The by the opposition bloc INDIA to boycott, or not cooperate with, 14 television news anchors is a welcome move because it has opened up space for a public discussion on the issue of media freedom. As has been argued by many, this is not the first time such a boycott has been slapped on the media – Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for example, has led an unofficial boycott ever since he assumed office in 2014.
That Modi continues to give the media a cold shoulder, and INDIA finds nothing amiss in publicly announcing its so-called non-cooperation with a certain section, raises some very fundamental questions about the freedom of press in the country that go beyond the arm-twisting tactics employed by the state and its co-actors – including the political parties that may not be in office – to control media.
Does freedom of media only mean freedom from external constraints? Are other constituents of democracy obligated to honour the right of the media to be free despite its almost institutionalised, and deliberate transgressions? Is the onus to create an environment conducive for media freedom only and entirely on external agents?
Or is safeguarding its freedom as much a responsibility of the media as it is of other actors in a democracy? Does the press need to be free of its own internal muddle, too, to be actually free? Can media that is very obviously steeped in its own political biases, that uses bigotry to manipulate audiences, that blatantly pursues power and profits, call itself free? Does it have the moral authority to fly its flag of autonomy in the face of those who seek accountability from it?
These are questions that the journalist fraternity needs to engage with in its own interest.
To argue for media freedom without engaging with the question of its own role in weakening the institution of journalism is a parochial view that reflects insecurity, as well as arrogance on the part of the industry. To argue, as some in the industry have, that even if the news anchors in question were guilty as charged, INDIA should have kept the room for engagement open in the interest of freedom of expression, which, in turn is in the interest of democracy, is not only an admission of guilt but even making a virtue of it.
TV news has for long been flouting the most fundamental principles of journalism. The refusal, or the hesitation, to account for its continued gross misconduct, and instead, defend its freedom reflects disingenuousness that doesn’t augur well for journalism itself, not to mention the democracy in the name of which such freedom is sought.
To be sure, running a TV news channel is not easy in a messy democracy, and an immature news market like India.
TV news had, and continues to have, an important role to play. Logistical constraints and large-scale illiteracy didn’t allow newspapers to reach citizens beyond large cities for a long time even after the independence. Television came up with the promise to shine light into the media-dark constituencies of the country. And it did so very fast. Survival, however, remained a big challenge. Audiences outside large cities weren’t ready to pay for their journalism. Advertisers wouldn’t ride these channels either because in comparison with general entertainment, the audience size they delivered was way too small and the set, not conducive. With the main sources of sustenance constricted, the going was tough.
To keep going, TV news operators chose a slippery route. They recast news in entertainment format and news analysis was soon reduced to an ugly circus.
The clamour to seek accountability soon followed.
The idea of regulating broadcast media was officially proposed for the first time around 2006 by Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, the then information and broadcasting minister of the UPA government. He didn’t get any headway, nor did any of his successors despite their many efforts. In 2011, the then chairman of the Press Council of India Markandeya Katju, at the behest of the UPA government, threatened to discipline broadcasters by bringing them under the PCI fold, and also proposed the idea of a super regulator that would watch the watchdog of democracy.
But all such efforts were scuttled by the industry that insisted on self-regulation.
That self-regulation has not worked is obvious. The idea of allowing external actors to regulate or co-regulate TV news raises the hackles of the larger media industry because it fears, and rightly so, that any such arrangement could threaten its own autonomy eventually.
The industry is caught in a bind while TV news continues to butcher the spirit of journalism and scale newer heights of ugliness in public discourse. One needs no empirical evidence to say that it has hurt the interests of all stakeholders, particularly that of viewers, aka the citizens of the country, and harmed the democracy it claims to be serving.
The onus of finding a way out is on the journalist fraternity. They shouldn’t even wait for TV news owners to take the cue. One can’t expect the juggler to refrain from making his monkey do dirty tricks. Journalists are not monkeys, not even those who work for TV. It's sad that it needed to be said.
The writer is a Delhi-based journalist.
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