The Khurana case and predictable views of the media establishment on regulation

Today’s papers are full of editorials and op-eds on the Uma Khurana case. As Barkha Dutt fairly concedes in her column:

“The timing could not have been worse. On a day when television journalists were all set to wrestle the government to the ground over its imperious and inane Broadcasting Bill, along comes our own moment of ignominy and shame.”

Both the Indian Express and the Hindustan Times have editorials where, quite predictably, the actions of the TV channel are criticised, but the Broadcast Bill is also condemned. Their solution: self regulation by the media. This is also the response that Barkha Dutt proposes:

“Before the government uses the exception to thrust its own set of motivated rules on us, let us in the industry admit that we need a code of conduct that we can all agree upon, and one that we draft ourselves. (Thanks, but no thanks, is what we need to tell the I&B Ministry). It’s something I have long argued in favour of on these pages. We must be ready for the scrutiny we subject others to. Because when the reporter becomes the story, the news takes a backseat.”Dutt’s closing sentences make the appropriate noises, but notice that she seems to rule out anyone but the media being involved in such regulation.

The only print column I have been able to locate so far that goes beyond this limited claim is a column in the Express by Amrita Shah, who is identified, rather tellingly, as a “commentator on media and society.” This is her proposed response:

“A workable solution would need the active involvement of consumers of the media, for it is they who can arrest falling standards by choosing what to patronise. In a market-driven environment it will have to be the responsibility of the media and citizens both to create a society where the rule of law is less casually flouted.”

I am surprised by the media’s seeming blindness to the glaringly obvious problem with such arguments. Of late, the media has been trying to highlight problems within among other institutions, the judiciary, arguing that self-regulation is not a workable or defensible mechanism for the many woes that afflict that and other institutions in India. Yet, when it comes to setting its own house in order (and one didn’t need the Khurana case to point to the dire need for this), the people who constitute the media establishment can only offer defensive explanations, talk of this being an ‘exception’, and propose the blandest of solutions: self-regulation.

One does not have to choose between the alternatives of the Broadcast Bill and self-regulation by the media: both appear unacceptable. It is upto the media to come up with more credible alternatives, if it wants to drum popular support against measures such as the Broadcast Bill. That some kind of regulation is in order is clear: as Amrita Shah points out, this is not an exception, and there are several such instances which have happened in the recent past. If the media doesn’t budge, then measures such as the Broadcast Bill may be supported even by those who currently oppose it.

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  • Arun,

    That some kind of regulation is in order is clear

    Not at all clear. In my view, there is a deep malaise in all of our institutions. The problem this creates is that if one of our institutions is not functioning well, we cannot depend on the others to act as a corrective. So, even if I were to concede your point that the media is not functioning well, which of our other institutions would you have act as a corrective? The political institutions, viz., parliament , assemblies? I don’t think many of us – not me, anyway – would place much trust there. The judiciary? Well, given the current backlog of cases as well as malfunctioning there (I am not talking of the Supreme Court but the lower level courts.) I don’t have much confidence there either. What does this leave us with then?

    It would be nice if you could specify what type of regulation you have in mind and also tell us why you think your suggested regulation will actually work.

    As for me, I am – at least, as of now – inclined to take the unpopular position that even while I concede that the media’s functioning is less than desirable, I would rather leave things as they are. I think this is preferable to having additional laws. Such laws, in my opinion, will not solve the problem but will add to the judiciary’s burden while giving our politicians/bureaucrats opportunities to harass innocent journalists. The net result will only be more corruption.

    Note that many of our laws do not hurt the truly unscrupulous who know how to “get away” but only the truly scrupulous. One favourite example is courtesy Bibek Debroy whom I heard in a lecture. Apparently, in the heyday of our licence-permit raj, an entrepreneur running a concern with more than 100 workers (I think) could not close his factory without government permission even if he was running a loss. Such permission was rarely granted and even if it was, came only after significant delay during which time you had to keep incurring losses. However, if you were unscrupulous enough, there was a way out – you simply stopped paying your electricity bill. At some point, your power would be cut off and the factory effectively closed! [Of course, the losers in this process are the workers. The idea that it might be in the workers’ interests also to close down a loss-making concern is not conceded even now in our political system.]

