Guidelines for news channels to make 'stings' difficult

NEW DELHI: The Self-regulating Guidelines for the Broadcast Sector, 2008 has special provisions for news channels, and is tough on 'sting' operations, mentioning it as issues of "breach of privacy," with more than 11 separate aspects of dos and donts categorically mentioned under section 14 of Chapter Four.

And though the phrase "sting operation" is not mentioned, the government has said in Section 14 that "infringement of privacy in a news-based/related programme is a sensitive issue"… and that "failure to follow the tenets will constitute a breach of this Chapter of the Code, resulting in an unwarranted breach of privacy."

In a covert approach to the word "sting" the Guidelines stresses (Section 14.6): "The means for obtaining material must be proportionate in all circumstances and in particular to the subject matter of the news-based/related programme."

Read this with Section 14.1 and the meaning if clear: "Channels must not use material relating to a person's personal or private affairs, or which invades an in individual's privacy, unless there is an identifiable larger public interest reason for the material to be broadcast."

Hence, obtaining a material covertly, which could cause a breach of privacy, is out, unless there is an identifiable larger public interest that can be demonstrated by the news channel.

The Guidelines says that any such infringement in news-based/related programmes or in connection with obtaining material included in such programmes must be "warranted."

Even more seriously, the Guidelines says that any such infringement of privacy in such programmes must be with the persons and/or organisations consent, or be otherwise "warranted."

The fact that it were the news channels that had protested the loudest in favour of freedom of press has made the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting give special emphasis on the news segment, which is dealt with separately in Chapter Four of the Guidelines.

"We waited for the news channels, under the aegis of News Broadcasters Association, for more than nine months to give their own guidelines, which they have not do till date," say officials at the ministry.

"They said first they would give that by January 31, and we waited, and then they again said they would give it on a subsequent date, which too they failed to do, so we had to come out with the Guidelines," they say, adding that they were complying with a High Court order on that score.

Though officials are not commenting if these are the Guidelines that will finally be implemented, the indications are clear: if the Delhi High Court gives its consent, this is going to become the mandate under which news channels would have to operate.

Though all the basic provisions of the Guidelines, which has already reported on, remain in place for the news channels, especially compliance with the Certification Rules of the Cable TV Act, 1995, special attention has been given by the ministry to the issue of sting operations.

This is understandable, as the present Guidelines had been asked for by the Delhi HC, which in several cases, and even the apex court, had expressed deep unhappiness with such stings, and had even suggested that the MIB may set up a committee to vet and clear all stings before these are aired.

The Guidelines says too that if such an infringement is likely to occur, prior permission of the person has to be taken before going on air, and if a party feels that its privacy is being breached, and asks filming, recording or live broadcast to be stopped, "the BSP should do so, unless it is warranted to continue". (Section 14.4, a and b)

The names and identity of victims of sexual abuse or violence cannot be revealed, the Guidelines says.

Ambulance chasing would now become difficult to justify, as the Guidelines specifically says at 14.4 (d): "In potentially sensitive situations such as ambulances, hospitals, schools, prisons or police stations, separate consent should normally be obtained before filming or recording or broadcast from that sensitive situation (unless not obtaining permission is warranted)."

However it adds that if the individual is not identifiable in the programme, separate consent for broadcast will not be required.

The ministry has used the interesting phrase "door stepping" to mean filming or interviewing with someone or announcing that a call is being filmed or recorded for broadcast purpose without warning, and said this will not be allowed, unless under specific conditions.

These conditions are "unless a request for an interview has been refused, or is has not been possible to request an interview, or there is good reason to believe that an investigation would be frustrated if the subject is approached openly".

However, it must be remembered that though these grey areas have been kept open for stings, they would be subject to the Content Auditor giving or not giving permission for actual broadcast, depending on his reading of the Certification Rules under the Cable Act.

Then, of course, there are the various Broadcast Consumer Complaints Committees from different segments of the industry, which would deal with the complaints, which would make the broadcast service provider, especially the Chief Editor, who is finally responsible for such broadcast, additionally careful.

Overall, the Guidelines has suggested that "news should be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality", and stressed the word "due.

It says, "Due is an important qualification to the concept of impartiality. 'Due' means adequate or appropriate to the situation, so 'due impartiality does not mean that an equal distribution of time has to be given to every view."

It says that balance, or impartiality means that all the main points of view or interpretation of an event or issue has to be presented.

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