Can Indian media self-regulate?

India television studio
Image caption The debate over regulation will help focus on the larger role of the media

There is a noisy debate in India on whether the media should be self-regulated or have a tough, outside authority do the job for it. BBC Hindi editor Amit Baruah, in Delhi, weighs the concerns.

If you cannot do it yourself, then someone might just have to do it for you. That is what stands out from the Indian media debate.

While the print media gets away with gentle admonishment from the Press Council of India, there is no regulator that oversees the growing number of television channels in the country.

One estimate put the number of channels in different genres allowed to operate in India at the end of August at a staggering 745.

The country, according to another estimate, had more than 50,000 newspapers.

With the government continuing to bar private radio stations from broadcasting news, some 100 million homes now have direct-to-home TV access.

In-your-face graphics, multiple tickers and aggressive anchors have become the norm in India's television news industry.

'Noisy studios'

Matters of state in India, it would appear on occasion, are decided not by the hurly-burly of everyday politics, but in the studios of noisy television channels.

Is India ready for a regulator like Ofcom in the United Kingdom which, among other things, is tasked with ensuring that people are protected from being unfairly targeted in TV and radio programmes, and from having their privacy invaded?

The debate has been propelled to a new level following a recent decision by India's highest court not to interfere with a Bombay High Court order that awarded $20m (£12.5m) in damages to a former judge of the Supreme Court in a defamation case.

Times Global Broadcasting Limited, owners of the Times Now television channel, were penalised for erroneously showing a picture of Justice PB Sawant in 2008 in connection with a financial scam.

There has been a furious reaction from the industry. Media bosses have criticised the courts for imposing what they say are outrageous damages in a case of apparent human error.

Ashish Bagga, president of the Indian Newspaper Society, said in a statement that the courts' decisions "potentially threaten the survival and existence of media in India".

Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief of the CNN-IBN television channel, tweeted that the court orders were an example of judicial overreach and were unfair.

According to the News Broadcasters' Association, if errors committed by the media were to face such legal consequences and if companies were compelled to pay such "disproportionately exorbitant damages" despite issuing a public apology, it would "effectively cripple the functioning of the media".

Case for regulation

The industry is convinced that there is no need to go beyond self-regulation, as this would amount to stifling the voice of the free media.

Image caption Indian television channels are often criticised for being too aggressive

But not everyone agrees with the associations of media owners and editors.

For instance, Vice-President Hamid Ansari, a liberal who was a newspaper columnist and TV commentator after a career in the foreign service, is convinced that there is a case for regulation.

"Collective self-regulation has yet to succeed in substantive measure because it is neither universal nor enforceable. Individual self-regulation has also failed due to personal predilection and the prevailing of personal interest over public interest," Mr Ansari said recently.

"Can the constitutional safeguards on freedom of speech be used to evade regulation of the commercial persona of media corporates and groups? Where does public interest end and private interest begin?"

Mr Ansari has a strong supporter in Markanday Katju, a former Supreme Court judge and now head of the Press Council of India, which oversees the print media.

Mr Katju, an outspoken judge, has brought the same qualities to his new job as the print media regulator.

The judge has been scathing in his criticism of the media's priorities and coverage, though he has described the recent judicial orders in the Times Now case as "disproportionate".

According to Mr Katju, if 90% of the media's coverage was devoted to entertainment and only 10% to all the socio-economic issues put together, then the media's sense of priorities had gone "haywire".

Powerful arguments

The print regulator, who has written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to bring the electronic media under the ambit of the Press Council, believes that the media has no absolute right to self-regulation.

"If the broadcast media insist on self-regulation, then by the same logic, politicians, bureaucrats... must have the same right of self-regulation," Mr Katju said in remarks published by The Hindu newspaper.

"Or," he continued, "do the broadcast media regard themselves as so holy that nobody should regulate them except themselves?

"In fact, there is no such thing as self-regulation, which is an oxymoron. Everybody is accountable to the people in a democracy - and so are the media," he argued.

Image caption Cannot healthy and open consultation be the way ahead?

These are powerful arguments by eminent Indians.

Many not-so-eminent Indians have also suffered at the hands of the growing and powerful television media, sections of which often focus on the dramatic at the expense of the serious.

However, memories of harsh government censorship during the premiership of Indira Gandhi in 1975-1977 continue to linger and the intentions of the government in respect to regulation remain suspect.

In their defence, many television editors privately argue that the industry is still nascent and will mature in the years ahead.

Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni told BBC Hindi that the Congress-led coalition government never said it wanted to control the media.

Ms Soni said she had set up a taskforce which, after detailed consultations, came to the conclusion that till parliament created a structure for media regulation, the government should support self-regulation by the media.

There is little doubt that the commercial imperative and the drive to garner more viewing are driving the growth of the electronic media at a time when India is being noticed as a player on the global stage.

In the 64th year of India's democracy, the debate over regulation will help focus on the larger role of the media, especially in the television arena, and where it is headed.

By way of an example, not a single private TV channel or newspaper has invested in a correspondent in Afghanistan, a country in which India has invested close to $2 billion in reconstruction efforts and strategic capital.

For a country with global ambitions, the country's media is, perhaps, looking at too narrow an agenda.

But, as far as regulation goes, many believe imposing a solution from the outside may not do the trick - instead, healthy and open consultation between the government, media owners, editors and journalists might be the way ahead.

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