Media accountability

Published : Sep 10, 2010 00:00 IST

There is a need to think of new, creative ways to make sure that our media are accountable to the general public, including those without any political voice.

THE Italian-born English poet Humbert Wolfe described the press of his day in the following terms:

You cannot hope to bribe or twist, Thank God! the British journalist. But, seeing what the man will do Unbribed, there's no occasion to.

Things have only got worse in this matter in the 80-odd years since these words were written, and they have probably got worse in many more places. And so the age-old dilemma between freedom of expression including the essential requirement in democracy to have free and vibrant mass media and any form of accountability to society and the public at large, has become more complex and more urgent at once.

In India, for example, there is general agreement now that the mass media have become monsters of sorts, self-righteous and bereft of self-criticism, sensationalist and scandal-obsessed, often irresponsible and generally insensitive. The brilliant new satirical film Peepli [Live] highlights this with biting humour, through scenes that would appear to be completely over the top if they were not so alarmingly derivative of our recent experience.

It is not as if these general tendencies have not been commented upon. There was widespread public condemnation of the crassly insensitive and even downright dangerous handling of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008. There are thoughtful mediapersons who bemoan the tendency to sensationalism and obsession with trivia and Television Rating Points (TRP) at the expense of honest reportage of the events and issues that matter to most of the people. More recently, there have been careful investigations into and shocking exposes of the growing phenomenon of paid news, which increasingly mocks at any pretence of objective and honest reporting.

Yet nothing seems to make any difference. Despite all the criticism and complaints, often aired within the same media, there has been hardly any change in the general manner of functioning, especially of the more popular media. The explicit desire to sensationalise and the implicit but equally strong desire to present the news in ways that suit their corporate bosses have come to define the way that most mass media in the country operate today.

The valiant efforts by some journalists to reveal the extent of the paid news scandal in both local language and English language media did lead to an investigation by the Press Council of India. But this supposedly august institution set up to monitor and protect the integrity of the media ended up by playing safe, avoiding any naming that could also have led to shaming and more restraint, and coming up with anodyne suggestions for restraint and self-regulation, which have clearly not worked so far. Meanwhile, the same television channels and newspapers that have shouted themselves hoarse over the evident corruption in the preparations for the Commonwealth Games were completely quiet on this major scandal of corruption in their own ranks, to the point of almost blacking out such coverage.

Even the promises made by editors in the wake of the outcry over the media's role during the terrorist attacks in Mumbai of greater control over reporters and more focus on their sensitivity, have not been kept. Courts have had to be moved to ensure the privacy of families in cases of unsolved murders as the media persist in endless speculation, unmindful of the grief and pain of those involved.

Perhaps, they have simply forgotten what sensitivity is? The same week that Peepli [Live] was first shown in cinemas in New Delhi, a news channel had a report on the ongoing floods in Pakistan. A young reporter thrust a mike into the face of a man whose house had been completely demolished in the floods, with his family members and all his possessions buried in the rubble. Now that you have lost everything, how do you find courage ( himmat)? she asked him briskly. He broke into tears as he asked where such courage could be found when he had been rendered all alone.

Without even waiting a minute, the reporter turned away from him to face the camera, and pronounced dramatically that the floods and lack of government response had been so devastating that they had even taken away the possibility of himmat from the local people.

So the question that more and more people are asking is: how do we ensure accountability of the mass media, some way of making them work for the public good? Almost all the other major institutions of our democracy are coming under some form of scrutiny and public accountability politicians of course, but also the bureaucracy and now even the judiciary. Only the media themselves, who appear to be the arbiters of the fate of all the others, seem to be exempt from any kind of answerability, except to their owners and advertisers.

The problem is compounded with the new media growing apace and often without even the loose self-regulation that characterises other more established media. In the case of online media, their power has increased greatly without them having to answer to anyone, because at present it is not even clear who they would have to answer to.

The issue is a thorny one and not easily resolved, also because as Denis McQuail has pointed out, ideas of accountability are not easily applied to a typical mass media situation, because power is so imbalanced. Media publishers have the means and the power to publish at will, protected by legal rights and with no formal obligations beyond those to their shareholders, within the limits of the law. .. [T]here is no generally shared framework of normative principles that is strong enough to justify claims against the media that go beyond some very basic legal rights. Claims also vary widely in their reference, some concerning individual matters where law may provide support, others referring to broad public issues that are not covered by law or regulation. In the latter case, most accountability claims can be rejected or ignored. (Denis McQuail's Media Accountability and Freedom of Publication; Oxford University Press, 2003)

The solution cannot really be state regulation, because of the inevitable conflicts of interest and propensity of governments to try and control unfavourable media presentations. And, of course, there can never be complete certainty or unanimity on what the public interest actually is.

Yet, because the problem is getting so much worse and because self-regulation does not seem to have made much impact, we urgently need to think of new and creative ways to make sure that our media are actually accountable to the general public, including those without any political voice to speak of. The old dilemma, of who will guard the so-called guardians (of democracy) themselves, has never been so pressing.

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