"Culture of Silence" in the News Industry

Address of the Hon'ble Vice President of India Shri M. Hamid Ansari at
the Bhashayi Patrakarita Mahotsav 2011 (Prabhash Prasang) on 15th July
2011 at Indore, Madhya Pradesh


July 15, 2011
Indore

It gives me immense pleasure to be visiting Indore and inaugurating the
Bhashayi Patrakarita Mahotsav organised by the Indore Press Club to
commemorate the 75th Birth Anniversary of distinguished journalist Late
Shri Prabhash Joshi.

Joshi ji's career and life serve as a shining example worthy of
emulation by all journalists. He was not only a distinguished editor
but represented the voice of the people. He used simple language and
local idiom to communicate the issues of the masses. He was a strong
votary of ethics and transparency in media.

His approach was summed up in a pithy observation: Sabki khabar le,
sabki khabar de.

Friends

We have been witness in recent years to rapid, and unprecedented,
changes in our society, economy and polity. These have also transformed
the Indian Mass Media System. The growth in its scale, reach and
influence, however, has not been matched by corresponding sensitivity
towards non-commercial and non-market dimensions.

This aspect is of relevance because the media is the fourth estate in a
democracy. It plays a major role in informing the public and thereby
shape perceptions and through it the national agenda. Its centrality
is enhanced manifold by increased literacy levels and by the
technological revolution of the last two decades and its impact on the
generation, processing, dissemination and consumption of news.

Two other consequences of the change need to be noted:

* Media platforms and devices for consumption today vary between
traditional, non-conventional and the experimental. They span
traditional print, audio-visual and digital modes. Convergence between
news media, entertainment and telecom has meant that the demarcation
between journalism, public relations, advertising and entertainment has
been eroded.

* Increases in per capita income, discretionary spending
capability, attractiveness of India as a market and as a destination
of foreign investment, have all reinforced the centrality of the
Indian mass media system.

As a result, media outlets assume importance not only for marketing and
advertisement but also for the "soft power" aspects of businesses,
organisations and even nations. Media entrepreneurship today is a
necessary condition for any growing business enterprise, a political
party and even individuals seeking to leverage public influence for
private gain.

Furthermore, the trend towards globalisation has empowered individual
citizens through increased movement of goods, capital, services and
ideas. Economic liberalisation and spread of digital technologies have
aided it. New media has brought forth new means of individual
empowerment, allowing the expression of individual ideas, opinions and
identities.

II

I would like to explore today the implications of these changes.

The necessity for media to function effectively as the watchdog of
public interest was recognised in the freedom struggle. The founding
fathers of the Republic realised the need to balance the freedom of
expression of the press with a sense of responsibility while such
freedom is exercised. Adherence to accepted norms of journalistic
ethics and maintenance of high standards of professional conduct was
deemed to be a natural corollary.

Gandhi ji, a journalist himself, cautioned that "an uncontrolled pen
serves but to destroy". Jawaharlal Nehru warned that: "If there is no
responsibility and no obligation attached to it, freedom gradually
withers away. This is true of a nation's freedom and it applies as much
to the Press as to any other group, organisation or individual."

It is no exaggeration to say that media represents the sector of the
economy that is the envy of others because of the extremely buoyant
growth rates witnessed over the last two decades, in an environment
characterised by minimal or no regulation. The sole statutory,
quasi-judicial body set up for media regulation in the country is the
Press Council of India. While it aims to preserve the freedom of the
press and maintain and improve the standards of press in India, it has
no way of imposing punishments or enforcing its directions for
professional or ethical violations.

In the absence of any other government regulator, the focus has shifted
to self-regulation by the media organisations, individually or
collectively. Collective self-regulation has failed because it is
neither universal nor enforceable. Individual self-regulation has also
failed due to personal predilection and the prevailing of personal
interest over public interest.

It is relevant to note that, to an extent, the most effective de facto
media regulator happens to be the advertisers and sponsors who
determine the bulk of the revenue stream of our media industry. Their
aims and desired outcomes, however, might not align with public policy
goals of the government or markers of public interests and may, instead,
stand in opposition to them.

III

The common citizen, who is a consumer of media products, is thus faced
with a piquant situation.

While economic deregulation has been the dominant trend of the recent
past, it is premised on a dynamic market place with a system of
independent regulation, especially competition regulation, to prevent
cartelisation, abusive behaviour by dominant firms and corporate
transactions that derail the competitive processes in the market.

When the government, the polity, the market and the industry are unable
to provide for full-spectrum systemic regulation that protects consumer
welfare and public interest, who will step in to address the gap?

