No light at the end of the tunnel for media

It would be a herculean task for the media, which has deservingly received a dressing-down from the former Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana for its transgressions, to free itself from the ills affecting it

The other day former Chief Justice of India NV Ramana gave a good dressing-down to the media for its habit of crossing the constitutional limits set for each pillar of democracy. Chastising the media, he stated at a function at Ranchi that the judiciary would be
forced to ensure that the media functioned in accordance with the constitutional scheme of things if the latter did not initiate a process of course correction on its own. He came down heavily particularly on television news channels for running what he called “kangaroo courts”, which came in the way of the justice delivery system.

“Media trials”, Justice Ramana pointed out, “cannot be a guiding factor in deciding cases. Of late, we see the media running kangaroo courts at times on issues even experienced judges find it difficult to decide.” In his opinion, if a course correction is not done, the judiciary will have to step in. He particularly mentioned the “ill-informed and agenda-driven TV debates on issues involving justice delivery and observed that this was “proving to be detrimental to the health of democracy”.

What he said had been required for a long time as some media outlets, particularly TV news channels, have acquired the habit of doing “media trials” to punish the “guilty” as they saw it, indirectly doing the job of the courts. This must come to an end before the constitutional scheme of things gets damaged beyond repair.

Giving grace marks to newspapers, the former CJI stated, “Print media still has a certain degree of accountability whereas electronic media has zero accountability as what it shows vanishes into thin air. Still worse is social media.” This proves how difficult it is these days for the courts to pronounce their verdict on any given matter.

The irresponsible behaviour of electronic media, keeping aside some honourable exceptions, is affecting the image of the entire media fraternity. Very few people these days give journalists the respect they once commanded and the decline is mainly because of
trivialisation of the profession by TV channels. During a conversation on the state of the media today, a friend told me that a few years back he felt elated beyond description following the hero’s welcome he got at a West Asian airport when he disclosed his identity that he was a “sahafi” (journalist) from India. This can hardly be expected nowadays.

Journalists are hardly treated seriously these days for their reporting or views. The media scene has got more muddied because people generally get carried away by what they receive from social media, though it has no system of “checks and balances” or checking
and cross-checking of facts.

There are reasons why print media gets grace marks in any discussion involving the role of journalists or newspapers, TV channels and news websites. Almost every newspaper continues to have a system of checking and cross-checking of news stories and opinion pieces before these get into print. This system is either not there in most news portals and TV channels or is not as strong as it is in print media. Social media functions unbridled and that is why it plays a major role in creating chaos in society. Most of what is carried in electronic
media is unedited and without undergoing a system of at least quick checking and cross-checking.

So far as TV news channels are concerned, they have been getting flak from various quarters not only because of media trials but also owing to their maximum concentration on TRPs (television rating points) and carelessness with regard to checking and cross-checking of facts. There is an urgent need to find an effective way to handle these issues before the fourth pillar (fourth estate) of our democracy comes crumbling down.

Last year, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology too remarked that the media was gradually losing its credibility and integrity as a result of controversies relating to paid news, fake news, TRP manipulation, media trials,
sensationalism and biased reporting.

In its 27th report on “Ethical Standards in Media Coverage”, the committee, headed by Congress MP Shashi  Tharoor, lamented that it was a  matter of grave concern that the media, once the most trusted weapon in the hands of the people and which acted as the trustee of the public interest, was gradually losing its credibility and integrity with values and morality being compromised.

The media’s primary job is to keep the people informed of what happens around the world and discuss these developments in a manner so that readers or listeners are in a better position to find out what is right and what is wrong. However, the problem arises when journalists not only do their job but also try to occupy the judge’s position and pronounce their verdict on the developments of the day in accordance with their own understanding of things or agendas.

Here I am reminded of the days when I was associated with a highly respected English language daily enjoying mass circulation. While writing what were called editorials (unsigned opinion pieces), we had to keep in mind that we should never appear to be sitting in the judge’s chair in a court of law. We could raise questions over an issue, give our opinion, take a stand or simply point out what could be the implications of the issue under discussion. All that we had to say was said within the given length in words. We would always try to the best of our ability to prevent our edits from getting affected by
our own prejudices and ideological moorings because these pieces were supposed to reflect the viewpoint of our institution. A senior colleague, a well-known leftist, would often say that what was most challenging for him was how to ensure that his writings, unless these
had his personal byline, were free from any kind of bias. This is how independent journalism can survive and how media persons can regain the respect they once commanded.

However, it is a herculean task for the media to free itself from the charges levelled against it unless there is a conducive atmosphere. Such an atmosphere is nearly impossible to find unless those in authority, those controlling the levers of power help create it.
Whether one likes him or not, independent India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, remains on top of the list of those who promoted independent journalism and tolerated criticism gracefully. It was not without reason that M. Chalapathi Rau, a celebrated journalist of India, wrote on Nehru’s death, as carried in The Economic Weekly (now Economic and Political Weekly), “To Jawaharlal Nehru, who was accustomed to self-inquisition and self-criticism, criticism was the breath of life and had to be tolerated. No other public man of his standing tolerated criticism as much as he did. It was the democratic way of life, and life itself.”

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator.