Last week Britain's Queen Elizabeth signed a royal charter under which an independent body to regulate the press would be set up. That piece of news would have been of little interest to India, except for two things.
One, the British media has been a point of reference for most debates within the profession in India. Its mix of good, serious brands, such as The Economist and The Guardian, and celebrity-chasing tabloids, such as The Sun and the Daily Mail, has fascinated us for ages. That press freedom can be questioned in such a rambunctious market is interesting.
Two, in spite of their big differences - in terms of size, heterogeneity and maturity - the Indian and British media have several similarities. Both operate in a democracy, have an established tradition of free media and have press councils that are, largely, toothless bodies. Therefore, what Britain does is critical. If one of the world's freest media markets finds it worth having a regulator for newspapers, then publishers in India, the world's second-largest newspaper market, cannot argue against it. Given the Indian media's shoddy job on self-regulation, the royal charter could become a stick used by Indian politicians to beat the media for its annoying habit of exposing corruption.
Charlie Beckett is director of Polis, a think tank for research and debate on international journalism, and head of the department of media and communications at the London School of Economics. He says, "It [the royal charter] sets a dangerous precedent of involving the Crown and politicians in newspaper regulation. Everywhere we look in the world, when politicians get a role in regulation they end up extending it - sometimes to pernicious degrees such as is happening in Kenya. The UK is not Zimbabwe but neither do journalists have the protection of something like the US First Amendment. There are enough pressures upon journalists already, there are enough laws already, what we need is regulation that is genuinely independent from the media companies and the politicians - and this royal charter is not it."
A quick flashback. In July 2011, the British government set up the Justice Leveson committee to inquire into the "culture, practices and ethics of the press". This was after the discovery that reporters of the now-defunct News of the World had hacked into phone messages of scores of people. The key recommendation of the Leveson report, released in November 2012, was the setting up of an "independent" regulatory body for the press backed by law. But the press and many liberal elements wanted another shot at self-regulation. The royal charter was floated as an alternative.
Royal charters are a product of the era when the English monarchy held greater power than it does today. They have been used to create 900 bodies, including cities, universities and hospitals. The BBC and the British Council are among some of the organisations established by royal charters. These are granted by a privy council - currently headed by the UK's deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, and made up of Cabinet ministers and junior ministers. The privy council has the right to grant or take away the charter. This means it could seriously impede the right of any regulator created under the charter. So whether or not the royal charter alternative will work is moot.
And this is where the differences between a mature democracy and market and an immature one start showing up. The Leveson committee is the seventh time in less than 70 years that an inquiry has been commissioned into the workings of the press. In more than 65 years of independence, India has had only once such inquiry - the First Press Commission Report of 1953. It resulted in the setting up of the Press Council of India in 1966. The idea was to aid self-regulation. There has been little else since then.
This makes the Indian news media market a happy free-for-all. When 140 news channels and about 82,000 newspapers want to reach out to over a billion people, the noise is phenomenal. As hundreds of news brands compete for every scrap of information and news, journalism standards have plummeted. And industry organisations battle much of this rather ineffectually. For instance, the News Broadcasters Association, or NBA, has a content code and strict rules for members who do not adhere to it. However, the bulk of the troublesome news channels circumvent those simply by not becoming members of the NBA.
In 2009, several prominent newspapers were caught taking money to cover candidates in the general election. Only half a dozen of the other papers covered the ensuing ruckus and the report. The guilty brands are not just sanguine; they are brazen. According to data from the Election Commission, the instances of paid news actually went up in 2012.
The approach of the ministry of information and broadcasting, which oversees media policy and regulation (yes, both), is frustratingly ad hoc. It is either too eager or too afraid to touch the news media. This column has for long supported the idea of an "independent-of-the-government" media regulator, an idea neither the government nor publishers like.
To start with, then, can we have the equivalent of a Leveson committee that discusses the issues this industry faces? The talk about the nature of regulation, and who the regulator could be, can be had later.