The country’s print media has a very rich and entrenched history. Studies show that while readership is increasing, the actual time spent reading has gone down. Even as the Indian economy begins to slow after at least three years of frenetic growth, the old media (print) is standing strong compared with the new (television and Internet). To safeguard this diverse and established media, the Press Council of India (PCI) was constituted on 4 July 1966 as an autonomous, statutory, quasi-judicial body.
PCI is jointly funded through fees levied on registered newspapers with circulations of at least 5,000 and grants from the government through the ministry of information and broadcasting. It is headed by a chairperson who is, most often, a retired Supreme Court judge. The council discharges its functions primarily through inquiry committees, adjudicating on complaints received by it against the press for violation of the norms of journalism or from the press for interference with its freedom.
The graph (above) shows how the council has been trying to keep pace with the number of complaints received over the years. An analysis of the complaints addressed by PCI shows that most (average 70%) complaints are against the press. Of the received complaints, roughly 25% are adjudicated upon, and around 50% are dismissed. This graph also shows the large number of cases still awaiting their chance, reflecting the inordinate amount of time the council takes over its interventions.
With the recent boom in the media business here, print media has tried to imitate and match television news in terms of content, genre and presentation to garner attention using various ways. In this competition to get more sensational news and faster, there is growing evidence of journalistic principles being compromised. The council is silent on practices such as so-called private treaties or ad-for-equity deals, the selling of editorial space to advertisers and the lack of job security for journalists.
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In 1992, the council brought out A Guide to Journalistic Ethics outlining the broad principles evolved in the course of its adjudication on various subjects—both in respect of standards of journalism and freedom of the press. This guide has clear principles on issues of so-called communal writing, journalistic impropriety, obscenity and bad taste, pre-verification of news, scurrilous writing, right to privacy, advertising and press freedom.
But, the fact that sections of the press do not seem to take the council very seriously is a major drawback. Though it is meant to be a mechanism for self-regulation, the council’s guidelines and recommendations are often ignored or downplayed and, all too frequently, media organizations do not even bother to appear before its inquiry committees. Recent examples of these violations and indifference include openly communal coverage of incidences of terror and conflict.
Time and again, suggestions have been made to the council that it should have penal powers to punish the delinquent newspapers/journalists. In response, the council has said its moral authority is quite effective.
However, self-regulation works only when publications are committed to it—it is this commitment and acceptance that gives the council its real teeth. Press councils and such regulatory bodies across the world have played a more proactive role in setting industry standards, undertaking regular studies, organizing regular public consultations and also empowering readers. The existing model of PCI is, therefore, an ineffective comparison or benchmark for ongoing discourse on regulating broadcast content. Any self-regulatory system needs to be prompt, proactive, participatory and, above all, one to which the newspaper and magazine publishing sector is committed and accountable. There is a clear need to re-look at accountability systems of news gathering, reporting, presentation and organization across media, including print.
P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies. Your comments and feedback on this column, which runs every other Friday, are welcome at email@example.com
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Editor’s note: Mint’s journalistic Code of Conduct that drives its news operations is at www.livemint.com. The paper also has a clear policy on corrections and clarifications. HT Media Ltd, which publishes Mint, has its own private treaty division.
Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint