Possible for ethics & profit-making to co-exist: Paranjoy Guha Thakurta (Text & Video)

03 May,2012


By Shruti Pushkarna


As he launched the second expanded edition of his book, ‘Media Ethics: Truth, Fairness and Objectivity’,  in the capital last week, MxMIndia caught up with veteran independent journalist and educator,  Paranjoy Guha Thakurta for an exclusive interaction. In this candid one-on-one, Mr Guha Thakurta spoke at length about ethics in media today, self-regulation vs. regulation; the debate on the freedom of expression on the internet and the need for media to be ethically and socially responsible.


Mr Guha Thakurta’s experience spanning nearly 35 years, cuts across different media: print, radio, television and documentary cinema. He is a writer, speaker, anchor, interviewer, teacher and commentator in three languages, English, Bengali and Hindi. His main areas of interest are the working ofIndia’s political economy and the media, on which he has authored/co-authored books and produced documentary films. He lectures on these subjects to general audiences and also trains aspiring and working media professionals.


Mr Guha Thakurta has served as a member of the Press Council of India nominated by the University Grants Commission between January 2008 and January 2011. In April 2010, as a member of a two-member sub-committee of the Council, he co-authored a 36,000-word report entitled ‘Paid News: How Corruption in the Indian Media Undermines Democracy’.


Does an expanded edition mean a lot more to discuss in media ethics?

The first edition of this book came out more than three years ago, since then a lot has happened. Moreover, after the book came out, there were a lot of people who came up with suggestions on how this book could be improved. So this book is about 40 per cent bigger and thicker than the earlier edition. There are new chapters – there is an entirely new chapter on corruption in the media based quite a bit on my experience as a member of the sub-committee of the PCI, which inquired into corruption in media and how it undermines democracy, the entire phenomenon of paid news. There’s also a new chapter on reality television and some of the existing chapters have been drastically rewritten and revamped, notably the chapter on the internet because a lot has been happening in the internet space; also the chapter on advertising, which was particularly weak in the first edition – I think it has been strengthened substantially in the new edition.


Also a whole lot of major developments have taken place concerning the media in the recent past; these have all been incorporated in the new edition. Among these would be the News of the World and Rupert Murdoch controversy in UK, the entire Wikileaks and Julian Assange phenomenon and back home here in India, the entire Niira Radia conversations; all of these have raised significant questions pertaining to media ethics and these have been incorporated in the new edition of the book.


How important is the ‘code of ethics’ in today’s commercialized scheme of things?

Ethics is very important in every sphere, particularly so in the case of media, because you are dealing with information which is akin to a public good. The problem essentially arises because this information is being disseminated by privately owned corporate bodies with an important goal to maximize profit; therein lies the conflicts of interest. The problem arises because there are sections of the media that are interested in profit maximization to the exclusion of other goals.


It’s become a bit of a cliche – once upon a time it used to be said, ‘journalism is a mission’, today journalists work only for a commission. We are seeing the corporatization and commercialization of the media having an impact on the kind of content that is being produced. The viewers of television channels, the readers of newspapers, and the listeners of radio stations are being perceived more as ‘consumers’ rather as citizens. They are ‘consumers’ of products and services which are being provided by companies which advertise.


Can journalistic ethics and profit-making can co-exist?

I do believe it can, it’s not easy but it is possible for ethics and profit-making to co-exist.


What is your view on the issue of regulation v/s self-regulation? What works for you?

In an ideal world, self-regulation is the best form of regulation. But what do you do with those who cross that proverbial ‘lakshman rekha’, what do you do with those who don’t follow the code of conduct which is supposed to be self-regulatory in nature. I’ll give you an example, in the US, when Janet Jackson had a wardrobe malfunction in the middle of a live broadcast, the channel was fined immediately by the Federal Communications Commission because the wardrobe malfunction happened during a live broadcast, it happened during primetime and the channel had to first pay the fine and then appeal against the decision in a court of law.


What happens in India? Not very long ago, there was a series of incidents involving Bhanwari Devi Maderna episode in Rajasthan and content was put out during the day on television, which many considered to be pornographic in nature. When the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued show cause notices against these TV channels, all of them came to Shastri Bhawan saying, ‘we apologize and we won’t do it again’. That’s the nature of self regulation in this country.


As far as print is concerned, we have a Press Council of India which has no powers to punish anybody, it cannot impose a fine, leave alone put a person behind bars, and its recommendations are not even binding on the government. We don’t have statutory organizations which are empowered in the manner in which say the Federal Communications Commission is, or the Office of Communications in the UK is. So it’s fine to talk about self regulation but what do you do when somebody doesn’t listen to you, do you have the wherewithal to punish them?



Do you think we need an independent official regulatory authority for television news channels as against one set up by the channels?

Yes, I do personally believe that it is possible and desirable to have an independent regulatory authority which is independent of the government as well as the media. Such a regulatory authority can be funded by the government, but it can nevertheless be autonomous and independent of the government, in the manner in which bodies like the Supreme Court of India, or CAG or Election Commission of India function.


