RAJDEEP SARDESAI, one of the most visible faces of Indian news television today, is the Editor-in-Chief of IBN18 Network which includes CNN-IBN, IBN7 and Lokmat. He has made a name for himself in his 22 years of television journalism with his incisive political reporting of events such as the Gujarat carnage of 2002. As a television anchor, he is known for his signature conversational style. Sardesai has also served as the president of the Editors' Guild of India. In an interview to Frontline, he spoke about the need for an autonomous, independent regulatory authority for television channels, the dangers of government regulation, and the challenge of restoring the credibility of TV journalism. Excerpts:
The need for regulations and “reasonable restrictions” on the media dominates the discourse on national security and “responsible journalism”. Do you think significant lapses by the electronic media on this count, especially in the coverage of conflict situations, have given rise to this argument? Has responsible self-regulation failed?
At the outset, I must say that any form of guidelines that leads to pre-publication or pre-broadcast censorship is not acceptable to us. But having said that, I admit that we (news television channels) need to get our house in order. We need an independent, autonomous regulatory body that takes into consideration viewers' complaints and imposes penalties on channels that go against a code of conduct. But autonomy is absolutely critical for a credible regulatory body. The Press Council of India [PCI], at present, is a toothless body and has very limited powers. The Ofcom model in the U.K. [United Kingdom] could be a good model to follow.
Do you think the Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards framed by the News Broadcasters' Association (NBA) has been adequately respected/ followed by news channels?
The code of ethics is a useful one. It is one form of self-regulation. But there is no way to enforce strictly the violation of this code. In a country with about 365 news channels, only a dozen are members of the NBA. The NBA has done some good work. However, most of the regional news channels are not its members. There could be a mechanism whereby a news channel that gets a licence would be compulsorily required to register with the NBA. There has to be a greater intent to follow a code of conduct.
An argument being forwarded by the proponents of media regulation is that developed economies have powerful broadcast regulators and, given the extent and reach of the Indian broadcast media, we should have one too. What are your thoughts on this?
I completely agree with this argument. The British model is the best one to follow. Ofcom in the U.K. monitors all television broadcasters [in that country] and all of them have to necessarily abide by its rules. Ofcom is an autonomous regulatory authority constituted by extremely respected members of society from all walks of life including the media, law, and civil society. It has the power to take suo motu action against an erring channel. Though the BBC has a stringent code of ethics, it has been pulled up by Ofcom from time to time for violation of its regulations. This is an instance of self-regulation coexisting with external regulation. We could have a similar model in India whereby the regulatory body has the power to punish erring channels or force them to apologise. However, I am against the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting laying down these guidelines.
Given the fact that television today constitutes an integral part of people's lives, do you think there should be greater dialogue of associations – such as the Indian Broadcasting Foundation and the NBA – with civil society representatives? Is there a way by which people could be made stakeholders in the process of regulation?
Here we must make a distinction between civil society and the people. Civil society representatives cannot be the sole voice of the people. There is a need for serious consultative process in framing a regulatory body, and people with both practical experience and principles should be taken on board. The need of the hour is to restore the credibility of news television channels in the eyes of the public.
The proponents of regulation say broadcasters and the industry oppose a regulatory authority not because it will hamper freedom of expression but because it will affect their target rating points (TRPs).
I don't think it is as simplistic as that. The business model of television does lead to certain amount of violation of ethics as it is heavily dependent on TRPs. I admit that over-obsession with TRPs can lead to a decline in content. But the cornerstone of the news business is credibility. News channels have to take a call on striking a balance between credibility and TRPs. We must remember that TV is not box office.
The Print and Electronic Media Standards Regulation Bill, 2012, introduced by Member of Parliament Meenakshi Natarajan in the Lok Sabha, proposes severe curbs on the broadcast media and provides sweeping powers to the media regulatory authority, including the suspension of coverage of an event that may pose a threat to national security. Successive governments have earlier tried to clamp down on the freedom of the electronic media with Bills such as the Broadcast Bill, 1997, the Communications Convergence Bill, 2000, and the Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill, 2006. Do you see the proposed Bill also as an attempt to rein in the media, especially in the context of a large number of corruption scams that they have brought to light?
