Trial By Media

Is legitimising communication between government officials and the media really so difficult?

WrittenBy:Samrat X
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The subject of “trial by media” has been discussed and debated up and down the country. Everyone including the Law Minister and Chief Justice of India has expressed an opinion on it. Chief Justice Altamas Kabir, speaking at a function in Patna on Saturday, described it as a “matter of grave concern”. Media trials should not happen, he said.

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The Press Council of India, in the 2010 edition of its “Norms of Journalistic Conduct” drawn up under its previous chairman, former Supreme Court judge Justice GN Ray, had, among other things, dealt with this matter. Noting that “an accused is entitled to the privilege of presumption of being innocent till guilt is pronounced by the Court”, Justice Ray had written that – “In a conflict between fair trial and freedom of speech, fair trial has to necessarily prevail because any compromise of fair trial for an accused will cause immense harm and defeat justice delivery system”. There can be no two ways about that. After all, it is a basic principle of justice that every person is innocent until proved guilty. However, a legal fix to the problem is difficult, because court and crime reporting are staples of journalism in every democracy in the world. India cannot throw the media out of court and crime reporting. How does one manage the situation then, so that free speech and fair trial can both coexist?

I think a small step would go a long way towards a solution. What is required is to ensure that authentic information from official sources is available to the media on a daily basis. Most of the reporting on crime, particularly on subjects like terrorism, tends to rely on unnamed sources. On TV, which needs footage, you’ll often see anchors in a studio talking to former police and intelligence officers, or to the channel’s own correspondent who will position himself or herself at an appropriate location and narrate the story. There are exceptions to this when senior journalists get on a story and bring senior officials on record, but on a daily basis for both newspaper and TV there is insufficient sourcing of the actual news. The reason this happens is because it is generally difficult for reporters on the field to get any government sources on record in any story. It is a convention in India’s bureaucracy that they don’t officially talk to the media. Unfortunately, as with much else in India, this is just a fig leaf of hypocrisy. Actually, almost everyone talks to the media. They just don’t give their names while doing it. This happens across departments and ministries.

In the case of police, this is particularly rampant, because the crime beat is a busy beat. There is a lot of demand for news from this beat on a daily basis. Some police officers in major metros end up holding veritable press conferences regularly. The officers tell their stories, but are not named except on rare occasions. Or, out of a whole story, only one entirely anodyne statement is credited to the person. This lies at the root of media trials. What this allows is for these sources, who are giving out the information, to spin the story any which way they like, with zero accountability. The reporter has no choice but to take this version, or nothing. It is not possible for any reporter to check the veracity of the whole investigation by himself or herself immediately. In any case, a newspaper or TV channel cannot do the job of the police or intelligence agencies, because media organisations don’t have the requisite staff, equipment or mandate.

The editor has the choice of carrying what the reporter files, or being the only newspaper with no news on what might be the lead story of the day. At the end of the day, every media outlet generally ends up publishing what they get after verifying whatever is possible within the deadline. Since time is always short in news journalism, this results in vast amounts of unverified – and often unverifiable – information from “reliable sources” making its way into the media.
If the “reliable sources” turn out to be not so reliable in the end, everyone gets taken for a ride, including the public and even the courts. The antidote to this situation, I think, is to follow another Indian tradition. We regularise whole illegal colonies, why can’t we regularise press interactions? Why this unnecessary hypocrisy of anonymous briefings?

The government should open up and encourage officials other than the designated Public Relations Officer or topmost officer in the organisation to speak to the media on record. They already do anyway, and that cannot be prevented in today’s world unless the government plans to tap the phones of every bureaucrat in the country. Nor is it practical for one PRO to deal with the whole media in places like Delhi and Mumbai. The number of newspapers and TV channels has shot up in recent years. The number of government sources briefing this humongous media has not. The demand for news generates its own supply, but it is currently a “black market”. The top honcho of every organisation may want to brief the media themselves, but that too has a flipside. Our media is now a 24×7 monster. If the police commissioner or DGP has to do the job of feeding the media monster, s/he will have no time left for anything else. It has to be decentralised. This is because apart from the sheer number of media outlets clamouring for information, there is also a severe deadline issue. Every TV channel and newspaper wants its information now, not tomorrow. The newspaper has to print tonight, the channel needs its bite in the next 10 minutes or 5, and so on. Every journalist is always under severe time pressure. At the same time, press conferences rarely satisfy reporters, who want to ask their own two questions away from the rest of their colleagues. In such a situation, it is impossible for any one person to give everyone what they want. If a single person is made the contact person, s/he will soon be overwhelmed the moment anything significant happens.

The way the whole thing works at present is that reporters cultivate their own sources in government, who give them the information they need. This decentralised system is already in place. All that is required to make it more effective is for governments to remove the restraints on officials speaking to the media. Change the “black market” in information into “white”. This will automatically lead to fewer “trials by media”.

People often say irresponsible things under cover of anonymity. Make them responsible, and the statements suddenly become more careful and measured. It is not difficult or inconceivable to have greater openness in government interactions with media. The United States of America, which has a very active media and major security concerns, provides several good case studies. US agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency have websites with contact numbers and emails, press releases, and so on. Their spokespersons are named and quoted on record in news stories. When have you ever seen an IB or RAW spokesperson quoted in a story here? They don’t even have websites. Nonetheless, they do talk to media. The Americans seem to be doing a better job than our guys. They’ve had no attack since 9/11, more than a decade ago. Meanwhile, how many have we seen since the attack on Parliament, which came shortly after 9/11?

The US has the advantage of having Canada and Mexico for neighbours, unlike us, so their job is easier, but that is only part of the story. They’ve also done many things right, which we haven’t. Fixing how our police and intelligence agencies manage communications is only a small part of it, but it matters. Public perception is of great import in a democracy. Justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done. The combination of “trial by media” and unnamed sources, along with the penchant for melodrama in certain TV news channels, has created a situation where a section of this country is gradually becoming suspicious of all terror investigations. You’re hearing this from me, but I’m not the only one saying it. I’ve heard senior police officers say it too. Both the police and the media will have to work together to regain their fading credibility.

Mumbai Police seems to be aware of this need, and Police Commissioner Satyapal Singh recently held a meeting with a few editors here at which senior police officers were present. He was receptive to the idea of opening more channels of communication with the media, though some of his officers were doubtful. One senior journalist also opposed the idea. The counter-argument from within the journalistic fraternity seemed to be based on an assumption that more transparency would somehow get in the way of reporters scoring exclusives and scoops. This is, however, outdated logic. My argument is not about exclusive stories, but routine stories or stories based on news events. Those stories are reported in all newspapers, TV channels and websites anyway. Moreover, reporters on a beat from rival organisations are often friendly enough to share information with one another and even have Blackberry Messenger groups for doing so. No one shares their special stories and exclusives, and they should not, but basic news gets shared pretty fast.

The bulk of reporting anywhere is news reporting, not investigations. One official saying the same thing to 10 reporters one by one doesn’t mean all 10 are getting exclusives. It means they are getting the same thing as everyone else even if they falsely claim they have an exclusive. It would save everyone time and trouble if the official spoke openly, on record, in his own name, to all the media persons he anyway speaks to. It would mean greater transparency and greater credibility for both government and media, and a partial solution to the problem of “media trials”.

The writer is Consulting Editor of The Asian Age, Mumbai, and author of The Urban Jungle (Penguin, 2011). These are his personal views and not those of any organisation.

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