Media Ethics Debate – Justice Markandey Katju clarifies
PUBLISHED IN THE HINDU
I have expressed my views relating to the media in several T.V. interviews I gave as well as in my articles in some newspapers.
However, many people, including many media people, wanted clarification and amplification of some of the issues I had raised. Many media people (including several T.V. channels) wanted interviews with me but I told them that I will not give interviews for some time, since it does not create a good impression if one keeps giving interviews frequently. However, since some controversy appears to have been raised about what I said a clarification is in order.
Today India is passing through a transitional period in our history, the transition being from feudal agricultural society to modern industrial society. This is a very painful and agonizing period in history. The old feudal society is being uprooted and torn apart, but the new modern industrial society has not been fully and firmly established. Old values are crumbling, but new modern values have not yet been put in place. Everything is in flux, in turmoil. What was regarded good yesterday, is regarded bad today, and what was regarded bad is regarded good. As Shakespeare said in Macbeth “Fair is foul and foul is fair”.
If one studies the history of Europe from the 16th to the 19th Centuries, when the transition from feudalism to modern society was taking place, one will know that this transitional period was full of turbulence, turmoil, wars, revolutions, chaos, social churning, and intellectual ferment. It was only after going through this fire that modern society emerged in Europe. India is presently going through that fire. We are going through a very painful period in our country’s history, which, I guess, will last another 15 to 20 years. I wish this transition would take place painlessly and immediately but unfortunately that is not how history functions.
In this transition period the role of ideas, and therefore of the media, becomes extremely important. At a particular historical juncture, ideas become a material force. For instance, the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity, and of religious freedom (secularism) became powerful material forces during the Age of Enlightenment in Europe and particularly during the American and French Revolutions. In the age of transition in Europe, the media (which was only the print media at that time) played a great, historical role in the transformation of feudal Europe to modern Europe.
Historically, the print medium arose as an organ of the people against feudal oppression. At that time, the established organs of power were all in the hands of the feudal, despotic authorities (kings, aristocrats, etc.). Hence the people had to create new organs which could represent their interests. That is why the print medium became known as the Fourth Estate. In Europe and America it represented the voice of the future, as a contrast to the established feudal organs which wanted to preserve status quo.
Great writers like Voltaire, Rousseau, Thomas Paine, ‘Junius’ (whose real name we yet do not know) played an outstanding role in this connection (see Will Durant’s ‘The Age of Voltaire’ and ‘Rousseau and Revolution’). The Encyclopaedists like Voltaire, Diderot, Helvetius, Holbach etc. created the Age of Reason, which paved the way for a modern Europe. Diderot wrote that “Men will be free when the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”. Voltaire, in his satirical novels ‘Candide’ and ‘Zadig’ lashed out at religious bigotry, superstitions, and irrationalism. Rousseau in his ‘Social Contract’ attacked feudal despotism by propounding the theory of the ‘general will’ (which broadly stands for popular sovereignty). Thomas Paine wrote about the Right of Man, and Junius attacked the corruption of the Ministers of the despotic George III. Dickens criticized the terrible social conditions in 19th Century England. These, and many others, were responsible for creating modern Europe.
In my opinion the Indian media too should play a progressive role similar to the one played by the European media. This it can do by attacking backward and feudal ideas and practices like casteism, communalism, superstitions, oppression of women, etc. and propagating modern rational and scientific ideas, secularism, and tolerance.
At one time a section of our media played a great role in our country. Raja Ram Mohan Roy courageously attacked backward customs like sati, child marriage, purda, etc in his newspapers ‘Miratul Akbhar’ and ‘Sambad Kaumudi’. Nikhil Chakravarty wrote about the horrors of the Bengal Famine of 1943. Munshi Premchand and Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyaya wrote against feudal practices and oppression of women. Saadat Hasan Manto wrote about the horrors of Partition.
When I criticized the Indian media, and particularly the electronic media for not playing such a progressive and socially responsible role, I was furiously attacked by a section of the media for my views. Some even launched a personal attack on me saying that I was an agent of the government.
