The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), which also regulates the media industry, proposed a single overseer for print and television companies in its recommendations on issues related to media ownership made public on Tuesday.

The regulatory body should consist of eminent people from different walks of life, including media. It should be “manned predominantly" by eminent non-media people, Trai said.

Further, the appointments to the regulatory body should be done through a just, fair, transparent and impartial process.

The Trai report is, however, silent on the processes involved in appointing such a regulator.

Trai has recommended that the media regulator hear complaints, investigate them and have punitive powers.

“The media regulator shall inter alia entertain complaints on ‘paid news’, private treaties, issues related to editorial independence, etc; investigate the complaints and shall have the power to impose and enforce an appropriate regime of penalties," the report said. “The above recommendations, once implemented, will address the immediate objective of curbing unhealthy media practices."

The regulator will have the power to protect journalists, said Rahul Khullar, chairman of Trai. “All journalists and not just editors, require protection. In case there is interference in their work by the media owner, they can go to the regulator and complain," he said. “He will investigate and penalise. He will have the power to punish."

This is not the first time that the idea of a single regulatory body for print and broadcasting has been mooted. Two years ago, Press Council of India (PCI) chairman Markandey Katju had asked the government to amend the Press Council Act and bring electronic media—both broadcast and social—under the purview of the body to be renamed Media Council.

Katju was of the view that regulation should be done by an independent statutory authority, which includes media representatives. PCI is an independent regulator of the press. It prescribes norms of journalistic conduct and other guidelines from time to time to be followed by the print media. It, however, lacks teeth and can’t take punitive actions.

N. Ram, chairman of Kasturi & Sons Ltd, the publisher of The Hindu newspaper, agreed with the recommendation that the regulator should have non-media people. “It should not be like PCI where an overwhelming number of members are journalists, newspaper owners or members of Parliament (MPs)," he said. If they are in a majority, they refrain from taking tough calls on their industry, he said.

Even Trai said in its report that the efficacy of the PCI has been questioned, as the body does not have “punitive powers—it cannot levy fines or... place errant journalists behind bars."

Besides, the composition of PCI, with most members chosen from the media, could promote the tendency of members coming together to protect their interests within the PCI.

For instance, the sub-committee report on paid news prepared by two members of PCI was not accepted by the body initially, as it had mentioned the names of media, political and corporate entities involved in the malpractice.

Broadcasters are unhappy with the idea of a common regulator. For starters, self regulation is the best regulation, said a member of the News Broadcasters Association (NBA), a group of major news channels.

Besides, the broadcasting industry already has bodies such as NBSA (News Broadcasting Standards Authority) to look into complaints, he said on the condition of anonymity.

The complaints body has its own code of ethics and guidelines which are followed by its member channels.

News broadcasters do not require a regulator, as the minister for information and broadcasting, Prakash Javadekar, in a recent meeting with them said that he will look at further empowering the NBSA, the NBA member said.

However, Trai said that NBA, which runs the NBSA, is a self-regulatory body and not all news channels are its members. Out of the 135 TV news channels operating in the country, only 28 broadcasters owning 57 news channels are members. The standards set by the NBSA apply only to these channels.

“A majority of the news channels, therefore, do not even come within the ambit of the limited self-regulation that exists," said the Trai report.

Besides, NBSA is dependent on voluntary compliance, it noted. The problems inherent in a self-regulatory mechanism are recognised universally.

Judge Brian Leveson of the UK concluded with respect to the UK’s Press Complaints Commission (PCC) regulation: “It is damning of the PCC that it was only when the system of regulation was under unprecedented scrutiny and extreme threat, that a programme of reform was announced that asked questions of import directed squarely at the system’s failings."

The observation was made by Leveson, who inquired into the phone hacking scandal where the UK tabloid News of the World was involved. Leveson inquiry investigated the culture, practices and ethics of the British press, triggered by the phone hacking scandal. It was set up in 2011.

After public hearings in 2011 and 2012, the inquiry put out a report, which recommended a new, independent body to replace the existing PCC. “In its recommendations, Trai has alluded to the Leveson inquiry," Ram said. “Such an inquiry would be welcome in India."

“We in this country can ill-afford the luxury of waiting for a crisis to present itself before acting to remedy the situation," Trai said in its report making the case for a single regulator.

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