Fourth estate: From informer to propagator
It is the concern, that the freedom of the media, if not tempered by reasonable restrictions, can lead to...
It is the concern, that the freedom of the media, if not tempered by reasonable restrictions, can lead to undesirable socio- economic consequences, that has necessitated putting in place a statutory environment to deal with the issue and agencies to enforce those statutes.
While different countries have their own regimes to serve this purpose, the Press Council of India performs that function in India. A significant point to note in this connection is the fact that, apart from article 19 of the Constitution of India, which, after a Supreme Court judgement, has also become the source for the freedom of the media, there is really no law in place on the subject.
The media in India, in other words, are largely subject to self-regulation alone. The freedom enjoyed by the print and electronic media in our country can compare favourably with the most liberal of dispensations in the world. So much so that, the media has come to be known as the "fourth estate", an adjunct, in other words, to the three pillars of the Indian State as enshrined by the Constitution of India, – the executive, the judiciary and the legislature.
That is not to say, however, that has always been the case. The Vernacular Press Act, the Newspapers Incitement to Offences act, the Indian Press Act, (during the British rule) and the Press Objectionable Matter Act (in 1950) were all various instruments brought in from time to time to regulate the content of the print media with a view to ensuring that it was in keeping with the policy of the governments of those times.
Tilak and Gandhi were tried by the British for sedition on account of their so-called objectionable publications. But, quite paradoxically, the darkest days the media ever passed through in the history of modern India were during the emergency in the middle of 1970s, when draconian measures were adopted in the name of censorship of media content. And now the wheel has turned full circle. The unfettered independence the media in India experience today stops short only of license!
While this columnist was working as the Chief Secretary to the government of (the then) Andhra Pradesh State when Dr YS Rajasekhara Reddy was the Chief Minister), one of the vernacular newspapers went after him, hammer and tong, sharply criticising many of the actions taken by him.
The Chief Minister, however, firmly turned down a suggestion that he ought to build bridges with the media through the accepted means of friendly breakfasts and other such social overtures.
That, certainly, was a departure from the average political leader's attitude towards the media. In fact, it is now quite common to see governments bending backwards to indulge media persons through various gestures such as taking them on trips abroad, favouring them with "scoops" from time to time and exclusive interviews etc.
It is also not uncommon to find governments and corporate bodies engaging media consultants, who function as "spin doctors" and use what are known as "spin rooms" where press briefings are held. The entire arrangement is aimed at twisting the truth so much original shape is hardly recognisable.
Facts are fashioned into a presentation in such a manner as to show off the government or the corporate entity in a favourable light. There are other factors which impact the integrity of the content put out by the media. One factor certainly is that they depend heavily on government sources which, as is well known, are conservative and lacking in analysis.
Alternatively, "experts" are called upon to assist the shaping of content. This often causes information asymmetry on account of the fact that these experts are paid either by the government, the corporate or the media owned agencies and, therefore, can hardly be expected to take an unbiased or neutral position.
Another concern is the dog-eat-dog atmosphere in which media compete between and amongst themselves, ahead of the competition being the primary consideration in putting out the news. And when speed is of the essence, quality, and the care required to ensure its continuity, are naturally the first casualties.
Nowadays, aided by the explosion in the social media platforms, it has become a dangerously common feature to find governments and large corporate houses spreading messages that suit their ends, largely driven by the conviction that playing on people's emotions is much more effective than relying on facts.
The thin line of distinction between fact and fantasy is getting so blurred as a result of these developments that, from the philosophy of Descartes who said "I think, therefore I am", we appear to have transited to a regime where the dictum governing our convictions is "I believe, therefore it is the truth!"
Another worrisome issue is the alarming explosion in the number of blogs and websites, with practically anyone being free to start and run them. In other words, anyone can be a journalist these days. Lacking, as they are, in experience, expertise as well as ability, and last but not the least, maturity, such sources can hardly be expected to be able to account to their clientele for the impact their content may have on the user community.
It is not surprising, therefore, to see rumours or even blatant falsehoods circulating in a large scale, and with great speed, causing turmoil, beginning with the users and spreading to the community at large.
People belonging to this columnist's generation will remember the fracas caused in 1979 by the wild rumour that the Musi River had flooded and that large-scale submersion was taking place in many areas in Hyderabad city. And that was a fright caused by word of mouth, as social media had yet to come into being! The combination of an increasingly ubiquitous social media and immoral politics-or post-truth tactics - that prefer an appeal to emotion to cold facts, can also cause large-scale public delusions.
"Fake news" is a phenomenon that only exacerbates the dangers inherent in such a situation. The Boston bombings case is classical example of fictitious news resulting in enormous commotion.
Studies showed that those who watched repeated and graphic media portrayals of the intentional mass violence following bombing during the annual Boston Marathon, suffered more acute stress in those who actually watched the event.
There are many instances in recorded history where clever political leadership has exploited the power of the repeated message, especially when it emerges from sources regarded by the public as reliable. The role of Goebbels in Hitler's regime during the Second World War is worth remembering in this context.
The Society for Professional Journalism (SPJ) has evolved and accepted four principles that should govern ethical journalism. Which include seeking and reporting the truth, minimising harm, independence and transparency and accountability.
Various countries have different mechanisms that enforce regimes that regulate the observance of ethical conduct by newspapers. The Press Council of India performs this function in our country. Nobel laureate MacBride, in 1980, chaired the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems which was constituted by UNESCO.
It came out with report entitled "Many Voices, One world" and called for the setting up of a New World Information and Communication Order which envisaged an international news exchange system involving the national news agencies of various countries.
It was essentially an attempt at creating equitable opportunities for global media to access information. Concerns such as domination of the radio spectrum by the Western agencies and imbalance in the flow of mass media from the developed to the developing countries were also addressed.
The Inter Press Service (IPS), is a global news agency, which came into being in 1964, primarily to address the information gap arising between Europe and Latin America, following the turbulence after the Cuban revolution.
Slowly expanded to many other countries. Today it is recognised as a major force that concentrates on highlighting issues relating to developing countries, especially in respect of marginalised and vulnerable groups, and mainstreaming issues relating to gender and the impact of globalisation. It enjoys strong ties with civil society organisation.
The need for communication is a healthy and natural trait among the living beings. And the media, print, electronic and social, have an important role to play in collecting, analysing and disseminating information and knowledge, apart from providing wholesome and healthy entertainment.
And in order to perform that vital function, the media undoubtedly need to possess the required degree of freedom and independence. A combination of external regulation and internal restraint, however, is a sine qua non to ensure that that freedom is utilised with a modicum of maturity and a sense of social responsibility. Otherwise it would be a classical case of there being too much of a good thing.
(The writer is former Chief Secretary, Government of Andhra Pradesh)