Should the State Regulate the Media?

Should the state control or regulate the media? Or would it be better to leave it to self-regulation by the industry? Such issues have been debated earlier, but the present Chairman of the Press Council of India has opened it once again. Public opinion on the subject is sharply divided.
One shade of opinion is opposed to any interference by the government in the affairs of the media. It relies on the doctrine of freedom of speech and expression. It is touchy about even a mention of the word regulate and fiercely fights any such attempt. In the most ideal situation, it is perhaps the right thing. However, the contrary school of thought is equally convincing. Paid news is a reality, but despicable. It is not here alone, but everywhere in the world the case is the same. Ever since the media turned into an “industry, its independence, objectivity and neutrality has got compromised. If the American forces in Afghanistan or elsewhere can have embedded media persons, so can others too. Who should then be trusted? The invader, as Noam Chomsky calls the Americans or the dictators like Gaddafi? Do the people deserve to know the truth about the economic meltdown of 2008 or simply swallow whatever is being touted in the name of economic development? These are some of questions that have prompted informed opinion leaders to state that the media is anything but fair in running their affairs. It is in this context that the demand for regulation surfaces from time to time.
It is nobody’s case that there should be absolutely no regulation of the media. It is natural and lawful for governments to regulate almost every activity in some measure. To the extent the television channels need government permission to operate, they come under the regulatory state mechanism under the terms of the licence granted. It is only in the day to day affairs of the channels that no interference is tolerated, and rightly so. If the terms of the licence are violated, the law takes its own course.
One of the major issues relates to the content. A lot of people complain about the content of the programmes being “inappropriate or vulgar” or “unsuitable for family viewing”. From language to themes and pictures, there are many complaints agitating the viewers.The channels claim that they keep in mind public sensibilities and then only air their programmes. The channels resent any moral policing by others, especially government monitoring agencies. Agreed that the area is very vast and that there can’t be specific rules for every programme, but deliberate attempts at hurting public sentiments deserve to be discouraged. Even this is debatable. What should the government do in such a case?
The vastness of the subject leaves very limited scope for government interference. But it has a different kind of power, greatly superior to “regulatory’ authority. Governments own the biggest radio and television infrastructures in the world. Instead of prescribing to others what is expected of them in media, the government can set example by presenting the kind of programmes it considers the best. If the government presents the news in the most objective manner, others are bound to follow for getting adequate viewership. It can set the highest standards of public morality, as defined by it, with affection or ill-will towards none, in the most objective and neutral manner. If the government sets the goals high, who can survive on low standards? Will there be left any scope for regulatory mechanism in such a scenario? The answer is a big no.
Why then the governments don’t do it? It is so because, the governments have the propensity to use all institutions meant for public service for their party or personal benefit. The media happens to be the most attractive object igniting the illegitimate desire to own or control it. No bureaucracy, no ministerial team, anywhere in the world is competent to regulate, supervise or even oversee the content and programmes of the media. There are millions of pieces of programmes, millions of thoughts and ideas, millions of new coinages and usages that it is simply impossible for the government to screen and clear them. It is always better to leave such things for self regulation. Like the voters having the power to put sense into the heads of the wayward elected representatives, the viewers have the power to make success or failure of any media house waywardness. The Murdoch affair illustrates the point most poignantly.
In India, the government should not walk into the den of the dangerous. The lure of taming the media for political purposes is like committing a sin in violation of one of the Ten Commandments. If the media cells of the political parties fail to achieve for them what they desire by way of publicity, they shouldn’t expect the media to do it for them. Their credibility is so low because of their stooges acting as media persons that even when they are right, the public disbelieves them. The media has also lost some of its credibility if signs are read in the demand for regulating the media emanating from no less a person than Justice Kathju, Chairman of the Press Council of India. There might be some hidden agenda of the government behind these developments, but the support for such a demand from the public should alert the media. They have been seen to be asking for undeserved favours and privileges, and the ministers only too eager to grant them even more than they desired. The mutual benefit caucus has hurt public trust in the fairness of the media generally.
The Prasar Bharati, which controls the All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan (Television) has the largest reach in India than any other channel. It has the best artists on its rolls. It has the added advantage of easy access to all institutions of the government of India. It has the most valuable archives. Still the Government of India is nursing the secret desire to control and regulate the private channels. It suffers from lack of proper vision. It is wasting its own prowess. If it acts like any other media house, it can set very high standards of programmes and content and language. The vulgarity, perversity and inappropriateness that is agitating the public mind can be sobered by better programmes from its own stable. But here lies the real problem.The AIR & Doordarshan have never been allowed the necessary freedom to act independently- they have been used as only subordinate offices of the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting.
Better free the AIR & Doordarshan and upgrade their standards. There may be no need for regulating others. Fear not the exposure of the wrong doings of the ministers and officials. That will only obviate the need for a Jan Lokpal. This global village is destined to run without any government, hence the question of any regulation simply doesn’t arise.

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