For a better part of last year the United Kingdom was wracked by the ‘Hacking scandal.’ It was discovered that reporters of the now defunct News Of the World had hacked into phone messages of scores of people including a dead girl, Milly Dowler. The ensuing ruckus forced the British government to appoint a commission of enquiry into the “culture, practices and ethics of the press in its relations with the public, police, politicians and, as to the police and politicians, the conduct of each,” in July 2011. The Right Honourable Justice Leveson submitted his report in November this year.
For obvious reasons many of us in the media were looking forward to this report. The British media has always held a special place for most Indian journalists. It has this fantastic mix of good, serious brands such as The Economist or Guardian and the kitschy celebrity chasing tabloid ones like Sun and Daily Mail. The thought that someone could question the notion of freedom in a rambunctiously free market like Britain was interesting.
The report is a disappointment. Its 2,000 pages try hard to justify its key recommendation — an ‘independent’ regulatory body for the press backed by law. One suspects that the judge was inclined to regulate rather than look for ways around stronger self-regulation.
It is still worth a read especially for us here in India. This is because we are not even discussing many of the issues Leveson throws up — about the role of media and its relationship with politicians, police, and society.
This is the seventh time that the British government has felt the need to enquire into the workings of its robust, free-spirited press in 70 years. In more than 65 years of independence India has had just once proper enquiry into the working of the press — the First Press Commission Report of 1953. It resulted in the Press Council of India (PCI) in 1966. It was supposed to aid self-regulation. There has been little else since then.
This is frustrating when you see what a free-for-all Indian media has become. There are about 140 news channels in India, the largest number anywhere in the world. There are more than 82,000 registered newspapers selling 110 million a day making India the world’s second largest newspaper market, by volumes, after China. We are a voluble, argumentative democracy that consumes vast amounts of information. We are also a corruptible democracy. So the larger role of the press and its link with the government, police and business, needs to be examined from time to time. It never has been.
The mitigating argument is that news media in India opened up just about a decade back after foreign direct investment was allowed in print in 2002. Mature economies, such as the UK, have had abundant media for decades. And there it is only now when self-regulation is failing in some parts, especially with the tabloid press, that statutory regulation is being discussed.
In India self-regulation is still being tested. In some instances it works as any TV editor who has held back stories will tell you. In many it doesn’t. That is why reactions to the Zee News case, where two editors have been arrested for alleged extortion, or to the arrest of two young girls in Palghar for a comment on Facebook, flare out of proportion. We either want to change the IT Act, throw editors in jail or ban a channel. These are the immature reactions of an immature media market.
It ignores completely the good that media does by exposing criminals and the corrupt. Statutory regulation plays into the hands of people who would like to see a more compliant media. The more urgent and sensible course is to discuss how self-regulation can be strengthened. But for that to happen we must acknowledge our problems and sit down to discuss them, through a joint industry committee or some other forum. While some of that happens through the News Broadcasters Association or the Press Council, it is clearly not enough. Especially since neither have the teeth to bite.
Even in the UK, strengthening self-regulation is the option that British prime minister David Cameron seems inclined to. So let us also try that alternative here, seriously. If it seems like Indian media owners are consistently unable to self regulate, then the Leveson ultimatum could be considered.
The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/vanitakohlik