Event ReportsPublished on Jan 14, 2013
Participants at a seminar on "Media regulation: Is Status Quo the Option?" said India cannot afford to be an exception among democracies, with no regulation of cross-holdings in the media. Editorial independence is indispensable if the right to freedom of expression is to be effectively exercised.
Media regulation: Is status quo the answer
The continuing integration of media platforms and the expansion of social media have led to a situation in which any person may be both a producer and consumer of news. To address the question of whether the current regulatory mechanisms are still effective, Observer Research Foundation along with Hammurabi and Solomon, a reputed law firm, arranged a roundtable on media regulation, asking "Is Status Quo the Option?" It was noted that a key challenge is that of weakened editorial control, leading to news coverage controlled by corporate interests. Editors appear unwilling to support reporters’ pursuit of stories which may threaten the "cosy nexus" between businesses and their media holdings. If there were strong editors in the industry, the government wouldn’t need to regulate, and the media would put its own house in order. The importance of insulating editorial management from ownership was emphasised. The issue of regulation is also muddied by 30% of ownership interests (both in distributors and broadcasters) being held by those in government. In the era after Independence, the media was a vehicle for social change. However as India experienced capitalist growth, the media is increasingly being used to further business. Similar growth in the United States led to increased regulation and the emergence of media entrepreneurs. In India, however, the media barons are entering real estate and other businesses and there is an intermingling of interests. Professional journalists used to criticise owners and publishers for any interference, actual or threatened. Increasingly, however, editors are becoming publishers and owners, affecting the balance in editorial and corporate responsibility. As this presents a grave threat to credibility, it may be necessary for the government to look at regulations preventing owners from being involved in the news in an editorial capacity. Participants expressed concern about the lack of investment in training for journalists, leading to a decline in professionalism. Many institutions do not have a stated position on such regulatory issues, and there is a lack of knowledge about transparency and ethics in the newsroom. Though professional journalists may have some awareness of codes of practice, and may rely on a body of material created by journalists before them, amateur reporters of social networks do not. There is a need for tolerance and responsibility in expression since no regulation can effectively prevent the spread of news if enough people choose to spread it. The commitment to honesty and transparency must begin at the personal level, with each reporter disclosing their relevant interests. It cannot be assumed that viewers will be aware of the background in every case - it must be stated, every time. The distinction between news and views has been blurred by the current television landscape. It was suggested that many programmes make a mockery of the news - whether by the language used in reporting or the low calibre of panellists and debates. Frustration with traditional media platforms is pushing consumers towards new media. It was observed that in India, the intensification of competition in the news media has led to a fall in quality rather than an increase. A comparison was once again made with the British model, where the public service broadcaster, the BBC, pushes the private industry standard up. However, that revenue model is almost impossible to replicate - people are unwilling to pay for content when it is freely available elsewhere (for example online). This is indicative of a wider problem, as outlets are dependent almost completely on advertising for revenue, and that advertising is concentrated. Some 95% of advertising is concentrated in 5% of the media, lending those few a great deal of power. The reluctance to pay for content means the focus shifts to "delivering audiences to advertisers" and away from journalistic quality. This is exacerbated by the monopolistic ratings system, whereby Television Rating Points (TRPs), gleaned from 10,000 metres on television sets are the only measure of a successful TV programme, and statistics are tweaked to meet business plans. Even with the possibility of full digitisation of television possible by 2016, 60% of broadcasting revenue goes to distributors - meaning that the only broadcasters who are profitable are those which also own distribution networks. The integration of media platforms has led to the gap between the news and the audience being reduced. The importance of social media was highlighted, what with its role being described as "archiving word of mouth", and indicative of the pulse of the public. The dangers were also discussed, with criticism of the "ubiquity of anonymity" on the internet. This anonymity is guaranteed by large corporations which will not divulge user identities, and must be accepted because of the business power wielded by those corporations. There was also concern about the speed with which stories - verified or otherwise - go viral. This can only be rectified by government engagement on the same level, and implementation of policies which acknowledge the power of social media. It is not viable to try and come down upon social media users with a heavy hand - the public is very aware and sensitive to any notion of the government acting unreasonably towards an individual. In order to address the elevated status of social media, a level playing field must be created: the same rules that apply to other news media must apply online as well. The regulations which were put in place when the media was made up of separate verticals can no longer cope. TV is sometimes seen as a prime target for regulators, but only some channels are subject to scrutiny and many escape unscathed - cable channels in particular are highly unsupervised. There is also an insular view of the media, with focus placed on Delhi and Bombay, largely ignoring regional and non-English media sources despite growth and profit in those sectors. This view also disregards the fact that the regional language media is setting the tone of news broadcasts. The news media is a 2,000 crore business compared to the 80,000 crore entertainment business, but it gets a disproportionate amount of attention and influence on policy. The convergence of media must produce a convergence of rules, which will only be successful if there is ongoing dialogue between the media and the establishment. These issues have been brought to light recently in Europe and particularly the United Kingdom with the Leveson Inquiry; the situation in India, however, can not be directly compared with the UK as social context is a key factor in any discussion of institutional practices. Those speaking against new statutory regulations argued that India is a relation-based society, and as such self regulation is the natural way to proceed (as it can be seen as an extension of peer pressure). It was also argued that if one platform becomes too heavily regulated, it will simply be abandoned in favour of another, as "each generation creates their own media". It was also pointed out that the quantity of laws in place is no guarantee of effective enforcement - or else no crimes would ever be committed. Furthermore, the State has already displayed a "predatory instinct" by qualifying the right to speech considerably through amendments to Article 19 of the Constitution. The focus should therefore be on implementing the current restrictions rather than seeking new ones. If media outlets are increasingly corporate private institutions, then they should be regulated in that way. The current model of self regulation is not seen to be working, with the Press Council of India described as a "toothless tiger that can’t even growl". Whether it is because of the voluntary nature of the regulation, or the reluctance of editors to speak out against one another, the consequences of violating current codes do not serve as a deterrent to the rogue elements in journalism. There is little regard for the social impact of what is aired. An appropriate solution may be the formation of an independent constitutional authority, separate from both the government and the media - akin to the Election Commission or the Comptroller and Auditor General. Participants said India cannot afford to be an exception among democracies, with no regulation of cross-holdings in the media. Many other countries have licensing rules in place that prevent the dominant player in one media from being dominant in other sectors, whereas there is no such requirement in India. Editorial independence is indispensable if the right to freedom of expression is to be effectively exercised. (This report is prepared by Anahita Mathai, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)
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