One Big Idea by Paritosh Joshi: We ignore the Leveson Inquiry at our own peril

15 Apr,2013

By Paritosh Joshi

 

David Cameron, under enormous pressure to show decisive action in the face of what was widely seen as egregious behaviour at News International, announced a wide-ranging inquiry into “the culture, practices and ethics of the Press” on July 13, 2011. Headed by Lord Justice Leveson, the inquiry commenced on July 28, 2011 and submitted its final report on November 29, 2012.

 

We are in India, I hear you say, and this topic is irrelevant and irksome. Right then, I will let you go. Here still? Thanks. This merits your attention and patience. The Leveson Inquiry’s Terms of Reference appear as an Annexure but here are a few key points:

 

Part 1
1. To inquire into the culture, practices, and ethics of the press

2. To make recommendations:
a. for a new more effective policy and regulatory
regime (truncated)

 

Part 2
3. To inquire into the extent of unlawful or improper conduct within (truncated) newspaper organisations and, as appropriate, other organisations within the media (truncated)

 

We are no strangers to improper associations between the media and the political establishment. The Radia Tapes and countless other misdemeanours suggest that the issues that Lord Justice Leveson dealt with are pertinent to us.

 

Our news businesses have never been more short-term-orientated and generally myopic to enduring vision, than they appear today. While this should only be expected of the arrivistes who have entered driven by promises of lucre and/or power, it is not restricted to them. Alarmingly, the great and the good of the Ancien Régime too are willing victims of the contagion.

 

Here, finally, is the big idea: A Media Agnostic, Fully Empowered Self-Regulatory Body For News.

 

An interesting dialectic is playing out in these times. On one hand: Access to news and information about people and events anywhere in the world is no further than a click on Google or Tw itt er.

 

On the other : At no time have states, or other sufficiently powerful groups, been more hostile to adverse reportage. Or more prepared to attempt to muzzle it. Within the last fortnight we have seen everything from girls arrested for a Facebook posting and editors being accused of extortion to a whole country, Syria, disconnected from the internet.

 

We can’t do much about despots in distant lands but we have a solemn obligation to the citizenry. Free speech is the best long-term safeguard of our democracy. It is
imperative, therefore that the press does not open itself up to accusations of mendacity. In effect, a self-regulator would have to protect the press against its own worst
instincts.

 

Over the last year or so, television news broadcasters have instituted a self-regulatory body the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, NBSA, presided over by ex- CJI, Justice Verma. NBSA has begun to make some progress but there is still disquiet on both substance and form in which news is delivered. The situation on the print side of the business is less sanguine. The Press Council of India is constituted under the provisions of the Press Council Act, 1978. Its stated objective is “preserving the freedom of the Press and of maintaining and improving the standards of newspapers and news agencies in India”.

 

Justice Katju, who took over Chairmanship on October 5, 2011, has managed to keep the Council, and himself, in the news over this last year and a bit. Bluster has its uses but eventually it becomes vexatious. So what is the problem?

 

We don’t have a real self-regulator in place. And more importantly, a medium-agnostic regulator. A regulatory system, however well intentioned, is simply not up to scratch if it operates inside historical silos.

 

There are four generally accepted pillars on which a Self-Regulatory Regime for News Media must stand:

Journalists’ Code of Ethics Defined Standards of Editorial Independence Media Organisations’ internal S&P (Standards & Practices) Guidelines

Formal Complaints Management and Redressal Process with a formally constituted body comprised of:

Industry professionals, both working journalists and editors Representatives of allied professions (advertisers and agencies) Representatives of Civil Society Templates for the first three are available locally or internationally and can be adapted. If templates are needed for establishing the Complaints Redressal Body, that model too is available in the form of the Consumer Complaints Council of Advertising Standards Council India.

 

It isn’t as simple as that. There are huge vested interests to contend with and many apparently irreconcilable positions. An idea like this will take much time to find acceptability but it is an idea whose time has come.

 

And think about it the way Stan Lee, creator of Spiderman put it. “With great power, there must also come great responsibility”.

 

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