Narendra Modi and Manmohan Singh may be chalk and cheese but as prime ministers what they have had to say about the media and their impressions about journalists can be instructive, if only to appreciate how the Fourth Estate is perceived. Why? Because perception matters. Not only must the media be credible; they must also be seen to be credible. Else, the crisis of confidence in and about the media will continue.
True, prime ministers come and go, so do journalists, but sometimes what prime ministers say and journalists do (or don’t do), stays, for contrasting reasons. On 24 September 2005, Manmohan Singh spoke at the silver jubilee event of the Chandigarh Press Club. Singh said, “It is the responsibility of media to defend the liberal space, even while giving expression to all (emphasis added) opinions.” He went on to make the following points:
• “… with the rapid growth of media in recent times, qualitative development has not kept step with quantitative growth. In the race for capturing markets, journalists have been encouraged to cut corners, to take chances, to hit and run. I believe the time has come for journalists to take stock of how competition has impacted upon quality”;
• “Consider the fact that even one mistake, and a resultant accident, can debar an airline pilot from ever pursuing his career. Consider the case that one wrong operation leading to a life lost, and a doctor can no longer inspire the confidence of his patients. One night of sleeping on the job at a railway crossing, an avoidable train accident, and a railway man gets suspended. How many mistakes must a journalist make, how many wrong stoing lawries, how many motivated columns before professional clamps are placed?”; and
[egpost postid=”247320″ byline=”false”]
• “Are there professional codes of conduct that address these challenges? Is the Press Council the right organisation to address these challenges?.” Almost a decade later, on 3 January 2015, Narendra Modi, speaking at the platinum jubilee celebrations of the Marathi newspaper Pudhari at Kolhapur in Maharashtra, said:
• People were looking at the media to provide truthful news;
• The credibility that the media enjoys today also enjoins upon them an immense responsibility; and
• Today proper criticism does not happen [and] allegations have replaced criticism.
Singh’s and Modi’s remarks as nothing more than a politician’s rant but a discerning media would do well to pause and ponder. Between 2005, when Singh spoke, and now, the Indian media was hit by several crises (some selfinflicted), including, but not limited to, the Zee TV-Jindal episode of 2012 and the Niira Radia tapes controversy of 2010. It is debatable whether resolute action by media against one of its own in a case would have prevented the occurrence of similar subsequent occurrences but even now there is neither an industry-wide consensus on self-regulation nor a code of, by and for the media; the only code that survives is omerta!
What is needed is a new manifesto for the media industry at large. Perhaps the 40th anniversary this year of the Emergency, when media crawled when asked to bend, would be as good an occasion as any to effect a change. A beginning can be made by either bringing the medium of television under the purview of the Press Council of India (PCI), as suggested by a former PCI chairman Justice (RETD) Markandey Katju, or replacing it with a Media Council of India. Giving more teeth to the pci or its successor entity should merit consideration, too. Having said that, an institution is only as good or bad as the individual heading it. A good example would be TN Seshan under whom the Election Commission came into its own. (However, a PTI report of 8 June cited PCI Chairman Justice (RETD) Chandramauli Kumar Prasad as saying that there is no proposal to bring electronic and social media under the ambit of the regulatory body.) Also considered could be setting up an organisation similar to the Press Complaints Commission in the United Kingdom.
The media industry could also consider some or all of the following:
• Transparency in ownership or shareholding patterns; • Encourage more journalists to declare (voluntarily, to begin with) their assets or net worth, annually (when the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary can, why not the Fourth Estate?);
• Emulate doctors and lawyers who need a licence to practise by introducing a similar but self-regulatory mechanism for media (as suggested by a former I&B Minister Manish Tewari);
• Encourage reporters to do a stint in the North-East and/ or a state other than the state of domicile;
• Revisit the curricula of journalism schools so that students do not enter the profession with preconceived notions of a media organisation’s ideological or political orientation; and • Continuing education/ refresher courses for journalists.
No doubt, the intersection of media and politics is fraught with challenges and perils, even more so today. But it is never a bad time to reappraise the road travelled.