Big Worry - How much will Big Brother soon be watching?

Sex sells. Not that the Indian media and policy makers alike are waking up to the fact only now. Over the last few years the issue has kept cropping up in various forms, especially in the electronic media, which is increasingly waking up to the power of sex and its strength as a commodity. The burning question is: how much and when should sex be sold as a commodity in the Indian milieu?

Towards the beginning of this decade, when Sushma Swaraj was the information and broadcasting minister in a coalition government that was being led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, her acerbic attack on Fashion TV was criticized by many as thrusting down on millions of Indians a view that harked back to the stone age. Swaraj's simple missive to FTV was: take off the prime time lingerie shows and other programmes that displayed female nudity in various forms or face government action. It insults Indian sensibilities, she argued.

Early 2004, just before the country got into election mode, Swaraj's successor Ravi Shankar Prasad lamented that despite being a liberal, TV channels refused to show any maturity and instill some self-discipline in themselves where airing programmes offending Indian 'sensibilities' were concerned.

After a new Congress-led government took over Delhi, the present I&B minister Jaipal Reddy too has the same complaint. "I don't believe in censorship, but the media, including TV channels, should show some restraint (in depicting shows full of sex)," he has often said.

With India TV unleashing a series of sex-related sting operations, the question of 'how much of sex is palatable' has been pitchforked into the limelight once again. With it is also has come up the issue of whether it isn't high time India had a regulatory framework for content in place.

That this issue would now be more aggressively discussed is beyond doubt. An indicator came earlier this week when l'affaire Shakti Kapoor reverberated in Parliament. The common refrain: these "sexposés" on TV have to stop.

Reason: TV channels were showing pornography. Juxtapose this against what Reddy said the same day. While assuring fellow parliamentarians that the government is seized of the issue, Reddy observed that a legislation aiming to bring in a content regulator is on the anvil and that the Bill would be tabled during the monsoon session of Parliament, some three months down the line.

'Reading Reddy's lips', what the the present government is working on is a regulatory framework that would curb such "aberrations" in the media, which would be cleansed of these "western influences" once the regulator was put in place with a government nominee, probably, heading it.

He has also said in private that it has always been his endeavor to have a content regulator to arbitrate on such issues and take a stand on them, but a lack of collective political will, coupled with lobbying against it by vested interests, has made his ministry's job difficult.

Let us look at what a content regulator can or cannot do. A content regulator would, amongst other things, certainly have parameters on what could be shown on TV and what could not be.

Moreover, it would also be responsible for hearing of complaints from consumers as well as any other citizen relating to content on TV, take a stand on it and levy penalties, if necessary.

Though the Broadcast Bill of 1997 and the Communication Bill of 2001 were comprehensive pieces of would-be legislation, unfortunately they have remained that only --- consigned to files in some ministry. In both these pieces of draft legislation, a content regulator had been vested with wide powers to rein in errant TV channels and had such a regulator existed today, India TV would have got into trouble immediately. Or, at least been asked to furnish an explanation.

If we take Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at the live telecast of the Super Bowls a year back and the subsequent dust it kicked up in the US, India TV and similar such initiatives would have raised the blood pressure of the regulator in India even if the TV channel's aim was to expose maladies in the Indian society. After the Jackson affair, most TV stations in the US delay by a few seconds live telecast of big shows like Super Bowl, the Academy Awards and other such events where chances of peek-a-boo and personal attacks are high. This self-discipline may also be the result of the high fines imposed by the US regulator on errant TV stations.

Not that some existing piece of legislation in India are inadequate to deal with such things, but the fact that rules are not stringently applied make things easier for the media. Take, for example the Cable TV (network) Regulation Act, 1995. In a way, it has provisions to deal with content regulation, though the onus is more on the cable operators who retransmit signals to homes.

The programme code specifically states that no programme should be carried in the cable service that "contains anything obscene, defamatory, deliberate, false and suggestive innuendoes and half truths."

It further states that programmes that are "not suitable for unrestricted public exhibition" should not be carried where "unrestricted public exhibition" has been defined to have the same meaning as assigned to it in the Cinematograph Act, 1952 (37 of 1952). If this is implemented strictly, even in this `liberal' atmosphere of modern India, authorities could take action against TV channels on issues that are definitely debatable and prone to various interpretations.

What has emboldened certain sections of the media is the fact that the Press Council of India, a watchdog for the print medium, is nothing more than a toothless tiger. The Press Council has no power other than to censure a print medium organization on issues that it feels violates the basics of journalism. In most cases, the errant organisation says 'sorry', lets the issue fade from public memory and then goes back to what it's best at doing: furthering its commercial cause through journalism.

That a content regulator, or any regulator for that matter, needs to have more powers to rein in errant players in the media is something that Indian policy-makers would have to think and think hard about it. Because it's a double-edged sword. Give a person powers and there are chances that he would misuse it. This line of thinking emanates from the fact that politicians themselves, most of the time, behave as if they are above the law of the land.

What is disturbing the politicians is also the fact that if sting operations can be mounted in the entertainment industry and allowed to be aired for unrestricted viewing, it would only be a matter of time when the hidden camera talks regularly into the bedrooms of big-name politicians where many a skeleton might be discovered. India TV chairman Rajat Sharma's assertions that there are "many more (sting operations) in the pipeline," is enough to send shivers down many a politician's spine.

Sex would definitely continue to sell on television and other media. What are the limits that need to be in place is the question the industry and Indian policy-makers would have to grapple with. At the end of the day, it's all about give and take and here the pun is totally unintentional.

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