I could have retaliated back in the same tone by saying that most media persons are agents of the corporates who have hired them, but I refrained from doing so as I did not want to stoop down to their level. When serious issues are raised about the functioning of the media it was expected that those issues would be addressed seriously instead of launching personal attacks on me, or simply dismissing me as ‘irresponsible’ (as one Exalted Person has done).
By criticizing the media I wanted to persuade the media to change its manner of functioning and not that I wanted to destroy it. The Indian media has a historical role to play in the age of transition, and I wanted to remind the media persons of their historical duty to the nation. Instead of taking my criticism in the correct spirit, a veritable diatribe was launched against me by a section of the media, which painted me as some kind of dictatorial monster.
The great Hindi poet Rahim has written:
“Nindak nearey raakhiye
Aangan kuti Chawaye”
The media should regard me as their well wisher. I criticized them because I wanted media persons to give up many of their defects (some of which I had mentioned in my T.V. interviews and articles) and follow the path of honour which the European media was following, and which will give them the respect of the Indian people.
I mentioned that 80% of our countrymen are living in horrible poverty, there is massive unemployment, skyrocketing prices, lack of medical care, education etc. and barbaric social practices like honour killing, dowry death, caste oppression, religious bigotry, etc. Instead of seriously addressing these issues 90% of the coverage of our media goes to entertainment, e.g., lives of film stars, fashion parades, pop music, disco dancing, cricket etc, or showing superstitions like astrology.
No doubt the media should provide some entertainment also to the people, but if 90% of its coverage is devoted to entertainment, and only 10% to all the socio-economic issues put together, then the sense of priorities of the media has gone haywire. The real issues before the people are the socio-economic issues, and the media is seeking to divert their attention to the non issues like film stars, fashion parades, disco, pop, cricket etc. Does a hungry or unemployed man require entertainment, or food and a job? It is because of this lack of a sense of priorities and for showing superstitions, that I criticized the media.
One should not be afraid of criticism, nor should one resent it. People can criticize me as much as they like, I will not resent it, and maybe I will benefit from it. But similarly the media too should not mind if I criticize them. My aim in doing so is to make them better media people. While criticizing, however, fairness requires that one should report the words of one’s opponent accurately, without twisting or distorting them. That was the method used by our philosophers. They would first state the views of their opponent, in what was called as the ‘purvapaksha’. This was done with such accuracy and intellectual honesty that if the opponent were present he could not have stated his views better. Thereafter it was sought to be refuted. In this connection one may read Madhavacharya’s ‘Sarva Darshan Sangrah’ (Madhavacharya was the founder of the Dvait school of Vedanta). The views of the Charvaks (Materialist thinkers), the Buddhists, Jains, etc are stated in the ‘purvapaksha’ with such accuracy that if they were present they could not have put them better.
Unfortunately, this practice is often not followed by our media, and my words were distorted by many, and then I was furiously attacked. To give only two examples: (1) In my interview to Mr. Karan Thapar, I stated that in my opinion the majority of media people are of a poor intellectual level. This statement of mine was twisted and distorted by several persons on T.V. channels who quoted me as saying that all media persons are ‘uneducated’ and ‘illiterate’. I telephoned the lady journalist who anchored one of such T.V. panel discussions and asked her why she had distorted my words. She had begun the panel discussion by saying “Katju called journalists uneducated”. She said she only interpreted what I said. I told her that first she should have quoted my exact words, and then only should she have interpreted them. I would like to clarify this further.
Firstly, I did not make a statement about all media people but only of the majority. There are many media people for whom I have great respect. I had mentioned the name of Mr. P. Sainath, whose name should be written in letters of gold in the history of India journalism (for highlighting farmer’s suicides and other farmers issues). I can name several others. Mr. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Mr. Shreenivas Reddy did a commendable job in exposing in detail the scandal of paid news. I also have high respect for Mr. Vinod Mehta, Mr. Vinod Sharma, Mr. N. Ram and many others.
I may also mention that before my interview with Mr. Karan Thanpar I sat for about 10 minutes in his office having a cup of coffee with him. At that time I mentioned the name of Emile Zola to him, and he immediately said ‘J’ Accuse’. That one word made him go up high in my esteem. I earlier did not have a very high opinion of him, but that single word completely changed my opinion, and I realized I was in the presence of a highly educated man.