Meenakshi Natarajan's Bill is the extreme view of regulation. It is a stupid Bill with horrible measures proposed for gagging the media. This is precisely the kind of pre-censorship that I was talking about. In fact, the media should actively be involved in framing an independent regulatory authority so as to avoid such draconian measures being imposed by the state. The regulatory authority has been given far too many powers in this Bill. I suggest we just need to keep it simple. An independent regulatory body should coexist with self-regulation. The government is intimidated by people being bombarded with information from 24-hour news channels, social media and so many other sources. Bills such as these are an attempt to discredit the media.
The call for a regulatory authority has come not only from the government but from other quarters such as the industry. ASSOCHAM in a recent release said that the government should co-regulate the media with a well-defined law, as self-regulation is not enough in today's rapidly changing situation. What do you make of that?
Well, these are all freelance opinions. The industry will have its reactions, so will other sections. But the real stakeholder in this whole process is the broadcasting media. We will have to work towards evolving a code of ethics. There exist strong laws in the country for contempt of court, defamation, etc. We do not need anymore guidelines imposed by the government.
The Supreme Court has undertaken an exercise for framing guidelines to report court proceedings. It said that it only aimed at making the press know its ‘Lakshman rekha' and it was laying down the contours of Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. Your comments.
Freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) is already circumscribed by the “reasonable restrictions” mentioned in Article 19(2), which are to be interpreted by the courts on a case-by-case basis. The issue is about the media exercising adequate care in reporting sub judice matters. The court already has ample powers under existing contempt proceedings and defamation laws to penalise tendentious reporting.
As far as the question of trial by media is concerned, I would rather suggest that the aggrieved party itself approach the court if they feel media reporting has adversely impacted the proceedings of the court. Also, if there is an independent regulatory authority, the aggrieved party could approach it for relief.
Let us take the example of the Arushi Talwar case. If the Talwars think that there has been a trial by media in the case which has adversely impacted court proceedings and intruded upon their privacy, they could approach an independent regulatory authority. They could also approach the court with a complaint against the erring channels or newspapers. However, any attempt by the court to frame guidelines for reporting is violative of the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution.
Minister for Information and Broadcasting Ambika Soni recently made a statement that the government was planning to constitute a committee to look into the mushrooming of media training schools across the country and the quality of education being offered. Do you think there is a lack of awareness among young TV journalists regarding media's accountability?
I have not read the statement yet, so I should not comment on it. But my general sense is that you can't stop media schools from mushrooming just by forming a committee. I think it is important for us to find a suitable model to determine what goes into print and what goes on air. At present, there is a large supply of journalists while there is limited demand. In this scenario, we need a body on the lines of the Medical Council of India to frame guidelines.
You are a former president (2008-10) of the Editors' Guild of India (EGI). Was there enough discussion among broadcasters on the issue of regulation?
No, unfortunately there wasn't. As journalists we are concerned about the accountability of people in all other professions, including doctors and lawyers, but there isn't enough dialogue on the issue of accountability of journalists. As the president of the EGI, I tried to address the issue of paid news by building a consensus among editors.
While a majority of the editors were on the same page on this issue, some of them were bound by the decisions of the proprietor.
Ultimately, it is the proprietors who take a decision regarding the issue of paid news. We haven't quite been able to find a solution to that issue. Regulatory bodies such as the NBA create moral pressure on erring channels through a process of name-and-shame so as to enforce a code of ethics. These bodies are useful for creating peer pressure, but at the end of the day they are advisory bodies with limited powers.
We need a legal or quasi-legal framework which can take punitive action against erring channels.
PCI Chairman Markandey Katju recently commented that the NBA is not taking action against erring channels. What is your opinion?
I do not agree. The NBA has made serious attempts within its limitations to raise standards and create moral pressure on channels. Justice J.S. Verma has taken genuine efforts to this end.
Finally, what do you make of the view that news channels should cater to the ‘public interest' which is being used to push through a curb on unlimited freedom of expression?
In a country as diverse as India, there will be all sorts of channels. There will be channels to titillate and sensationalise. There will be tabloid news, serious news and masala news. But my fear is that an atmosphere is being created to discredit all forms of media, including legitimate forms of journalism. We have to put our house in order to fight against this kind of censorship.