So, I do believe it is possible to have such a communications commission. The problem is that for the last decade we have been debating the need for such a commission and the joke is that every time the government proposes to form such a commission, the government collapses. There have been 10 or 12 avatars of a Bill to set up such a commission; time alone will tell when and if such a commission is established in India.


Your view on Dirty Picture not being allowed to air during the day on Sony?

The whole Dirty Picture episode has thrown up a number of issues pertaining to censorship, pertaining to what content is appropriate or not, and if adult content can be shown on television, if so when. I think these issues are contentious and debatable and they are going to be debated for quite some time to come.


Would you agree with Justice Katju’s view when he says people in media are of poor intellect?

I think Justice Katju is exaggerating. There are journalists who are dumb and there are journalists who are not dumb. I think Justice Katju is not being fair to the media fraternity but that’s his personal point of view, he also thinks 90 per cent of Indians are fools, I beg to disagree with him.


There’s a belief that the Indian media doesn’t take too kindly to criticism. Agree?

Who among us are willingly going to accept criticism? All of us have our egos, in that sense, I don’t think the media is unique. I think there is neither any individual nor any group who likes criticism but the point is if you do believe in democracy, if you believe in fairness, and if you are in the public eye, then you better get used to criticism otherwise you’ll end up like Ms Mamata Banerjee who could not take being lampooned online. This shows not only lack of tolerance on part of individuals, especially public figures, but I think it fails to appreciate the nature of freedom of expression.


Isn’t it upsetting that all the journalists’ organizations like Press Club, Editors Guild are tightlipped about Paid News?

I won’t entirely go along with you on that, I mean there was a conspiracy of silence about corruption in media and paid news, even the report of the subcommittee that was prepared by me and my colleague for the PCI, was sought to be suppressed by a powerful lobby of publishers within the PCI. Finally in October 2011, the PCI was literally forced to make that report official, place it on their website with a disclaimer saying that entire council had not approved of its content. But I won’t say all journalists’ organizations conspired to put under wraps this report. There have been sections of the media who have been reticent of highlighting corruption within the media fraternity, but I don’t think it’s true for the entire media.


Do you think that Public Relations has adversely impacted the quality of journalism?

No, why blame the PR person…she or he is doing his or her job. You can also say the government has bribed the media, you can say that corporate captains have bribed the media. So I don’t think we need to look for excuses, I think journalists have to look within if they have to introspect about why there is corruption in the media. You can always hold somebody or the other responsible for your sins but at the end of the day, you are yourself responsible I believe.


Your views on the ongoing debate on the freedom of expression in the internet age

I think this is a huge debate. The internet is not just the newest medium of mass communication, it’s also a form of personalized communication, and it’s difficult to control. Issues relating to freedom of expression on the internet have acquired many new dimensions and these are very contentious and not easy to resolve. And we’ve seen this debate been going on for a while…the ‘infamous’ Danish cartoons on the prophet Mohammed were all drawn ostensibly to generate a debate on freedom of expression. Yes, that cartoon was widely circulated on the internet, as was the gruesome video showing Daniel Pearl getting beheaded. But it’s also worth remembering and underlining the fact that the mainstream media were restrained in reprinting, publicizing either the Danish cartoon or Daniel Pearl’s beheading.


The point is, sometimes in the name of freedom of expression, you want to generate a debate but you end up generating one huge controversy which goes out of control. It was the Danish PM who argued that the cartoon controversy was the biggest crisis that small Scandinavian country faced after the Second World War and he was particularly worried because it even had an impact on the economy of Denmark because countries of West Asia stopped buying dairy products made inDenmark.


So very often we might want to start a debate without realising its wider ramifications. But the bigger question of what constitutes the right to offend, what is freedom of expression and the new dimensions these issues have acquired in the day and age of internet, these are very important, they are being debated and I think these debates are going to go on for quite some time.


And given all of this, your view on the future of news media in India?

The future of news media in India is very bright. Unlike many countries in the world, all media in India continue to expand, whether it’s print, radio, TV or internet. According to 2011 census, one out of four persons in India still cannot read or write her or his name, so as more and more people become literate I think all sections of media are going to expand. At the same time, media has to become more responsible, not just socially responsible but also more ethical if it indeed has to contribute to building democracy, to building a better country.


If you were still a kid getting out of college, would you get into journalism given the ethical standards followed?

That’s a difficult question…when I became a journalist 35 years ago, the Emergency had just got over. That was a unique 19 month period in the history of the country where for the first and so far the only time in politically independent India, the government of the day sought to abridge freedom of expression. For 19 months, during the Emergency, freedom of expression was sought to be curbed. I don’t think that will happen again, but the very fact that I was a student during that period did influence my decision to become a journalist. If I was born 35 years later, I don’t know if I would have preferred to become a rock star, or an airline pilot or a heart surgeon instead of a journalist.


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