    I suspect you (and others) will disagree with what I’ve said: after all, to say that nothing should be done to address a perceived problem seems incredible, doesn’t it? I look forward to your arguments.


  • Suresh,

    Your argument, simply put, seems to be that one should do nothing because every existing institution which can respond, is compromised, and positive action of any sort will only worsen matters.

    Some people would call that a defeatist stance, but I can see how such a status quo-ist position may well be justified in some cases. We can probably debate the virtues of optimistic and defeatist approaches to problems and life in general, but that won’t get us very far.

    At another level, I could contest your assumption about the extent and irredeemable nature of the malaise that you say affects our institutions. That too is an argument that would require empirical evidence, as well as its analysis, on which we can have long and fruitless debates.

    It would seem therefore that since our starting premises are very different, and seemingly irreconciliable, we can’t really convince each other.

    I do see a ray of hope, however, in the way you’ve defined the alternatives that you reject: you seem to assume that these measures must come from government, and that they would be in the form of laws.

    The whole point of my post was to suggest that draconian measures such as the Broadcast Bill might become more palatable over time if the media doesn’t set its house in order. Amrita Shah suggested involving consumers (i.e. ordinary people) in measures to regulate the media. Others have suggested institutions such as an independent ombudsman. Some international newspapers have evolved a system of having a Public Editor (the New York Times has one who writes a column every fortnight reacting to complaints about bias or unfair reporting). The NY Times also has a detailed guide on Ethical Journalism which it adheres to, and is linked on its website:

    The point is, for all the talk of self-regulation, the Indian media doesn’t really seem to have any systems in place across the board. There may be some individual institutions (I understand the Hindu and the Hindustan Times do have some codes in place for editors to regulate these issues) but these seem more like isolated cases.

    Also, I doubt that such codes are in place for the electronic media, which is where their need is most keenly felt.

    As you can tell, I am hardly an expert on media regulation, but I hope you don’t think that precludes me from commenting on this issue. I hope some of the others on the team who have more experience with this issue either in their professional activities or because of their research interest in this area, will respond.

  • Arun,

    Yes, of course, my argument taken to an extreme would advocate doing nothing in every situation. That was not my intention and I think you know that too.

    Regarding the malaise affecting our institutions, yes, I agree, it needs evidence. I can only point to some recent work of Arvind Subramanian in the context of economic institutions. Notwithstanding liberalisation and all that, he shows that the performance of customs, for instance, has actually deteriorated over the 1990s. In a talk in Chennai, he identified the deterioration in the quality of our institutions as a potential constraint on our growth prospects.

    To be sure, one can always point to some isolated successes but my feeling (and you are free to correct me) is that Subramanian’s analysis for customs probably holds good for many of our other institutions as well.

    (For those interested, Subramanian measured the “quality” of our customs by looking (innovatively!) at the difference between what we say we import from other countries and what other countries say they export to us. His analysis seemed to show that the quality of our customs if anything has deteriorated over the 1990s.)

    I am no expert in media regulation either, but I will simply note that self-regulation always develops in response to a perceived problem and not ahead of the problem itself. So my stance is that, okay, we have a problem; let us see how the media responds before going down the government regulation route.

    I must confess that I tend to view government intervention somewhat sceptically. I am not a libertarian but given my own inclination and observations (primarily my father who was a government employee for all of his working life), I view government intervention as a “means of last resort.”

    Anyway, you are right in that the government might yet have the last laugh if the media does not do something soon. It is difficult, however, knowing what exactly the media can do to satisfy the government short of agreeing to “voluntarily” implement the measures that the government desires.

    We have a problem here which in my opinion ultimately comes down to the quality of our democracy. We take great pride in having sustained a democracy in a poor, significantly illiterate country. No doubt, but I think our experience also shows that the “quality” of our democracy is not going to be very high in such circumstances. Any proposal – whether it is mine of doing nothing or self-regulation or whatever – will have problems. I don’t think there are any easy answers.

    Thanks for your engagement.