So I wish to clarify have that I did not paint the entire media with the same brush, but my words were totally distorted. Secondly, I did not say that this majority was uneducated or illiterate. This again was a deliberate distortion of what I said. I never used the word ‘uneducated’. I said that the majority is of a poor intellectual level. A person may have passed B.A. or M.A. but yet may be of a poor intellectual level.
Thirdly, even if one did not agree with my view, he could have coolly and patiently disagreed in a civil tone and expressed his own views instead of shouting and raving on the TV screen and giving an ugly display of temper. And this by a person who belongs to a profession a large section of which is accused of the scandal of paid news, Radia tapes, etc. Really, the Lady doth protest too much! (Shakespeare: Hamlet).
(2) I have again and again said in my articles, speeches and TV interviews that I am not in favour of harsh measures against the media. In a democracy, issues are ordinarily resolved by discussion, persuasion, consultation, and dialogue, and that is the method I prefer, rather than using harsh measures. If a channel/newspaper has done something wrong I would prefer to call the persons responsible ad patiently explain to them that what they have done is not proper. I am sure that in 90% or more cases that would be sufficient. I strongly believe that 90% of people who are doing wrong things can be reformed and made good people.
It is only in extreme cases, which would only be about 5 to 10%, that harsh measures would be required, and that too after repeated use of the democratic method has failed and the person proves incorrigible.
This statement of mine was again distorted and a false impression created that I wanted to impose emergency in the country, cartoons were published in some newspapers showing me as some kind of dictator, etc., etc.
The truth is that I have always been a strong votary for liberty, and the proof of this is my judgments in the Supreme Court and the High Court in which I have consistently held that judges are guardians of the liberties of the citizens, and they will be failing in their duties if they do not uphold these liberties. However, liberty does not mean license to do anything one wishes. All freedoms are subject to reasonable restrictions in the public interest, and are coupled with responsibilities.
We may now discuss the question of self regulation.
Self regulation by electronic media
At present, there is no regulatory authority to cover the electronic media. The Press Council of India governs only the print media, and even in cases of violation of journalistic ethics by the latter the only punishment which can be given is admonition or censure.
I have written to the Prime Minister requesting him to initiate legislation to amend the Press Council Act by (1) bringing electronic media also under the ambit of the Press Council, and (2) giving more teeth to the Press Council.
The electronic media has strongly opposed bringing it under the Press Council. Their claim is of self regulation. But even Judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts do not have such an absolute right. They can be impeached by Parliament for misconduct. Lawyers are under the Bar Council, who can suspend or cancel their license for professional misconduct. Doctors come under the Medical Council who can suspend/cancel their license. Auditors are in the same position. Why then is the electronic media shy of coming under any regulatory authority? Why these double standards? If they do not wish to come under the Press Council (because the present Chairman is a wicked and/or undesirable person) then the N.B.A., and B.E.A. should indicate under which regulatory authority they wish to come. Are they willing to come under the proposed Lokpal? I have repeatedly raised this question in several newspapers, but my question has always been met either by stony silence on the part of the N.B.A., and B.E.A. or dismissing the very question as ‘irresponsible’.
T.V. news and shows have a large influence on a wide section of our public. Hence in my opinion T.V. channels must also be made accountable to the public.
If the electronic media insists on self regulation, then by the same logic politicians, bureaucrats, etc., must also be granted the right of self regulation, instead of being placed under the Lokpal. Or does the electronic media regard itself so holy, so ‘doodh ka dhula’ that nobody should regulate it except itself. In that case, what is paid news, Radia tapes, etc? Is that the work of saints?
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 is the media.
- JUSTICE KATJU – MEDIA DEBATE : Justice Markandey Katju on the role of media in India (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- JUSTICE KATJU – MEDIA DEBATE : Bring electronic media under Press Council (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- JUSTICE KATJU – MEDIA DEBATE : Why our media is anti-people (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- JUSTICE KATJU – MEDIA DEBATE : Press freedom must be examined (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- Media and issues of responsibility (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- ‘Judges must know their limits…they must not try to run the government’ (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- Press Council has failed: Justice Verma (indialawyers.wordpress.com)