Reforming the Press Council
A.G. NOORANI IN THE FRONTLINE
The appointment of Justice Markandey Katju, a former judge of the Supreme Court, as Chairman of the Press Council of India is about the best thing that has happened to that body in a long while. It is no exaggeration to say that the PCI commands little prestige today and less relevance. It is not representative of the press at all. What Justice Katju has done, in a few days after his appointment, is to infuse life into it and involve the press in its work. This is a good step towards making the media feel that it is their institution.
It is a liberal approach, which he expounded in a get-together with mediapersons at his residence on October 10. “There are two ways to remove these defects in the media. One is the democratic way, that is, through discussions, consultations and persuasion – which is the method I prefer. The other way is by using harsh measures against the media, for example, by imposing heavy fines on defaulters, stopping government advertisements to them, suspending their licences, and so on.
“In a democracy we should first try the first method to rectify the defects through the democratic method. For this purpose, I have decided to have regular get-togethers with the media, including the electronic media, so that we can all introspect and ourselves find out ways and means to rectify the defect in the media, rather than this being done by some government authority or external agency. I propose to have such get-togethers once every two or three months, at which we will discuss issues relating to the media and try to think of how we can improve the performance of the media so that it may win the respect and confidence of the people.
“If the media prove incorrigible, harsh measures may be required. But in my opinion, that should be done only as a last resort and in extreme situations. Ordinarily, we should first try to resolve issues through discussion, consultation and self-regulation. That is the approach which should be first tried in a democracy. I, therefore, request the Union government to defer the implementation of its recent decision regarding news channel licences, so that we can ourselves discuss the issue thoroughly, and ourselves take corrective measures. “Till now the function of the Press Council was only adjudication. I intend to make the Press Council an instrument of mediation in addition, which is in my opinion the democratic approach” ( The Hindu, October 22, 2011).But the archaic Press Council Act, 1978, is most unsuited to serve as a platform for such an imaginative enterprise. It was atrophied at its very birth by imposing (Section 5 (3)) a strange composition of the Press Council, which ensures its own irrelevance and cynicism by the press.
Justice Katju rightly holds that the electronic media should also be brought within the remit of the Press Council. Indeed, failure to do so would violate the constitutional guarantee of equality (Article 14). Equals must be treated alike. Cinematograph films are different in that, unlike the print and electronic media, they are subject to pre-censorship. A ramshackle system of supposedly quasi-judicial institutions is set up by the Cinematograph Act, 1952. Meanwhile, the electronic media roams at large like a rogue elephant.
However, if television is to be brought within the purview of the Act of 1978, as it must be, the statute will have to undergo a drastic overhaul beginning with its title. The composition of the PCI must be changed fundamentally. This would provide an excellent opportunity for reform, in which Justice Katju’s PCI can perform the role he promises as an instrument of mediation. But 2011 is not 1978. The media are more assertive. No reform will be acceptable or will work unless it is based on the largest measure of consensus in the print as well as the electronic media.
To begin with, the PCI’s composition must change. Names need not be mentioned, but it is well known that over the years it has had members whose presence on the Council was nothing short of scandalous. Members of the print and electronic media should put their heads together to ensure that the PCI truly represents the media.
Justice Katju might propose a radical change. The PCI should no longer be headed by a former judge of the Supreme Court but by a person elected by the media itself. Appointment of a judge by the government adds an “outside” element to what is a “Court of Honour” comprising the media, mandated to discipline its own erring members. The task will be more effectively performed if the PCI represents both the wings of the media, print and electronic, and is headed by one of their own.
Bar a few honourable exceptions, the former Supreme Court judges who served as Chairmen did poor service to the PCI and brought little credit to themselves. What is it that inspired a former judge of the Supreme Court presiding over the Press Council, Justice N. Rajagopala Iyengar, to write to V.C. Shukla, easily the most despicable Minister for Information and Broadcasting we have ever had, on August 13, 1975, during the Emergency, confidentially in this conspiratorial vein: “You remember I spoke to you about the desire of some members to have a meeting convened for the purpose of discussing the Emergency and the Censorship. I had an informal meeting of the Delhi-based members and I was able to convince them that this is not necessary or desirable. So this will not figure in [sic] the agenda of my meeting that is being called” ( White Paper on Misuse of Mass Media during the Internal Emergency; Government of India; August 1977; page 40). The context brings out the betrayal by the PCI Chairman. Kuldip Nayar had proposed a resolution condemning restrictions on the press. The judge, a custodian of press freedom as the PCI’s head, not only sabotaged the move but wrote to the Minister about his brilliant piece of work to earn brownie points.
