Is it a good idea to ban opinion polls? Should news channels be ‘advised’ on how they should cover the prime minister’s independence day speech? Should paid news be made illegal? Some of the debates emerging out of the mess that is Indian politics, society and media are wonderful and worrying.
They are good because they are finally bringing out in the open, fears, biases, prejudices, strengths and weaknesses. That is the whole point of a democracy — that we discuss everything. Take the legislation against paid news. For those who don’t know — in 2009 several prominent newspapers were caught taking money to cover candidates in the general election. The matter was covered by just about half a dozen newspapers. The ensuing report commissioned by the Press Council of India was largely ignored. According to data from the Election Commission the instances of paid news actually went up in 2012. The minister for Information and Broadcasting, Manish Tewari recently talked of putting legislation in place that will penalise news brands suspension of publication or cancellation of their registration.
This sounds good but is actually very galling. For an industry that is so sceptical of government intervention, so very sure that self-regulation works, why has nothing been done about this huge mess staring at us. Why has the Press Council of India not managed to stop paid news after its own report indicted its members? Why have the brands that do not indulge in paid news not ganged up against those that do? Since the industry runs on credibility, why not put a measure to it, like a rating system. For example a simple Michelin-style rating system could rate news brands on credibility. Its methodology alone would force transparency and do away with the opaqueness that allows rogue brands to get away by charging people for editorial coverage.
While paid news is bad and should be controlled, an act like the one that is being proposed has all sorts of possibility for misuse especially in the hands of the wrong government. The worrying part of this discussion, therefore, is the complete silence from the players who matter, the good media brands. This inability or unwillingness to do anything, then, is an open invitation to any government, now and in future, to meddle with news media.
A similar silence from research agencies is already allowing the discussion on opinion polls to go awry. Are opinion polls truly flawed? How are they run in other countries? Why are they such an intrinsic part of the political debate and discussion in say the US but being questioned in India? This debate is a bit like the TV ratings debate. When broadcasters do not agree with what the data shows they question its validity. Do it long enough and the data provider, TAM in this case, becomes the whipping boy instead of the broadcaster who is pay field guys to fiddle with data. That seems to be happening with opinion polls. All data collection and analysis, across the world will have some flaws. Research especially on stuff that touches a lot of people never makes everyone happy. So can we talk about making the research better — through better sampling and analysis and of course better funding.
Questioning the whole validity of opinion polls is questioning, at one level, free thought and discussion. It is a bit like saying that newspapers should not carry opinion pieces because they influence people. But not everybody is an expert on, say, insurance or home décor, so they like to know the opinion of people who are. Similarly as an Indian I would like to know roughly which way the political wind is blowing. Then there are the messages from the political parties, candidates, friends and what not. If opinion polls are to be banned, should political advertising and reportage by newspapers, conversation with friends and family on politics too be banned? Come to think of it, anything could bias you and me.
Maybe one shouldn’t worry too much. It probably is just chatter that an immature democracy is having with itself.
The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/vanitakohlik