Arnab Goswami’s Republic TV had been ordered by the News Broadcasting Standards Authority to air an apology at 10 pm on October 14. It did not.
So, will the channel face action from the NBSA for flouting its order? Most likely not, if the regulator’s track record is anything to go by.
In March this year, Goswami anchored a primetime debate during which he ganged up with one of his panellists to bully another panellist, Faheem Baig, into chanting the slogan “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”.
Upset by what he had seen, a viewer named Sharad Shah complained to the NBSA that the manner in which Goswami conducted the debate sent out a message that an Indian citizen was not a patriot if they didn’t chant “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”. He argued that the show violated the NBSA’s guidelines which state that “racial and religious stereotyping should be avoided” and that “caution should be exercised in reporting content which denigrates or is likely to offend the sensitivities of any racial or religious group or that may create religious intolerance or disharmony”.
Republic TV defended its show claiming it was a “unique way of presenting news”. It also said the slogan was patriotic, implying that there was nothing wrong in Goswami bullying the panellist into chanting it. The complainant responded that he was essentially objecting to Goswami picking on a Muslim panellist. Then, the NBSA asked Republic TV to appear for another hearing and submit any documents it may want to in its defence. To this request, Republic TV shot back: “This is a scurrilous complaint tendered by a serial complainant on a matter which carries no merit to warrant such intense pseudo-judicial oversight.”
The NBSA took umbrage, saying it “strongly objects to the language used in the mail which shows scant regard to the NBSA”, and ordered the channel to air an apology “on full screen in large font size with a clearly audible voiceover”. That didn’t happen.
Why not? “In India, anything is taken seriously only if it hurts,” said Sevanti Ninan, founder of the now archived media watchdog The Hoot. “We don’t have a statutory body to levy proper fines and all that. Self-regulation doesn’t work because penalties cannot be enforced by a regulator without statutory powers. There should be some implication to it such as licenses getting revoked for repeat offences or you pay a proper fine.”
This isn’t the first time a broadcaster has disregarded the NBSA’s order. In 2009, India TV cocked a snook at the regulator when it sought to penalise the channel for dubbing an interview with the policy analyst Farhana Ali and passing it off as its own. In 2017, Zee News ignored the NBSA’s directive to apologise for its improper coverage of the scientist and poet Gauhar Raza.
The NBSA took no action in either case.
One reason for the regulator’s toothlessness, the media critic Anand Pradhan pointed out, is that “it’s a closed organisation”. “You won’t get to talk to people and you don’t know what is happening for most of the time,” he explained. “For example, I don’t know what happened to Gauhar Raza incident where Zee was levied a fine. Twice Zee appealed against it and both times the appeal was rejected. Did they pay it? If they didn’t did they face any backlash? No one knows and this information should come from NBSA.”
Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of The Caravan magazine, argued that the problem is more fundamental. “See, the problem with organisations like the NBSA or, for that matter, the Editors Guild, is that they are meaningless,” he said. “Look at the people who form the NBSA. Most of them encourage similar practices that they pretend to stop by calling out Arnab or somebody else. They are the one who create such practices. Most of these members are owners who pretend they have anything to do with journalism.”
Indeed, Rajat Sharma, who disregarded the NBSA’s orders as head of India TV, is now president of the News Broadcasters Association, under which the NBSA functions.
“You are only going to get reasonable checks on the media when you have media organisations run, operated and controlled by journalists who don’t have any financial interest in any organisation,” Bal said. “We don’t have any organisation like that in this country. There is a misconception that these bodies have something to do with journalism; they are bodies to do with the owners.”
Pradhan said by ignoring the NBSA’s order, Republic TV “mocked the idea of self-regulation that the News Broadcasters Association and the NBSA have been trying to sell for a long time. In their annual report, they claim that their system is working vibrantly, it is functional and efficient”.
He, however, insisted that the NBSA is fair in its conduct. “In a number of cases if you go by their rulings or orders or warnings, I personally think that they have been fair. They are also protecting the freedom of speech and expression of most of the channels. In a number of cases, they are rejecting complaints as well. Despite the NSBA being a fair body, most channels are reluctant to give any attention to its warning.”
Pradhan, though, agreed with Bal that the NBA is basically an industrial body, representing broadcasters. “They can issue warnings, impose fines. Whether the members can be expelled we don’t know. If channels are not obeying the orders, what is the punishment?” he asked.
He feared that if the media does not self-regulate, the government will find an excuse to interfere and that would be detrimental for the profession.
Newslaundry contacted Republic TV and the NBSA for their comments on the matter. This report will be updated if they respond.