As we debate the issue of media regulation, the following aspects need
closer scrutiny:

First, the objective of regulation in democratic societies such as USA,
France and others is to enhance diversity, competition and localism
among media outlets and to promote public interest with a focus on
upholding constitutional values, protecting minors and limiting
advertising. Intrusive content regulation is minimized because those
who are aggrieved can resort to legal means in the knowledge that the
justice delivery system will address their grievances in a reasonable
time period.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about our justice delivery
system. The time taken to settle court cases deters individual
citizens, and even corporate entities, from seeking legal options and
forcing the search for alternate tools of administrative justice and
facilitation for grievance redressal.

Second, we have not had an informed debate in the country on the issue
of multiple-ownership and cross-ownership nor a cogent national media
policy that covers print, radio, television, cable, DTH platforms, video
and film industry, internet and mobile telephony.

In most developed countries, rules on cross-ownership and
multiple-ownership are intended to prevent emergence of monopolies and
cartels and promote competition. Many states in India have a few media
groups dominating both the print and electronic media. At the national
level, we have seen the emergence of a handful of media conglomerates
spanning the entire media spectrum. Its impact on moulding public
opinion, generating political debate and safeguarding consumer and
public interest is a moot question.

Third, India is among the few democracies without active media watch
groups engaged in objective analyses of the media, discerning
prejudices and latent biases, and subjecting the media to a dose of
their own medicine. For an industry that has over fifty thousand
newspapers and hundreds of television channels, systematic media
criticism is non-existent.

What this means is that in the absence of government and industry
regulation, even civil society has been unable to provide an effective
de facto media regulatory mechanism.

Fourth, no discussion of media regulation can ignore the recent
controversy over "paid news". The last speech of the late Prabhash
Joshi ji dwelt on this at some length.

We need to introspect whether the strategy of relying on advertisement
rather than subscription as the main revenue source for media outlets
has created a difficult set of ethical problems for the media industry
as a whole. Once content ceased to be the revenue driver for a media
outlet, the effort to leverage it as a direct revenue source began. The
inability of the industry and the Press Council to go public with its
report on paid news is also another pointer to the problems of self
regulation and the "culture of silence" in the entire industry when it
comes to self criticism.

Fifth, the structural biases of the development process have favoured
urban areas over rural ones, metropolitan areas over other urban areas,
English-speaking over those speaking other Indian languages, the middle
and upper classes over the others who constitute the vast majority of
our citizens, and the service sectors over other areas such as
agriculture.

These biases have prompted the media industry to resort to "sunshine
journalism" where the focus is on the glass that is quarter-full rather
than that which is three-quarters empty! When media portrayal is of a
life that is always good, optimistic, going with the tide of those with
discretionary spending power and their causes and pet themes, the role
of the media as a defender and upholder of public interest relegates to
the background and its commercial persona takes over, replete with its
allegiances to the market and the shareholders.

Sixth, no discussion of media regulation can ignore the slow erosion of
the institution of the editor in Indian media organisations. When media
space is treated as real estate or as airline seats for purpose of
revenue maximisation strategies, and when media products are sold as
jeans or soaps for marketing purposes, editors end up giving way to
marketing departments.

IV

One might ask, if the situation is so stark, what can be the way
forward?

A good starting point would be for all stakeholders of the media
industry to realise that the ethical underpinning of professional
journalism in the country has weakened and that the corrosion of public
life in our country has impacted journalism.

It is for the journalistic community to take the initiative and seek to
address the various concerns regarding the profession. At the same
time, all categories of regulation or binding guide lines must be
strengthened with a view to securing and defending public good by the
government, the media organisations and the industry, civil society,
advertisers and sponsors, and the audience and readership of the media.

Today's function by the Indore Press Club is an occasion to debate how
the values of transparency and professional ethics that were the
guiding compass of Shri Prabhash Joshi, can continue to inspire today's
journalists.

We should not forget that vibrant journalism in a democracy is watchdog
journalism that monitors the exercise of power in the State, stands for
the rights and freedoms of citizens, and informs and empowers citizens
rather than entertains and titillates them. Vibrant journalism always
springs from the bedrock of professional ethics. Our media, and
democracy, are fortunate that we have shining examples of journalists
who not only embody the ethical dimension, but sadly, also laid down
their life for the same.

Allow me to recall in conclusion a remark of the eminent American
journalist of yesteryears, Walter Lippmann. The real danger to the
press, he said, springs not so much from the pressures and intimidation
to which it may be subject but from the sad fact that media persons can
be captured and captivated by the company they keep, their constant
exposure to the subtleties of power.

I thank the Hon'ble Chief Minister and the Indore Press Club for
inviting me to this function today and wish the Bhashayi Patrakarita
Mahotsav all success.

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