Markandey Katju, Chairman of the Press Council of India, which looks into complaints against newspapers and news agencies, has raised a hornet’s nest by stating some home truths.
Under the law only a former Supreme Court judge can head the Press Council. Katju, who has a reputation for outspokenness, retired from the apex court in September, and took over as its chairman last month. The jurisdiction of the council, first established in 1966, does not extend to private television, which made its appearance only two decades ago. Channel bosses were infuriated by Justice Katju’s suggestion that the watchdog body must be turned into a Media Council and the electronic media brought under its ambit.
He made the suggestion in a letter to the Prime Minister in which he also called for amendment of the law to give the Press Council power to punish erring mediapersons and institutions. All it can do is to admonish and censure the wrongdoer.
At one time the Press Council used to ask newspapers to publish its findings against them prominently, and they complied. Lately they have flouted such directives. In the circumstances, the suggestion to enlarge the Council’s powers is quite justified.
Some time ago, alarmed by reports that the government was thinking of a regulatory authority for the electronic media, channel owners and news television bosses declared they would enforce self-regulation. They then established a body styled as the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, with JS Verma, a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, as chairman and another named Indian Broadcasting Federation with AP Shah, a former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, as chairman.
The NBSA, after looking into complaints against a channel which had aired a report about gays, held that it had invaded the privacy of individuals and imposed a fine of Rs 100,000. This is the only known instance of purposeful intervention by that body to enforce standards.
Justice Katju said in a series of interviews that he had a poor opinion of the media, that a majority of mediapersons were of low intellectual calibre and that they were working not in the interests of the people but in an anti-people manner. Those were indeed harsh words, and predictably there was a loud uproar.
News channels took up Justice Katju’s statements for discussion at prime time, and he came under a barrage of criticism along with channel bosses, the Indian Newspapers Society, an organisation of newspaper owners, and some journalists’ bodies also took up cudgels against him.
At the first meeting of the Press Council with Justice Katju in the chair, the INS representatives demanded an apology from him for his remarks against the media. When he refused, they walked out.
Unruffled, Justice Katju reiterated his views. He dismissed self-regulation as an oxymoron, and said, “Everybody is accountable to the people in a democracy, and so is the media.” If they did not want to come under the Press Council, would they like to be under the proposed Lokpal, he asked.
He said the media, instead of addressing the problems of 80 per cent of the people such as dire poverty, massive unemployment, skyrocketing prices, lack of medical care and educational facilities and barbaric social problems like honour killing, dowry death, caste oppression and religious bigotry, devoted 90 per cent of the coverage to entertainment such as lives of film stars, fashion parades, pop music, disco dance and cricket and superstitions like astrology.
Elaborating his point about the media’s anti-people attitude, he mentioned how whenever there was a bomb blast the channels started talking of an email or SMS from an organisation with a Muslim name owning responsibility for it. Any mischievous person can send an email or SMS, he pointed out. By playing up such messages the media demonised a whole community.
Justice Katju said the European media had played a positive role during the transition from feudalism to a modern society. India was now going through a similar transition and he wanted the Indian media to play its part in that process.
It is worth noting that those who have joined the chorus against Justice Katju were more or less silent when issues like paid news and the Radia tapes rocked the media. A Press Council inquiry committee had found that several newspapers had taken cash from political leaders for coverage at election time. The telephone conversations of corporate lobbyist Niira Radia secretly recorded by an official agency had revealed the nexus between politicians and mediapersons.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 21, 2011.