The National Press Day was observed earlier this week with commemorative events across the country. In the world’s largest democracy, the day, observed on November 16 every year, is symbolic of a free and responsible press.
It was on this day in 1966 that the Press Council of India started functioning as a moral watchdog to ensure that the press maintains high standards and journalistic objectivity is not compromised due to “influence or threats of any extraneous factors”.
In 1956, the first Press Commission had recommended that the best way to maintain professional ethics in journalism can be achieved by creating a statutory body comprising people mainly connected with the industry who can arbitrate the activities.
This led to the constitutions of the Press Council of India on July 4, 1966, as an autonomous, statutory, quasi-judicial body, with Justice J R Mudholkar, then a Judge of the Supreme Court, as Chairman.
Apparently, the recommendations were inspired by our founding fathers.
Mahatma Gandhi, who harnessed the potential of the press to carry out his crusade against foreign yoke and bring about social changes, himself had famously stated, “The newspaper press is a great power, but just as unchained torrent of water submerges the whole countryside and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy. If the control is from without, it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within.”
The country’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, a votary of free press, too had cautioned, “If there is no responsibility and no obligation attached to it, freedom gradually withers away. This is true of a nation’s freedom and it applies as much to the Press as to any other group, organisation or individual.”
The Council, a representative body of all key stakeholders ranging from owners to Editors and eminent persons and journalist bodies, has been taking congnizance of unprofessional reportage and trends in the media but over the years has often come to be referred to as a “toothless tiger” in the wake of massive technological advancements in the industry and its impact on content and reach.
In fact, the Election Commission of India appeared far more effective in tackling a menace such as paid news.
With the proliferation of TV channels across the country in many languages, the consequent race for TRPs and resultant sensationalism, the industry took several voluntary initiatives such as News Broadcasting Standards Authority, an independent body set up by the News Broadcasters Association (NBA), to consider and adjudicate upon complaints about broadcasts.
The NBA was set up to deal with ethical, operational, regulatory, technical and legal issues affecting news and current affairs channels.
In 2009, the editors of broadcast media came together and established the Broadcast Editors’ Association (BEA), to strengthen the values of objective and fair broadcast journalism, and to protect and promote the freedom of expression.
While the establishment of these self-regulatory bodies was a welcome step and over the years, they have come up with certain guidelines with regard to reportage and coverage, in the absence of statutory powers, they are simply unable to enforce the same.
While channels run by reputed media houses maintained certain standards, the absence of any regulatory framework or checks and balances mechanism led to unscrupulous elements wreaking havoc with professionalism and ethics, often engaging in sheer blackmail, defamation and propaganda.
With no specific mandate, the Council remained a mute spectator. Then came the Digital Media with a bang. While online newspapers, websites and portals run by reputed media persons followed certain decorum, the technology-enabled many motivated individuals and groups to invade the cyberspace to promote their vested interests.
With growing internet penetration, issues of fake news and fake narratives have become real with far-reaching impact on the body politic and social fabric of the nation.
Here too, the industry bodies, academic institutions and even the platforms have taken certain initiatives towards creating awareness.
In fact, the various aspects of the Digital Age, including its impact on children, development, fake news, democracy and pluralism, were discussed at length by leading practitioners and academics at the National Media Conclave in Bhubaneswar last week.
Media educationists strongly recommended inclusion of Media Literacy Programmes right from the primary school level. Again, the Press Council is not seen proactive in the picture.
The need of the hour is to overhaul the body and turn it into a wider Media Council of India encompassing not just the print media but the electronic and digital as well, and equip it with judicial powers where required, so as to enable it to have a holistic view of the media scenario and take appropriate steps to check irregularities, ensure freedom of speech and professionalism, and maintain the highest ethical standards and credibility, which are so critical for the fourth pillar of democracy.