The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- A communications content commission is very necessary

The media in India is apparently free. But much of the large print media is concentrated in the hands of families. Many are driven by the urge to maximize profits, not to print all the news that is fit to print after thorough investigation. Companies which are under pressure to improve readership or ratings and thus advertising revenues and profits mostly own newspapers and television. Instead of honest watchdog reporting that many expect from the media in its role as the fourth estate, the need to make a splash and improve circulation or ratings, thus improving earnings, tempts many to 'create' news.

There is sometimes a loss of discretion. A good example was the television reporting of the Gujarat riots that many have felt, led to their escalation. Or the allegation that reporting under fire from a bunker in Kargil enabled the guns on the other side to pinpoint the location of the bunker and target Indian positions more accurately. Reporters are young, aggressive and even adventurous. But there are few who are under the restraining influence of experienced, wise and careful editorial staff. The battle for bylines and space leads to many 'stories' being published with little verification. Many times they are handouts from interested parties.

The most interested, of course, are government agencies and then commercial enterprises. The police and related investigation agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation and in older days, the enforcement directorate, are the worst culprits. The Indian legal system allows for suspects being remanded to judicial custody on the basis of prima facie evidence submitted to the magistrates. The investigators then use the media to plant vicious stories about the accused that the media lap up and give top featuring to. The accused suffer the ignominy of purely one-sided trials in the media. Their reputations are tarnished forever. Anyone mentioning their names remembers the accusations. In the belief that there is no smoke without fire they associate the person with some misdemeanour.

Corporate bodies also use the media to plant stories favourable to themselves or unfavourable to their competitors. When a newspaper has a price list for mention of individuals in its social columns, it would not be surprising if reporters take corporate handouts and publish them as 'news'.

Indira Gandhi was supposed to have buried a fortune in her Mehrauli farmhouse. Charan Singh, as Morarji Desai's home minister, had the place dug up and found nothing. Charan Singh's hounding of her prompted Indira Gandhi to realize that she had no option but to fight back. She and Sanjay Gandhi went on to play on the greed of Charan Singh and the mania of others to become ministers to destroy the Janata government. No fortune was ever found in Mehrauli.

The allegations about Bofors hounded Rajiv Gandhi and ultimately he lost the elections. Nothing has yet been proven against him despite the many non-Congress governments that have taken power.

The cases filed against top managers like V. Krishnamurthy appear to have quietly died and they now have been rehabilitated with cabinet status. They were remanded into custody, jailed while details of allegations were freely published in press and on television. There has been no public apology by the investigating agencies or the media that published the allegations. They have continued to publish similar stories about others.

This seems to be a standard technique for both investigators and media. Publish the most scurrilous allegations and let them stay in public memory. When years later the charges are dismissed or fail in court it might be reported as another 'news' story but there is no regret for having publicized police handouts and destroyed reputations.

I have heard it said that the police and media feel that this is the only way to counter a slow and inefficient judicial system. The lack of good prosecutors further weakens the case for the prosecution. The workload on the police ensures that many times the first information reports are faulty in their writing and guarantees that the case fails in trial. Of course there are policemen who use this excuse to deliberately write FIRs in a manner that ensures the dismissal of the case on trial!

The scandalous publicity in the media given to the allegations against the head and deputy of Kanchi math has muddied their reputations. It would be surprising if they go back to being religious heads again. A recent television programme even had the prosecuting lawyer participating in a public discussion about the details of the case. It is not surprising that the saffron parivar has asked whether this is Hindu Brahmin baiting and why similar treatment was not meted out to heads of other religions when they were accused of scandalous doings.

The American media also publishes details of charges against the accused. The American police and prosecutors also hold press conferences and respond to the media. But the media digs up a great deal of information for itself and looks for counter-evidence. There are limits to what the American media can publish. In any case the trials are by jury. Much effort is expended to avoid selecting jurors who might be biased by media publicity. The trials themselves take place soon and are speedily completed. If the accused is not guilty there is not much of a time gap between the media publicity to the allegations and the acquittal. The public is able to delete the accusations from its mind.

This is not so in India. The time gap between the media publicity and the trial is extremely long. The media correspondents rarely do little if any cross-checking themselves. The focus is on publishing sensational charges and details about them as 'news'. We no longer have trials by jury. There is no way of knowing how biased the judicial authority is because of all the media comments. The trial is by fits and starts, with frequent adjournments. The process of trial is boring and is not 'news'. The details rarely find their way into the media. What is left in the public mind is the media publicity about the accusations. The person is tried and found guilty in the public mind because of the media.

What is the answer' Obviously the speeding up of trials will help. That requires more judges and more courts. Greater numbers in the investigating agencies is essential. Today the police and other agencies have so much to do that they do not have the ability to mount a comprehensive investigation. Since most cases ultimately get dismissed for poor evidence, it is easier to punish the accused by putting him in jail while awaiting trial, or while in remand during investigation. We must also discipline investigating agencies and prosecutors whose cases are frequently dismissed by the courts.

But we must have greater responsibility from the media. The present self-regulation by the media is weak and lacks teeth. It needs strengthening.

We must revert to the system of strong editorial supervision over what is published. Reporters must be trained to check and cross-check before being allowed to file a story. Instead we are seeing more and more of the opposite. Powerful editors supervising reporters are uncommon today and may be a dying breed. Many owners feel that strong editors are not necessary. Reporters are out to get maximum visibility and untrained reporters are let loose on the unwary public.

Will foreign ownership bring in more professionals' It might but the experience with the Murdoch-owned media like Fox News suggests that political bias might take the place of careless supervision.

There is a proposal for an independent communications content commission. If it were truly so and had the power to punish, we might see more responsibility from those in the media who do not police the work of their more aggressive reporters.

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