New Delhi: A parliamentary committee on Monday sought to make a case for controlling the media—both print and electronic—through a statutory regulator, a suggestion that could assume significance given the pressure facing a government battling a series of corruption allegations.
The standing committee on information technology called for such a regulator on grounds that the media had been silent over the menace of paid news and the inability of the ministry of information and broadcasting (I&B) to contain the practice through a suitable mechanism.
Paid news refers to the practice of disguising advertising as journalism, for instance at election time as a means of allowing politicians to keep their poll expenditure below the stipulated limit.
The committee also urged the I&B ministry and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India to take “concerted, comprehensive and swift action” on cross-media ownership and frame rules to restrict cross-holdings in the media sector.
The action should be taken before the general election, which are due in 2014, “to prevent resurfacing of the hydra head of paid news”, the committee said in a press release highlighting the main recommendations.
The report of the committee for the year ended March was presented in Parliament on Monday.
The committee observed that “paid news” or “advertising” masquerading as “news” is not restricted to elections, but is used for marketing products, individuals and organizations.
It maintained that the ministry had an important role in ensuring that news or information reaching people was factual and neutral. Since it had failed in curbing paid news during elections for a decade, it needed to come up with a solution on a priority basis, the panel said.
The 30-member standing committee is headed by Rao Inderjit Singh of the Congress party, which heads the ruling United Progressive Alliance coalition.
I&B minister Manish Tewari was carefully non-committal about the report’s findings.
“We hold the considered views of the standing committees in high esteem,” he said. “However, a reaction to the current recommendations can be given only after a detailed study and analysis of the report.”
The committee said bodies such as the Press Council of India, the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF), the News Broadcasters Association and Editors Guild of India among others have proven ineffective in curbing paid news.
It cited a recent judgement by the Delhi high court on a case dealing with television content that argued in favour of a statutory regulatory body for the broadcasting industry, as self-regulation was ineffective.
The media industry disputed the observations made by the standing committee.
Man Jit Singh, chief executive officer (CEO) of Multi Screen Media Pvt. Ltd, the company that runs Sony Entertainment Television (SET), SET Max, Sony Pix and other channels, believes in self-regulation.
“Self-regulation is working extremely well and is conducted by the BCCC (Broadcasting Content Complaints Council),” he said. “It has taken up hundreds of cases covering concerns received from the general public and the I&B ministry, and taken appropriate action.”
BCCC recommendations have always been fully complied with, he said.
“There’s not been a single instance of a channel challenging the BCCC findings. The IBF views this both as the strength of the BCCC process and of the willingness of the industry to accept self-regulation,” said Singh, who also presides over IBF.
Sunil Lulla, CEO and managing director of Times Global Broadcasting Ltd, which operates the Times Now and ET Now news channels, echoed this view.
“I strongly endorse self-regulation and I believe it will only get better,” he said.
The committee said the Press Council was not able to function independently as newspaper companies are part of its membership, saying this affected a report by it on paid news.
While assessing the role of the Press Council in handling paid news cases between 2009-10 and 2012-13, the committee found that of the 40 complaints received, newspapers were “warned\censured for having indulged in paid news” in 17 cases.
It concluded from this that the Press Council has no authority, only “ethical and moral force”.
The committee said the Press Council should be wound up and a new media council should be set up comprising eminent persons as members to examine print and TV content with “powers to take strong action against defaulters”.
Alternately, it suggested that the Press Council be revamped to cover both print and television, while making sure that “media owners and interested parties” weren’t included.
“Any recommendations which seek to exclude the media from a regulatory body will be resisted by journalists. Regulation cannot be by fiat, but must be based on independence and integrity of the regulator,” said Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief of IBN18 Network, which runs the IBN7, CNN-IBN and IBN Lokmat channels.
Abhijit Pawar, managing director of the Sakal Media Group, in Pune said: “Whether media owners should be allowed to be the PCI (Press Council of India) member is not the question. The question is that there should be a body of members which maintains the sanctity of the institution and follows the processes and functions in a transparent manner. It is true that the entire paid news report was not annexed, but what is the guarantee that if there are non-media owners as members in PCI they cannot be influenced or bought?”