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The complex matter of TV news regulation in India

Independent, self-regulatory authority that oversees news channels needs statutory rights

Even as the debate on the quality of journalism on news television rages on, a clutch of channels continues with their malevolent programming: Be it the populist stand taken on actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death along with a parallel investigation of their own or the recent show on a Hindi news channel on how a minority community is “infiltrating" the civil services.

The matter related to the show on Sudarshan TV has reached the Supreme Court, which heard a petition claiming Sudarshan TV’s multi-episode show Bindas Bol equated Muslims joining the civil services with “infiltration" and “jihad". Last week, the court said it cannot allow such insidious comments in the name of freedom of press that are used to vilify a particular community and disturb the harmony in the country. A three-judge bench headed by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud had asked the government to file an affidavit seeking its response on the need to regulate electronic media.

The government had earlier allowed Sudarshan TV to air the show, albeit with a warning that it should not violate the programming code meant for television. The television programming and advertising code has been prescribed under the Cable Television Network Rules, 1994. It states that cable services should not carry any programme that contains an attack on religions or communities or visuals or words contemptuous of religious groups or which promote communal attitudes. It also says nothing should be carried that contains “innuendos and half-truths".

Of course, these prescribed guidelines have long been thrown out of the window by several of the country’s news channels. News regulation, especially of channels with right-wing bias, has become very tricky. In 2007, leading news and current affairs channels formed the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) to deal with ethical, operational, and regulatory issues facing news channels. Later, it set up a News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA), an independent body to adjudicate upon broadcast complaints.

A similar mechanism was followed by the Indian Broadcasting Foundation for adjudication of complaints against non-news channels, including entertainment, children’s channels and other niches. It set up the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC), an independent self-regulatory body in 2011. The BCCC worked efficiently, but NBSA seems to have faltered with not all news channels adhering to its suggestions despite complaints.

When complaints against Arnab Goswami’s Republic TV were filed, he set up a new association called the News Broadcasters Federation (NBF) along with some regional language news channels. In the Sudarshan TV matter, the NBA requested the Supreme Court to grant recognition to NBSA. It said that all news channels, irrespective of membership, should follow its directives and accept the penalties so the regulatory mechanism could be strengthened.

Media experts agree that while self-regulation has to be the mainstay of news channels in India, the independent authority that oversees complaints requires statutory powers. “The ministry of information and broadcasting should have given statutory powers to both BCCC and NBSA a long time ago. This would have given both the bodies the required teeth. This would have also prevented the split in NBA and encouraged many news channels to come on board," said an industry veteran, declining to be named.

Once the government recognized the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) and its complaints redressal body, even advertisers who were not ASCI members listened to its rulings. “Those not satisfied with their ruling could go to court but each time the court refused to interfere with ASCI rulings," the executive said. In its affidavit to the court, NBA requested that its Code of Ethics should be included under Rule 6 of the ‘Programme Code’ of the Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994. According to a report on legal news website LiveLaw, it said amenability to the NBSA mechanism should be made a term of the uplinking/downlinking permission of the news channel. A top news TV executive agreed: “All news TV licences must be subject to signing up to being supervised by an independent regulatory authority on the lines of Ofcom (the government-approved regulatory and competition authority for broadcasting and telecommunications sector) in Britain. No opt out clause."

That’s something to chew on.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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