Next 2008, an event organised by Exchange4media.com, saw some heated debate and meaningful exchange on the business of news television and the broadcasting industry.
One of the most debated topics proved to be the question, 'Is self-regulation the answer to arrest visibly declining standards of reporting in electronic media?' The panel discussion was moderated by Rohit Bansal, chief operating officer, India TV. The speakers on the panel included Pankaj Pachauri, executive editor and anchor, NDTV; Ashutosh, managing editor, IBN 7; Markand Adhikari, vice-chairman and managing director, SAB; and Prawin Kumar, director, broadcast content, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
Bansal set the tone of the debate by urging the panellists to articulate a view either in favour of self-regulation or in favour of a regulatory body established and controlled by the government to keep an eye on what goes in the name of content on the electronic media, especially on news channels.
Prawin Kumar, representing the sole voice of the government, began by arguing that the electronic media has, over the years, grown powerful and has unparalleled power in influencing the masses, in comparison to the reach and impact of other media, such as print. This very factor necessitates the existence of a regulatory authority that could be a mix of representative members of the broadcast industry, experts representing the government and eminent people drawn from the fields of art and literature.
Ashutosh said, "The news media acts as an informal stabiliser in a democracy. The hue and cry on the part of the government on exercising control over the electronic media has intensified in the past few years, because now, the empowered electronic media is boldly exposing the corruption prevalent in parties, in our political system. To save itself from this attack, the government alleges that news channels misrepresent facts or cross the lines of dignity and fair representation in matters directly related to the common man."
Ashutosh said he firmly believed that the government had no business imposing any curbs on the freedom of media, because the assumption that the media works in a vacuum was a false notion. People in charge of media, too, are aware of the sensibilities of different groups and do have a conscience about reporting nothing but the truth.
Taking the argument a step forward, Pankaj Pachauri explained, "With democracy becoming 62 years old, media, in all these years, has not been responsible for bringing any disaster on the country and its countrymen. Agreed that with the satellite boom, the business of television news has become very sensitive, but the solution does not lie in laying down rules and regulations, because one has to realise that credibility is something that cannot be measured or quantified. It is very subjective and no particular individual, or for that matter, a government led body, can be trusted to precisely determine what is appropriate and what is not."
He added, "The solution to the problem lies not in taking a high moral ground, but rather adopting a high market ground, meaning that one refuses to bow to pressures of any kind when it comes to taking decisions on the content that goes on air."
Kumar, however, pointed out that the broadcasters, who are growing powerful by the day, must not forget that hinting at any kind of outside regulation does not necessarily translate into an attack on the freedom or operational ability of any broadcaster. Even the most powerful media organisation, such as the BBC, is liable to scrutiny by the Ofcom.
He said the government is concerned about the declining standards of reporting by broadcasters and feels disappointed that nothing much has come out of the much talked about self-regulation. So, there is a need to make a beginning by having at least a minimum framework of guidelines for all the players, beginning with a regulatory body.
Markand Adhikari recounted his own experiences with the government and the courts of law. He admitted that it was a tough call to decide what kind of body should be formed to safeguard interests and decide disputes within the industry itself and any allegations on media by a third party.
Adhikari recounted his experience of being a broadcaster and at the receiving end. "A few years back, some organisation created a lot of 'tamasha' and raised objections to one of our programmes on air on SAB. Violent protestors succeeded in convincing the government to force our hand to take the popular show off air. We approached the court, which, after three years of hearing, pronounced its judgement in our favour, by stating that the serial in no way took digs at or hurt the sentiments of any particular community."
Though he was vindicated in the end, Adhikari said he can, even now, feel the financial loss that the channel faced because of the ban and the pain of losing out to competition by being forced to take off a show that was doing so well.
All the three panellists representing news broadcasters blamed the TRP (television rating point) system for the blind race of dishing out questionable content. They argued that to stay in business, they had to play a very conscious game of dishing out the fare that the audience lapped up on rival channels. Even the slightest slump on the numbers front influenced media planners, and the channels faced immense pressure to not lose out on the crucial numbers so vital for their existence.
However, the speakers also concluded that without any doubt, the quality and integrity of content and the credibility of a channel came first and could not be violated. The discussion ended on the note that the quality control measures could not be imposed by the very government that stood threatened by these news channels.