Why the content king needs wise counsel

As we mark the anniversary of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai on 26th November 2008 and the subsequent 60-hours of hostage-taking horror, with murders, mayhem and ensuing chaos unfolding live on national television, it is worth reflecting whether a more regulated news media might have shortened the misery and helped the security mission.

There was much criticism of the way television networks covered the atrocity as a tacky round-the-clock Bollywood thriller – except that it was for real, claiming nearly 170 lives and many more injuries. Competing news networks vied with each other to provide the most sensational and dramatic reportage from India’s commercial capital. News footage such as live pictures of National Security Guard commandos being airdropped near the Nariman House, seemed highly irresponsible, potentially endangering both hostages and security forces.

In a report just weeks after 26/11, a parliamentary panel called for greater regulation of real-time broadcasts during such emergencies, claiming that ‘the live footage shown by television channels was free intelligence for those allegedly guiding the attackers from afar through satellite/mobile phones‘. The government proposed 19 new amendments to the Cable TV Networks (Regulation) Act, including the suggestions that in the future there should be ‘delayed carriage of live feed‘ in such emergency situations.

Partly in response, the News Broadcasters Association - a leading professional body of news organizations - set up a self-regulatory ‘emergency protocol‘ for covering terrorism. However, it is likely that commercial imperatives will still dictate what gets on air. In an excessively market-driven broadcasting ecology, the drive to be first with ‘breaking‘ news can lead journalists and news managers to compromise on content. There are numerous instances of this: one prime example is how television news has invented the sting story - sometimes slanderous, sometimes even fake. How should such content be regulated and by whom? What can we learn from other democracies?

Until very recently, broadcasting content was tightly monitored within the European Union. Steeped in the tradition of public service, broadcasting was managed by governments as well as by self-monitoring by internal institutions within the broadcasters themselves. With the opening up of the airwaves to commercial - especially satellite and cable and later digital - broadcasting, this system has been considerably undermined by the forces of the market. As digitalization and technological convergence became a reality, it became difficult, if not impossible, to regulate content and as a result authorities opted for ‘soft touch regulation,‘ letting industry regulate itself in the public interest, while retaining control on broad policy outlines, as well as through judicial review.

One reason that such an arrangement seems to generally work is that the regulators - such as Office of Communication (Ofcom) in Britain - are, and more importantly, are perceived to be, autonomous from government control, and therefore carry greater credibility both within the industry as well as among the general public. The content of such broadcasters as the BBC is also monitored by its Board of Governors and as a public broadcaster, it is also under parliamentary scrutiny, for periodic approval of the licence fee.

What is more, the public have a greater say in terms of feedback on programme content - particularly on the public service television, unlike the commercial sector which is more often than not hostage to advertisers.

Though the ratings-driven commercial model remains the dominant one in the United States and while the First Amendment ensures a high degree of independence to the media, the Federal Communications Commission requires broadcasters to follow certain restrictions in relations to content such as what is deemed as ‘harmful to minors‘.

Though television in India was established in the European public broadcasting tradition, it has continued to veer towards a commercial model where Content is the King. As the world‘s largest and its most vibrant democracy, the notion of a free flow of information and freedom of expression is deeply entrenched in India. However, freedom of information and expression should come with a high dose of social responsibility, particularly relevant in a nation where more than 400 million people remain illiterate - despite huge progress in many areas including unprecedented growth in broadcasting industry - making India a country with the largest number of dedicated news channels (soon to touch three figures).

As the Guidelines for Broadcast Regulations suggested by UNESCO state, the freedom of speech is ‘subject to such conditions and restrictions as are prescribed by law and necessary in a democratic society. The exclusions cover: the prevention of disorder or crime, the protection of health or morals, the protection of the reputation and rights of others (including the right to privacy), preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, and maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.‘

For a balanced dynamic to emerge between the freedom to report and social responsibility, there is a pressing need for an autonomous national regulator. The Indian government has been toying with such an idea for nearly two decades now and, despite promises, nothing concrete has been done. In the absence of a professional and credible content regulator, competitive commercial interests have pushed the envelope further and further in the process of creating television empires, while debasing public discourse. As we remember those who lost their lives on 26/11, it is high time that the king of content had some wise counsel.

(Daya Thussu is Professor of International Communication and the Co-Director of the soon to be launched India Media Centre at the University of Westminster in London. Among his key recent publications are Internationalizing Media Studies (Routledge) and News as Entertainment: The Rise of Global Infotainment (Sage). He is founder and Managing Editor of the journal Global Media and Communication.)

(Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author and need not necessarily subscribe to the same)

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