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Trai: Belling the media cat

Trai preempts right in the beginning the don’t mess with my press freedom argument, stating, ‘the right to freedom of speech is essential for sustaining the vitality of democracy… The question that arises is whether reposing such a right in the media simultaneously casts an obligation on the media to convey information and news that is accurate, truthful and unbiased’. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/MintPremium
Trai preempts right in the beginning the don’t mess with my press freedom argument, stating, ‘the right to freedom of speech is essential for sustaining the vitality of democracy… The question that arises is whether reposing such a right in the media simultaneously casts an obligation on the media to convey information and news that is accurate, truthful and unbiased’. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

In its latest set of recommendations, Trai has decided it may as well go the whole hog and take on media houses, however powerful they may seem to be, on a number of fronts

The media is a cat nobody wants to bell, certainly not information and broadcasting ministers. Two of them in the last six years have carefully tossed the ball into the lap of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), which was made the regulator for broadcast media some years ago. The regulator was being asked to make policy recommendations, which isn’t really its job.

But when it did so, the United Progressive Alliance government dithered. Trai made recommendations on media ownership in 2008, 2009 and 2012. Nothing happened. Not only that, when the current chairperson of Trai tried to regulate advertising time on TV, the then minister Manish Tewari assured news broadcasters that he really didn’t want restrictions of this kind imposed on them. Finally, news broadcasters went to court, even as the non-news channels fell in line.

In its latest set of recommendations put out on Tuesday, the regulator has decided it may as well go the whole hog and take on media houses, however powerful they may seem to be, on a number of fronts. But again, it can only recommend. It does so with gusto, but not without offering a careful set of reasonings for the more controversial changes proposed.

It preempts right in the beginning the don’t mess with my press freedom argument, stating, “the right to freedom of speech is essential for sustaining the vitality of democracy… The question that arises is whether reposing such a right in the media simultaneously casts an obligation on the media to convey information and news that is accurate, truthful and unbiased".

It then goes on the tackle a whole bunch of contentious issues: political and corporate ownership of the media; cross media ownership, how much of it should be permitted, and what the basis for calculating media concentration should be; and then a small list of media sins that are much written about but never taken head on—paid news, private treaties, surrogate ownership of media, advertorials, and most crucially, editorial independence.

Presenting the recommendations Trai chairperson Rahul Khullar said disarmingly that this wasn’t just his view. He had simply taken all the concerns the media itself was expressing in a variety of fora and given expression to them.

The last two years have seen a growing climate of concern on the issue of the media’s independence. Editors have had to kiss goodbye to their jobs for the wrong reasons, the country’s biggest industrial conglomerate has bought out Network18 with many media entities under its umbrella, political ownership has grown so much that it is stymying not just media content but also carriage, and family-owned media such as The Hindu have seen frequent editorial departures whereas it used to be one of the more stable places for journalists to work.

The Trai report released today happily cites all of these instances to make a case for the fact that media needs to be regulated. Not by the government, not by self-regulation, but by an independent regulator whose contours must be determined by a commission headed by a retired Supreme Court judge.

At the same time, it declares that some pressing issues such as measures debarring state bodies, and political parties from owning the media could be implemented straight away by executive order. It also says the media has got away so far with paid news because both sets of offenders are not being called to account. The Election Commission is only tackling political offenders, not the media houses who are party to the offence.

It suggests steps for transparency, spelling out which facts of media ownership could immediately be put in the public domain.

Finally. it says one regulator is needed for both print and TV and it must not have a majority of media industry people sitting on it. It suggests that one reason why the Press Council of India is not particularly effective is because it is packed with people from the media.

The recommendations are well argued and not easy to knock down. For each recommendation suggested, such as how to calculate the index of media concentration, Trai lists the options it looked at, and gives the basis for the option it went with.

None of that is likely to save Trai from the wrath of the country’s Big Media. Wait for the dripping sarcasm in the next few days.

The big question though is: how this report will be received by the present government. Here is a dispensation already seen to be not intimidated in any way by media power. Will it take a cool-headed view of what needs to be done? Will it eagerly seize the opportunity to regulate the beast? Or will it, like the UPA, drop the ball?

We’ve been this way before. Almost 20 years ago, the Supreme Court came up with its famous airwaves judgement, which said that the airwaves belonged to the people and needed to be independently regulated. All it gave birth to two years later was a shackled Prasar Bharati.

Whatever the Modi government does will be a test of its sagacity and commitment to nurturing responsible institutions to check the powers of the executive.

Sevanti Ninan is a media critic, author and editor of the media watch website thehoot.org. She examines the larger issues related to the media in a fortnightly column.

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