Wanted: More than just editors

The Mumbai attacks, for all their tragedy and pathos, were an unparalleled television event. It was news television that became the conduit of a shocked nation?s horror and anger as we watched the terrible spectacle unfold in our living rooms. Mumbai was to be a game-changer at many levels - diplomatic, administrative and political. A year later, as the blanket coverage of the one-year retrospectives winds up on the networks, it is time to take stock. As the media focuses attention on the slap-dash political legacy of Mumbai - with many of the central characters of 2008 back where they were in 2009 - it is also time to focus the lens back on the news networks.

Any discussion of broadcast reform in India gets stuck between two poles: the controlling impulses of a state always looking to turn the clock back and take back lost control and the need to maintain the independence of news television. For all its flaws, the creation of the Indian satellite news industry has been a landmark struggle unparalleled in the history of global news and the fear has always been that any attempt at regulation risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Yet, some kind of a real watchdog there must be. In a different context, the untamed impulses of Wall Street?s bankers that led to the global economic crisis are an example of what unbridled laissez faire can lead to. Fifteen years after the landmark Supreme Court judgment that freed the airwaves, India remains the most unregulated television market in the world and while this suits the owners and the editors in their no-holds barred quest for revenues, Mumbai underscored the need for an unbiased oversight body comprising all stakeholders more than ever.

Two provisos need to be added here. Much of the governmental criticism of the TV networks in 2008 focused on how television became the world?s window into the ineptitude of the Indian state - too many spokespeople, too much ground confusion and too many operational details being divulged by the then Home Minister. Let us be clear. That was not television?s fault. The state cannot blame the messenger for its own failures. In the early hours of Mumbai, television coverage did what it was meant to do: it brilliantly captured the scramble, the confusion and the reality on the ground.

The real problem with television coverage in the days after Mumbai was a more deep-set one that we are used to seeing in its coverage of other events as well; that of sensationalism and the new addition to the vocabulary of newsrooms: "aggressive" journalism. The networks, in varying degrees of complicity, became not outlets of information but channels of propaganda and the lowest common denominator. The same sensitivity that goes into creating the saanp-seedhi genre of news went into much of the post-Mumbai coverage with at least one top network talking seriously about the option of a first-nuclear strike on Pakistan. This was not a considered news response; this was the response of a petulant child with the candy of TRPs hanging in front.

The post-Mumbai proposal to provide the channels only edited and pre-censored footage of emergency situations was preposterous and was rightly opposed by TV editors and all those who believe in the institution of the free press. But it should also have been a moment to pause and consider how much of this statist counter-reaction was a result of TV?s own impetuosity. What we have in the form of oversight today in news television is tall promises of self-regulation that are given with seeming sincerity but always fall prey to the weekly tyranny of ratings. Mumbai should have been an opportunity for genuine reform, one that seems lost.

Ambika Soni?s relatively benign and thoughtful attitude to news must not lead TV owners and editors into a comfort zone of complacency. Personalities come and go but the problem with satellite television regulation is structural, one that goes into the heart of the unique manner in which the industry grew in its initial years as an illegal medium. There is still no overarching regulatory body to oversee broadcasting issues. There is no Indian equivalent of the American Federal Communication Commission and Indian broadcasting remains highly unregulated. Compared to other developed television markets Indian broadcasting exists within a highly confusing maze of overlapping controls. For instance, India is one of the few developed TV markets with no cross-media ownership laws. Such a state of affairs, at a time when India is fast emerging as a new global media capital cannot be sustainable.

In a sense, Indian television has continued to operate in a legal framework that is more akin to that utterly untranslatable North Indian word: jugaad. Jaipal Reddy?s Broadcasting Bill of 1997 was based on British law after studying the broadcasting systems of six countries - USA, UK, France, Germany, Italy and Australia - and sought to create a new legal structure for broadcasting but disappeared into oblivion when the Gujral government fell. Priyaranjan Dasmunshi?s draconian version of such a Bill is now on the backburner. Since the 1995 Cable Networks Regulation Act (which has limited uses), Parliament has only managed to pass one major broadcasting-related bill - the 2007 Act on mandatory sharing of sports feeds. And that only passed because of the immense drawing power of cricket.

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has periodically tried to fill the regulatory vacuum with draft legislation and summary executive directives/notifications, most of these designed to assert its control. It has consistently tried to put the genie of broadcasting back into the bottle. Looking at it from a historic perspective, the contentious twists and turns over CAS and the news uplinking policy changes when NDTV bifurcated from Star News are perfect examples of the minefield that is the current broadcasting legal framework.

War, they say, should never be left to the generals alone. Television, similarly, is too pervasive an influence to be left to the judgment of the industry itself. A year after Mumbai, the need for a genuinely impartial authority to balance the content and regulatory oversight that Indian broadcasting desperately needs is being felt even more. 

(Nalin Mehta is the author of India on Television and a founding editor of the Routledge journal South Asian History and Culture)

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