It is sad that the fourth estate, which ought to be a thriving institution in its own right — showing a mirror to society and advocating rights and issues that politics ignores — now needs regulation or correction by other institutions. Weaponised as a tool of governance and propaganda for long, it took the Supreme Court to stop it from destroying the social fabric instead of mending it. The top court restrained a channel from telecasting a controversial programme that sought to “expose” a “conspiracy and jihad to infiltrate Muslims” into the Indian civil services. The court was right to see through the agenda to vilify a certain community on the pretext of an investigation and perpetuate a narrative suited to the political climate of the day. It had to halt broadcast that would have aggravated an already prejudiced sentiment in the country and, as it said, challenged the constitutionally mandated plurality of India. But then how many broadcasts will it stop given the partisan nature of the hundreds of news channels in India today, some of them owned and funded by political parties themselves? How will it manage the whataboutery and a slew of counter-petitions of why a certain programme doesn’t deserve to be aired while others do? What is divisive and what is not? The court also deliberated on national debates on television channels, which the bench felt required regulation. To bolster its argument, it cited parallel investigations being carried out in criminal investigations, quite clearly implying how motivated interests were manufacturing a national mindset that would go by a heave of emotion rather than facts. Given these observations, the court would then have to become a media watchdog, too, stretching its resources no end. As it is, the Government, a day after the verdict on the channel perceived as friendly to it, filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court, arguing that if the latter desired to undertake the exercise to regulate the media, then it should first do so for digital media, and not electronic media, because social platforms have a faster and wider reach. That is indeed another problem, as given their dependence on open traffic, digital platforms have often been the purveyors of hate speeches and campaigns that have fuelled unrest on the ground. There are more than 50 documented cases of mob violence triggered by misinformation spread over social media in India over the last two years. Many platforms, including Facebook and YouTube, have only to upload an uncensored clip that swiftly becomes credible headlines when picked up by TV media. Facebook and Twitter are too big and have become influencers in their own right, embedding themselves in policies of the regime that is crucial to their business plans in respective countries. Facebook, with over 2.3 billion monthly users across its family of networks, has become too much of a behemoth to be democratic. But its subsidiary messaging board, WhatsApp, is by far the most popular of the platforms. With India accounting for 400 million of its global base of 1.5 billion users, it ends up being the focus of discussions on the spread of misinformation. It has become as much an information propagator as it has a disseminator.
The court mentioned setting up a committee of five citizens who can come up with standards for electronic media but what about existing frameworks, which are toothless at the moment? There is no statutory regulatory mechanism but self-regulatory bodies like the News Broadcasters’ Association (NBA), Broadcast Editors’ Association and News Broadcasters’ Federation have failed to rise to the occasion and ensure a modicum of professionalism. Besides, this multiplicity of authorities generates its own politics and lobbies. The NBA does take up broadcast complaints seriously and has a code of ethics but because it is in the nature of just guidelines and not mandatory, there is no bold, punitive action. Usually, errants are let off with an apology or a minor rap on the knuckles. Besides, members of the NBA are from channels themselves and their hands are somewhat tied up by the prevalent business model of journalism, the kind that links coverage and pitches to revenue and funding. Till we have a singular code that’s trustworthy, neutral or effective or till we have a legally empowered regulatory body, there will always be conflict of interest. Of course, the best regulation would be if broadcast media stuck to sensible rather than sensational journalism. Our Constitution has guaranteed the right to freedom but it implies we follow our duties, too. In a democracy, the media is as much accountable to citizens as are other institutions. It cannot be a self-serving clique but has to call out its own and self-cleanse in the interest of holding up its institutional integrity. Or it could content itself with scripting doggerel.