The Delhi-based Foundation for Media Professionals (FMP) and the Press Club of India (PCI) were to hold a panel discussion on November 12 on the new Press Council Chairman, Justice Katju’s observations on journalists. The retired Supreme Court judge was to speak, along with a galaxy of media luminaries. On November 11, the event was cancelled, with the organisers putting out a text message explaining that the cancellation “follows a disagreement between FMP, PCI and Justice Katju on the format of the discussion.”
This was yet another brush between Justice Katju and the media. Unwittingly perhaps, he has been controversial in his new role from the word go. His pronouncements against journalists and sweeping generalisations about the state of the media have created widespread disquiet in the media fraternity.
The Press Council of India is a statutory body set up to function as a watchdog of the press, as well as to preserve the freedom of the press and maintain and improve the standards of newspapers and news agencies in India.
The Press Council has long been perceived as toothless. Clearly, the learned judge intends to take his job seriously and seeks to transform the canine into a tiger. To that end he has sought to expand the mandate of the Press Council from just the print media to include news television and has demanded draconian powers for the Press Council that would enable it to wield the “danda” and strike fear in the hearts of journalists. Not surprisingly, the press corps has seen red and media organizations have protested loudly.
Justice Katju has identified three “major defects” in the Indian media: It focuses on trivialities and non-issues; it is communally divisive; and it promotes irrational beliefs like astrology and superstition.
Justice Katju is not off the mark when he levels these charges. Sections of the media do indulge in these practices. But he misses the big picture, betrays lack of knowledge about how the media works and makes the mistake of regarding the media as a homogenous entity.
However, there is something much more disturbing about his views. He appears to belong to a school of thought championed by the Indian government in the 1970s and the 80s. Justice Katju says “it is the duty of all patriotic people, including the media, to help our society” by focusing on issues of poverty, economic backwardness, feudalism and social backwardness.
This call to duty brings to mind the Soviet-inspired theories propounded by the champions of a New World Information and Communication Order some three decades ago. News is a social good and must serve a social purpose, they said, not a commodity in the competitive marketplace. Providing information is a social function; it should not be a business transaction. There was an insistence that the press purvey “development news”. Shedding its adversary role, the press must make common cause with the government in the supreme task of nation-building, it was asserted.
A “committed” press would obviously be under the thumb of the government. What if Justice Katju gets his “danda” and uses it to nudge the press towards such a subservient role? Far from taking India forward, he appears inclined to take the country back to a day and age it has left far behind.
It is surprising Justice Katju does not name the rise of paid news as a major challenge. On this pernicious practice, a topic of raging debate in media circles since last year, the Press Council has been able to do precious little. Worse, it was alleged that the Council, during the tenure of Justice Katju’s predecessor, allowed itself to be browbeaten by Big Media on the issue of its own inquiry into the phenomenon of paid news. If Justice Katju can direct his energies constructively to help contain this threat by re-establishing the clear line of division between paid content and editorial matter, he will have done the country and the media a signal service.
The other area where he could contribute is persuading editors to pay attention to the alarming decline in standards. The way to do it is to not to describe the entire press corps as lacking in education, as he has done. A surer bet would be to urge the media to invest more in hiring better quality staff and, thereafter, in training them and honing their skills.
Justice Katju’s admonitions would have gone down better with the media if he had also acknowledged its tremendous contribution to the growth of democratic society in India. It is the press, its many flaws notwithstanding, which is bringing to light all that is wrong with governance in the country. It is not difficult to guess how society would have erupted had it not been for the pressure cooker effect of the press.
Justice Katju would have also carried more conviction if he had not treated the media as a homogenous monolith, discounting its tremendous variety. It is this variety that provides choice to the consumer and allows for balance.
Justice Katju may have issues with the quality of news coverage. He must realise that this has a lot to do with the economics of newsgathering. More importantly, such is the variety of media outlets in the country that no real issue or significant development goes unreported. A case in point is Manipur today. Manipur’s tragedy did get less play in the mainstream media. But not any longer.
Seeking homogeneity in the press or threatening to use strong-arm methods is not the answer to challenges of coverage. Both will impose curbs on the freedom of the press. Such curbs are unacceptable. None other than Mahatma Gandhi made that clear: “The press is a great power, but… an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy. If the control is from without, it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within. If this line of reasoning is correct, how many of the journals in the world would withstand the test? But who would stop those that are useless? And who should be the judge? The useful and useless must, like good and evil, generally go together and man must make the choice.”
So, the Mahatma abhorred control from without and lauded choice. Justice Katju appears not to like choice and he seeks to regulate from without.
“Self-regulation is no regulation,” he has told TV news broadcasters and asked them whether they were willing to come under the Lokpal, if not under the Press Council! So, here’s more work for Big Brother. 1984 is here.