Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Khurana case and predictable views of the media establishment on regulation

Today's papers are full of editorials and op-eds on the Uma Khurana case. As Barkha Dutt fairly concedes in her column:

"The timing could not have been worse. On a day when television journalists were all set to wrestle the government to the ground over its imperious and inane Broadcasting Bill, along comes our own moment of ignominy and shame."

Both the Indian Express and the Hindustan Times have editorials where, quite predictably, the actions of the TV channel are criticised, but the Broadcast Bill is also condemned. Their solution: self regulation by the media. This is also the response that Barkha Dutt proposes:

"Before the government uses the exception to thrust its own set of motivated rules on us, let us in the industry admit that we need a code of conduct that we can all agree upon, and one that we draft ourselves. (Thanks, but no thanks, is what we need to tell the I&B Ministry).

It’s something I have long argued in favour of on these pages. We must be ready for the scrutiny we subject others to. Because when the reporter becomes the story, the news takes a backseat."

Dutt's closing sentences make the appropriate noises, but notice that she seems to rule out anyone but the media being involved in such regulation.

The only print column I have been able to locate so far that goes beyond this limited claim is a column in the Express by Amrita Shah, who is identified, rather tellingly, as a "commentator on media and society." This is her proposed response:

"A workable solution would need the active involvement of consumers of the media, for it is they who can arrest falling standards by choosing what to patronise. In a market-driven environment it will have to be the responsibility of the media and citizens both to create a society where the rule of law is less casually flouted."

I am surprised by the media's seeming blindness to the glaringly obvious problem with such arguments. Of late, the media has been trying to highlight problems within among other institutions, the judiciary, arguing that self-regulation is not a workable or defensible mechanism for the many woes that afflict that and other institutions in India. Yet, when it comes to setting its own house in order (and one didn't need the Khurana case to point to the dire need for this), the people who constitute the media establishment can only offer defensive explanations, talk of this being an 'exception', and propose the blandest of solutions: self-regulation.

One does not have to choose between the alternatives of the Broadcast Bill and self-regulation by the media: both appear unacceptable. It is upto the media to come up with more credible alternatives, if it wants to drum popular support against measures such as the Broadcast Bill. That some kind of regulation is in order is clear: as Amrita Shah points out, this is not an exception, and there are several such instances which have happened in the recent past. If the media doesn't budge, then measures such as the Broadcast Bill may be supported even by those who currently oppose it.
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