The Media Circus: Where's the Ringmaster?
Action on such matters should not be left to governments
In an ideal world journalists would and should not be answerable to the police while going about their legitimate, professional work.
Yet, three weeks after BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma (since suspended) made provocative remarks about Islam's prophet Muhammad on a primetime television programme, The Newshour, the Times Now show's anchor was named in a First Information Report filed in a police station in Maharashtra, apparently on the basis of a complaint received from a Muslim cleric.
The journalist, who is also Editor-in-Chief of Times Now Bharat and Group Editor, Politics of the Times Network, has been booked – along with Sharma – under Section 295 A of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with "deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs."
In an ideal world, a journalist with three decades of experience and several impressive, concurrent designations would have immediately made it clear to the panelist concerned, to other guests and, most importantly, the audience that such offensive remarks were unacceptable. Instead, all this particular anchor said was a general, "Let's just calm down, let's just calm down," before bizarrely referring to the Constitution and the rule of law while stating her unmistakably biased position on the subject under discussion.
In an ideal world, a news organisation would have stated clearly that it did not approve of such incitive remarks being made during debates on its television channel without any comment or questioning, let alone criticism, from the moderator. Instead, the day after the controversial show aired on 26 May, in a seeming effort to distance itself from it, the channel merely and generally clarified that it does not endorse the personal views of participants, and urged participants "to maintain restraint and not indulge in unparliamentary language against fellow panellists."
But Sharma's notorious comment, which went on to precipitate an international furore and diplomatic crisis, besides provoking public protests in India and several other countries, was not about a fellow panellist. And "unparliamentary" is a euphemistic description for what was arguably the most outrageous comment to date on this long-running show, and one which has since had extremely grave consequences, including death and destruction.
Of course, this was not an isolated controversial incident on The Newshour. Nor was it the first time the channel sought to distance itself from comments made by some of its top journalist's interviewees, with no push back from her. When actor Kangana Ranaut declared during an interaction at the Times Now Summit in November 2021 that what India gained in 1947 was not azadi (freedom) but bheek (alms), and that true independence was gained only in 2014, the interlocutor's reaction was an indulgent, "This is why everyone says you are bhagwa (saffron)," followed by a flip aside that she herself would have to face ten cases as a result.
The journalist is also known to have unabashedly, not to mention unprofessionally, flaunted her political leanings both inside and outside the studio. In September 2021 she had to apologise for her own "unparliamentary" language during a show, after using an expletive that betrayed her personal opinion of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. In January 2022, the campaign bus of Times Now Bharat, about to be used for covering the elections in Uttar Pradesh, was flagged off in the Editor in Chief's presence by none other than the Chief Minister of UP, Ajay Mohan Bisht/ Yogi Adityanath.
In April 2022, on the day seven bulldozers rolled into Jahangirpuri in North West Delhi, more or less inaugurating the horrific practice that has since come to be known as bulldozer politics/ justice/ injustice, she jocularly tweeted: "Dramatic increase in demand for bulldozers. Are we increasing domestic capacity for manufacturing or will we have to depend on imports?? #JustAsking (with laughter emojis)."
In an ideal world none of this would be acceptable conduct from a professional journalist, let alone a senior and highly placed one.
In an ideal world the News Broadcasters & Digital Association (NBDA) – formerly known as the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) – of which the Times Network is a member, and which has established the News Broadcasting and Digital Standards Authority (NBDSA) to "lay down and foster high standards, ethics and practices in news broadcasting," would play a more proactive role in ensuring professional practice, at least among members.
The News Broadcasters Federation, which came into being in 2019 under the leadership of Arnab Goswami, Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief of the Republic Media Network – another controversial anchor – has also set up its own Professional News Broadcasting Standards Organisation (PNBSO), described as "an independent self-regulatory body upholding the principles of journalism and freedom of speech and expression as guaranteed by the Constitution of India."
In an ideal world media self-regulation, which both these organisations avowedly swear by, would help promote professional ethics and standards, and safeguard freedom of expression. However, it is clear that self-regulation is a viable option only if the news industry truly appreciates and accepts the duties and responsibilities of the Fourth Estate in a democracy, understands the critical importance of credibility and trust, and effectively follows through on the stated commitment to self-regulation.
It is striking that, in the wake of the Nupur Sharma flare-up, it is the Editors Guild of India, set up with the twin objectives of protecting press freedom and promoting editorial standards in newspapers and magazines, that issued a strong statement about "the irresponsible conduct of some national news channels" and called upon "broadcaster and journalist bodies" to prevent a recurrence of such irresponsibility and lack of accountability.
Among the news channels obliquely referred to in the statement are, of course, many that do not belong to either the NBDA or the NBF and are therefore beyond the jurisdiction of their respective broadcasting standards bodies. One such channel is Sudarshan News, which still appears to be up to its old tricks, progressing from "UPSC Jihad" in 2020 to "Naukri Jihad" in 2022. This is despite the fact that the High Court of Delhi had in September 2020 found the former show to be prima facie violative of the Programme Code under the Cable TV Regulation Act, and that the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court in November 2020 stating that the show had breached the Programme Code and was found to be offensive, not in good taste, and likely to promote a "communal attitude."
In an ideal world it would not be up to the government to take action on such matters. If the apex court's own landmark "airwaves" judgment of 1995 had not been forgotten and flouted all this time, India could long ago have had "an independent, autonomous public authority representative of all sections and interests in society" that could step in when self-regulation failed.
Over a decade ago, the late Justice J.S. Verma, former Chief Justice of India and the first Chairperson of the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (now NBDSA), observed in a keynote address that "self-regulation in the broadcast media is the best way forward in achieving a balance between the media's duty to empower the participatory role of the people in governance and the reasonable restrictions that prevent the abuse of its immense strength." However, he also said that the media ought to remember that failure to exercise self-restraint and regulate its own conduct would provide a justifiable reason for intervention from outside.
In an ideal world the media, particularly the broadcast sector, would take his words seriously and act accordingly at least now.
Ammu Joseph is a Bangalore-based independent journalist and author
Also read 'Media Regulation is Not Censorship'