Television

Media's independence needs to be zealously guarded: Narayan Rao Executive Vice Chairperson at NDTV

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Freedom of the media is a fundamental component of a vibrant democracy. It is what differentiates a democracy from a dictatorship and all forms of totalitarianism. Indeed a democracy cannot function without a free media while the latter can only exist in a democratic state.

As Lord Northcliffe, owner of The Times during the First World War once said, "News is something someone somewhere wants to suppress". As a free media in the world‘s largest democracy, it is our job to ensure that nothing ever gets suppressed. Also, dissemination of news is really the performance of a public service. We seek to inform and educate and to do it with independence....from Government and from revenue considerations. Our responsibility is not to the Governors but to the governed.

While a free media is an absolute need, it is also necessary to stress that with freedom comes responsibility. Responsibility to ensure that one is always accurate and credible and respectful of the privacy of an individual.

It is in this need for freedom with responsibility that talk of regulation comes up every now and then. I would like to state with all the emphasis at my command that the only regulation that is acceptable in a democracy is self regulation. And by this I do not mean that each news organization regulates itself by following its own editorial policy and standards which would naturally be of varying levels from channel to channel, but to have a structured self regulatory mechanism that watches over a common expectation of what constitutes good, responsible journalism.

While a free media is an absolute need, it is also necessary to stress that with freedom comes responsibility. Responsibility to ensure that one is always accurate and credible and respectful of the privacy of an individual.

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I honestly believe that the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) has made remarkable progress in this regard. We created a common code of ethics, a wonderful document of journalistic good practices and expectations, which is available for all to see on the NBA website. We then set up a News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) with a Chairperson and several eminent members to monitor and ensure that this code is followed by all our member channels. Our first Chairperson was the most ethical, learned and highly regarded, late Justice J S Verma. He ensured along with the eminent members, that the NBSA is truly independent. It also needs to be noted that the NBSA is the "standards authority" and not merely the complaints authority.

The aim is to improve standards of news broadcasting over a period of time and we are well on the path to realizing that aim. In probably the only such example of its kind in the world, every member channel carries a scroll several times a day, exhorting viewers to approach the NBSA if they have any complaint against a channel. The decisions of the NBSA can be seen on the NBA website and over time action has been taken against several of our channels. We also have some Editors sitting on the NBSA for fixed terms and on a rotational basis as it is believed that self regulation flourishes and standards improve when it is known that, among others who will look at the quality of your content, will be your own peers.

We will miss Justice Verma immensely. But the show must go on and I am honoured and delighted to announce that Justice R V Raveendran, former Judge of the Supreme Court of India, has very graciously accepted our invitation to be the next Chairperson of the News Broadcasting Standards Authority.

Justice Raveendran brings with him incredible legal and judicial ability, a wealth of experience and outstanding reputation in upholding democratic institutions and values through strict and fair implementation of the law of the land. He very ably takes the baton from the late Justice Verma to chart out the next leg of our mission to establish that the media must function through structured self regulation.

In such a robust system where is the need for a media council? With all due respect to our Parliamentarians in the Standing Committee and some others, very erudite people who have pushed for such a Council, my counter question to them is what for? When we have the NBSA which is doing such magnificent work in an independent and strict manner, what is it that a media council will do? Who will appoint such a media council? Government? How can that be acceptable?

We will miss Justice Verma immensely. But the show must go on and I am honoured and delighted to announce that Justice R V Raveendran, former Judge of the Supreme Court of India, has very graciously accepted our invitation to be the next Chairperson of the News Broadcasting Standards Authority.

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The media is the fourth estate, the fourth pillar of democracy, and has to be independent of the other three. And like the three zealously guard their independence of each other and safeguard their positions, as they must and should do, so should the media zealously guard its independence.

That in part means, no Government appointed body to oversee the media. 

Some complain that the NBSA does not have statutory powers. I would urge that they only take a look at the NBA website to look at the powers that the NBSA has been given. These range from censure to asking offending channels to carry apologies, retractions and corrections on the same slot where the offense was first carried (if, for example, the offending story was in the 9 pm news, the retraction/apology has to be carried in the 9 pm news as well), a fine that can be up to Rs one lakh, and finally, the power to recommend to the licensing authority that the license of a particular channel should be suspended, even cancelled. Isn‘t that power enough?

(To take a dekko at some of the decisions that the NBSA has taken click here)

Also, it needs to be noted that in the Cable Act, when it comes to the advertising code, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) has been mentioned as the standard under which advertising can take place. Similarly, for programming, why can‘t the same be the case with the NBSA for news and the BCCI for other categories of television? In fact this has been one of our long pending requests to the Ministry of I&B.

What is necessary is to ensure that all laws are implemented strictly and speedily by our courts. We have laws against defamation and libel but the general feeling is that there will be no decision in most such cases for 20 years. That can sometimes make our journalists complacent about essential things like accuracy. If one knows that the law will be applied with effect and expeditiously, one will be far more conscious of the need for absolute accuracy. We have the laws. Please implement them.

(The views expressed in the comment are in author‘s personal capacity and do not represent the corporate viewpoint)

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