must be laughing wherever good Communists go when they die.

Watching unsubstantiated allegations against the Karmapa Lama reported as facts, Norma Levine, a British journalist who writes in the Guardian and the Observer, commented that “suing a newspaper for libel and winning is well-nigh impossible” in India. “Journalists can be bought for fairly small amounts of money. Freedom of the press has created irresponsible journalism. A journalist in India holds a licence to kill — by character assassination”. She noted that the Himachal Pradesh High Court’s reprimand of police officers for detaining the Karmapa Lama’s accountant without evidence was not reported.

When Britain passed the Race Relations Act, I asked Home Secretary David Ennals if it would open the floodgates to lawsuits. No, he replied, the British were a law-abiding people and would not practise discrimination once they knew it was illegal. If laws forbidding discrimination on the basis of caste, child marriage, dowry and other social ills have not had the same deterrent effect, it’s partly because the legal position is not widely known (blame the media), partly because the law is not enforced (blame the police and administration) and partly because no law commands respect if its authors do not (blame the judiciary).

We have eminent upright jurists of whom any nation can be proud. But systems live or die because of their worst performers. As with the debate between the parliamentary and presidential systems, fault lies in the singer, not the song. The burden of my song was that in reforming themselves, the media and the judiciary would reform the society of which they are a part.

Afterwards, the advocate-general who hadn’t said a word to me until then asked for my notes. Perhaps he was really interested in my arguments. But since it’s the job of advocates-generals to advise governments on prosecutions, I shall keep the notes to myself.

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First Published: Sat, April 09 2011. 00:17 IST