Govt case for administered content code gains ground

Big Brother will soon not just be watching but acting, and news broadcasters will have nowhere to hide because they will not have much of a case to defend. That is a hard truth that otherwise responsible heads of news networks accede to in private but refuse to acknowledge in public.

The first practical signs of that came on 4 February. The spark: coverage of the political skirmishes over 'outsiders crowding out locals' in Mumbai city.

Invoking for the first time the provisions of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, the Mumbai Police reportedly ordered transmission of two news channels - Sahara Mumbai and India TV - be stopped "for repeatedly telecasting clippings of tension between workers of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) and Samajwadi Party (SP)". Cable operators were directed to stop transmission of the two channels for 24 hours from the time they received a copy of the order.

Joint commissioner of police (law and order) KL Prasad was quoted in an Indian Express report as saying, "We have issued an order under Section 19 of the Act, which specifically states that 'half truths' cannot be spread."

The 'half truth', Prasad said, was in the manner in which the channels tried to depict through pictures, videos and words that 'Mumbai is tense'. "A situation controlled in 20 minutes was made to look as if it was still happening," Prasad pointed out.

Sahara Mumbai head Rajeev Bajaj's reaction was on expected lines: "If an order has been passed, we will fight it out in court."

The 4th February action by the authorities becomes even more relevant if we keep in mind the fact that the I&B ministry is already majorly upset with the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) for having failed to meet their own stated deadline of 31 January for submitting a Content Code.

"They have sent us nothing, despite the fact that they themselves had set the deadline and we think they are not interested," senior I&B officials complained.

The government is worried about the excessive repetitions of shots of violence - whether against women, or communal in nature and says, "This is really dangerous and the editors must now take a call on this."

Incidentally, the ministry is also gearing up to meet a Delhi High Court deadline on sitting down with the Indian Newspaper Society, the Indian Media Group and the Indian Broadcasting Foundation to thrash out depiction of violence and obscenity in the media.

Hearing a writ petition requesting the court to pass an order to tell the ministry to take action on such depictions, the court had given an interim order on 14 December, for the organisations and the ministry to thrash out issues and report to the court within 10 weeks.

The government feels that the NBA is wasting time and that the ministry would have to soon come out with its Code.

So just what is it that forces otherwise responsible news channel heads to do what is so patently against all norms of even the most basic of journalistic practices?

A one line answer could of course be, 'The low road is the easy road to ratings riches'. An already cluttered market getting ever more crowded by the day and with no regulation to govern conduct, it's easy to see why most channels are taking this route.

There is another factor at work here that is worth a mention. Which is that the tabloid news channel proposition is a viable entry strategy for those without the deep pockets that are required for launching an entertainment channel. So in essence these channels are not too far removed from entertainment channels, with a whole load of extremely low cost fictional content to offer as well in addition to the regular fare that is principally infotainment rather than news.

There is an added intrinsic logic that we believe is driving this obsession with the bizarre and the salacious as far as the 'tabloidised' Hindi news channels are concerned. It might well be that these channels are filling a real and existing need gap for the Hindi male viewer looking for entertainment.

After all, where does the Hindi heartland male viewer get his daily dose of TV entertainment if we accept that Hindi GECs are targeted mainly at women? Where else but Hindi news channels - which might explain why the preponderance of sex, crime, and the plain bizarre is working for Hindi news channels.

Coming back to where all this started, the present situation is clearly becoming more and more untenable. Something has to give. The sad part of this is that it will likely be the government giving a bull in a China shop solution that will be to the detriment of all news broadcasters; and more importantly, the public at large.

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