Can there be specific rules and guidelines for the practice of journalism, especially television journalism in our country? This has been the subject of much debate and has overshadowed the larger discussion on the content code and guidelines for broadcasting sector that were initiated by the information and broadcasting ministry in 2005.
The report, submitted by a special committee comprising various stakeholders after two years of discussions and debate recommended principles for self-regulation and redressal through an industry-led body. An additional chapter in this document specifically discussed guidelines for news and current affairs programmes. This led to intensely critical reactions from media groups and professionals who saw this as another way for the government to control information and to curb freedom of expression.
For any content regulation, a key objective is the avoidance of harm. It is widely accepted (even in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) that certain audience groups, especially minors, should be shielded from material that may be considered inappropriate for or harmful to them. Other common protective rules include those dealing with journalistic accuracy and fairness, the right of reply, privacy rights of those featured in programmes, television violence, and articulation of standards of good taste and decency. Other objectives for content regulation in India could be in terms of protecting or supporting cultural and minority interests.
Also Read P.N. Vasanti’s earlier columns
Also See Suggested Categorization Across Nine Themes (Graphic)
Given these objectives, the guidelines and certification rules drafted by the committee are intended to guide broadcasters and are based on enduring principles: that all programming should not mislead, cause offence, or lead to harm, particularly to the vulnerable.
The scheduling rules and categorization system elaborated in the certification rules clearly provide nine basic themes that cut across all genres including news and current affairs. These themes are: crime and violence; sex, obscenity and nudity; horror and occult; drugs, smoking, tobacco, solvents and alcohol; libel, slander and defamation; religion and community; harm and offence; advertisements and general restrictions (regarding constitutional provisions and national security).
The idea of creating these themes and defining U (universal viewing), U/A (universal viewing with adult supervision) and A (adult viewing) standards according to the theme’s treatment and the audio visual presentation (see accompanying table for a sample—the categorization sample of the theme on crime and violence) is to support self-regulatory process for scheduling of programmes with an awareness of the likely audience in mind. This provides clarity without curbing the scope for creative expression and innovation.
Of course, these codes are also visualized to be dynamic and will eventually change with evolving contemporary standards and audience needs. By and large, the certification rules uniformly apply to all types of broadcasters. However, for news and current affairs programming, the broadcaster is expected to edit the content as well as carry prominent warnings and suitably mask any portions of news or current affairs scenes considered unsuitable for viewing.
My argument is that the need for regulation and setting of standards is across content genres and not just for news and current affairs. Yes, news and current affairs programming requires that there be a focus on impartiality, accuracy and the prominence given to views and opinions. However, the need to invent new genres and experiments with existing programming styles to survive in the clutter has raised critical issues of restraint and ethics even in genres such as reality TV and soap operas. Let us take violence for example—today, gory and explicit violence is visible on news channels (mutilated body close-ups, the recreation of crimes) and also in family dramas filled with gratuitous violence.
Given the increasing focus on entertainment and other genres of programming even in news and current affairs channels, the contentious last chapter for news and current affairs programming in the report is actually not required (nor relevant) since these detailed categorization of nine themes cover almost all sensitive and controversial issues. What would have helped instead is a recommended journalistic code of conduct and ethics, a sort of a reminder or guide to healthy journalism.
P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies.
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