Justice R.S. Sarkaria was another favourite. He was appointed on a Commission of Inquiry in 1976 against the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, M. Karunanidhi; as head of the Commission on Centre-State Relations in 1983, along with two former bureaucrats, to deliver the desired report; and later as Chairman of the PCI, in recognition of his high services to the state. In 1990, participants at a seminar were shocked to hear him argue that it took the United States 200 years to acquire a law on the freedom of information. Fortunately, we did not wait for those 200 years. But his worst abdication of duty lay in entertaining an oral complaint by the Army on press reportage on Kashmir. It included reports of alleged rapes of 31 women by army personnel during the night of February 23-24, 1991. A probe into the veracity of such a report is one for a Commission of Inquiry to undertake; surely not for the Press Council of India. Besides, Regulation 4 of the Press Council (Procedure for Inquiry) Regulations, 1979, binds the PCI to reject any complaint that is not in writing and does not contain the details required under Regulation 3. The upshot was a report by B.G. Verghese, which lies discredited today.
The State Human Rights Commission of Kashmir announced on October 19, 2011, that it would probe afresh the Kunan Poshpora rapes. The press reported more than once intercession by the village elders to get the victims married. So much for Verghese’s denial of the charges (vide the writer’s “Exceeding the Brief”, Frontline, October 12, 1991). The Secretary of the PCI was instructed to invoke, in the teeth of Regulations 3 and 4, Regulation 15, which enables inquiries “to regulate their own procedure in respect of any matter for which no provisions or inadequate provision is made”, Regulation 4 notwithstanding. Verghese’s report was widely distributed by the Government of India. All this under Sarkaria’s watch.
Abdication of duty
Justice P.B. Sawant had his own demons to slaughter. The nadir was reached in the case of the brave human rights activist Ravi Nair, whose patriotism was impugned by a newspaper. “The committee (of inquiry) considered the records carefully. It noted that the impugned report was based on the information given to the newspaper by the governmental agencies, the names of which the respondent-newspaper had disclosed in his written statement. The committee further noted that the newspaper had offered to publish the retraction if the complainant could get a declaration from the governmental agencies. It further noted the apparent contradiction between the statements made by the complainant in his complaint and the letter written by him to the editor in regard to the correspondent’s effort to verify the facts from the complainant. In the circumstances, the committee felt that the impugned report was based on the information received by the respondent-newspaper from authentic sources and, therefore, there was no substance in the complaint. The committee decided to recommend to the Council, to dismiss the complaint.” The PCI accepted this. Its Chairman was Justice (retd) P.B. Sawant.
This was a gross abdication of duty. The PCI is enjoined to probe for itself and require the paper to justify its smear. The effect is obvious. If the agencies plant a story – as they do every now and then – the complainant will need an exoneration “from the governmental agencies” themselves. A person who has such an outlook is unfit to be Chairman of the PCI.
Justice Katju’s immediate predecessor did not cover himself with glory either. He was privy to the suppression of the 71-page report on paid news prepared by dedicated and able senior journalists Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and K. Sreenivas Reddy. Through a vote on July 30, 2010, the PCI shamefully refused to reveal the findings and, instead, submitted a 13-page report to the government. The full report is now public and should be published in full in the PCI’s Journal. Not Everyone has access to the Internet. Yet Chairman after Chairman has demanded punitive powers – P.B. Sawant, K. Jayachandra Reddy and G.N. Ray. It is such men who reduced the PCI to pathetic irrelevance.
Chairmen there have been, like Justice A.N. Sen, who manfully stood up for press freedom. The Thakkar-Natarajan Commission on Fairfax, comprising sitting judges of the Supreme Court, was out to pillory V.P. Singh. They responded to press criticism of their conduct by asking for powers of contempt for commissions of inquiry. The Government of India asked the PCI’s Chairman, Justice A.N. Sen, to prescribe a code of conduct. Since we hear a lot about a code of conduct for journalists, the text of the PCI’s decision deserves to be set out in full:
“The Council considered the letter of Shri. G.K. Arora, Secretary to the Government of India, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, New Delhi, dated 31-5-1988 addressed to the Chairman, Press Council of India, and also the observations made in Chapter VI of the Report of Justices Thakkar-Natarajan Commission. Out of deference to the members of the Commission, who happen to be sitting Judges of the Supreme Court, the Council refrains from making any comments on the observations made and views expressed therein.
“The Second Press Commission had recommended that it would not be proper to lay down any code of conduct for the press. The Council has consistently taken the stand that it is not desirable to formulate a code of conduct for the press as the Council is of the opinion that any such formulation can only be in broad and general terms and such formulation will serve no useful purpose and may have the effect of impinging on the freedom of the press. Guidelines are indeed indicated in Article 19(2) of the Constitution itself. Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation and an eminent journalist himself, suggested that imposition of any restrictions should come from within the press and not from without. Section 13(2)(b) of the Press Council Act, 1978, lays down that the Council should build up a code of conduct, and this the Council is doing through the various decisions rendered by it. The British Press Council also observes the same practice. The Council decided to reiterate its stand and expressed the opinion that there was no reason to depart from the same.” But, of course, a code of conduct can help; provided it is drawn up by both wings of the media and their code is annexed, as a schedule, to the new PCI Act, for the reformed PCI to enforce.
The British Press Complaints Commission has come under a cloud after the News of the World scandal. But the precedent is a useful one; not for imitiation but for adaptation. The PCC is charged with enforcing a “Code of Practice” drawn up by the press itself (see box). It is not a statutory body but an exercise in self-regulation which grew out of public outrage over repeated violations of privacy. There were the reports of the Committee on Privacy headed by Kenneth Younger (1972); of the Committee on Privacy and Related Matters headed by David Calcutt, Q.C. (1990); and by Calcutt himself (1993) entitled “Review of Press Self-Regulation” (Vide the writer’s article “Privacy and public wrongs”, Frontline, October 17, 1997). The PCI and the Indian Law Institute published two useful compilations of rulings. One was on Violation of Freedom of Press (1986) and the other on Violation of Journalistic Ethics and Public taste (1984).
Justice Katju will doubtless hasten slowly. Leading figures in the media, print and electronic, owe a clear duty to help him in this task, besides exploring other areas superficially dealt with in the past. One neglected area is media coverage of terrorist outrage. In the wake of 26/11, some TV reportage imperilled lives and security by reckless behaviour. The BBC has extensive internal guidelines for reporting on hijacking, kidnapping, hostage taking and sieges. They are available on http://www.bbc.co.uk/guidelines/editorialguidelines/edguide.
Justice Katju lost little time in dissipating the credit he had initially acquired. The penchant for sweeping remarks for which he was known in the “outbursts” on the Supreme Court Bench asserted itself soon after he became Chairman of the PCI.
He deservedly received reprimands from the Editor’s Guild and the Broadcast Editors Association on November 1 and 2. All of which only fortifies the case for revamping the PCI by eliminating Supreme Court judges from the chairmanship and including the electronic media within the ambit of a reconstituted Media Council as suggested in this article. Katju ought to know that judges of the Supreme Court exhibit appalling ignorance of literature when they demand that avowed works of historical fiction should be historically accurate. You cannot denounce and persuade at the same time. It is not for him to speak as he did anymore than it is open to a Chief Justice to denounce the Bar or the Army chief to denounce the jawans. His plea for teeth should be rejected. His comments lack restraint even when what he says is true.
But not all his comments on the media should be brushed aside. Some are fair. For instance, TV anchors assiduously whip up chauvinism in their contest for Television Rating Points – their current target is China. Four leading anchors behave like licensed louts every evening. They promote sensationalism and revel in aggressive demeanour. Print media journalists have to undergo a long grind before they reach editorial positions. Only a TV anchor will loftily proclaim while in Ladakh, “the McMahon Line is behind me”. He did not know that the line is our boundary in the north-east. It does not extend westward. In Ladakh the Sino-Indian boundary was never defined. Only a Line of Actual Control exists. Another TV channel has broken all norms of professional integrity by reducing itself to a platform for Omar Abdullah whenever he has been in trouble ever since he was pitchforked into the office of the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir nearly three years ago. To everyone’s surprise, he on his part grants it and its correspondent preferential treatment.
Still and all, Justice Katju should be given a fair chance for he has some good ideas and intends to infuse life into the PCI.
- Press Council has failed: Justice Verma (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- JUSTICE KATJU – MEDIA DEBATE : Bring electronic media under Press Council (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- JUSTICE KATJU – MEDIA DEBATE : Press freedom must be examined (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- JUSTICE KATJU – MEDIA DEBATE : Justice Markandey Katju on the role of media in India (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- Justice Katju (chairman, PCI), Suggests PM to “Monitor” Electronic Media (richardrego.wordpress.com)
- Media and issues of responsibility (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- Media won’t bite the Katju bullet (richardrego.wordpress.com)
- Does the Media deliberately divide People? (ktrmurali.wordpress.com)
- SC judges: Most sign off with grace, others remain Lordships (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- ‘Judges must know their limits…they must not try to run the government’ (indialawyers.wordpress.com)