Monday, 17 February 2014

PCI needs to strengthen its roots before branching out

Photo Credit: The Hindu
In the midst of talks about bringing electronic media under the regulatory framework of Press Council of India, there is an urgent need to simultaneously consider empowering the statutory body to be able to formulate and enforce a common code of practice for journalists.
The PCI was set up in 1966 with the objective of preserving the freedom of press and improving and maintaining the standards of press in India. The PCI currently functions under the Press Council (Amendment) Act of 1970 that majorly changed provisions with regard to the selection and appointment of members in the Council. It has five members from the Parliament- three from Lok Sabha and two from Rajya Sabha-apart from the Chairman and 23 other members. Since journalistic standards cannot be maintained without regulating journalistic practices in electronic and social media, it is imperative that the PCI should exercise regulatory authority over all mediums involved in news reporting and publishing.
However, without sufficient authority to penalise and take disciplinary actions against deviant journalistic practices in print media, it is not equipped to tackle press excesses effectively in other media as well. Merely admonishing malpractice and imposing fines has proven to be insufficient to maintain journalistic standards within the fraternity. The members of the Council should thus be empowered enough to take disciplinary actions jointly against journalistic malpractices.
The argument of a self-regulating press fails in the wake of rampant malpractices including paid news, selective or fake reporting, extortion, blackmailing, etc. Secondly regulation does not imply control without accountability.
Rather, in order to avoid abuse and misuse of power vested in an independent regulatory body, clear metrics or quantitative parameters can be used to determine the degree of deviance by media firms. This includes particulars about funding received by the media organisation from clients buying media space or time slot for advertisements as well as ownership patterns in media. Also, maintaining records of news coverage might also help in identifying interest groups involved in malpractices like paid news.
For any disciplinary action taken against any firm thus, definite parameters for taking such an action need to be specified in written and made public whatsoever to ensure transparency and accountability of the statutory body.
Influence of Cross Media Ownership
Freedom of expression comes with the space for multiple opinions and views. With cross media ownership, where a conglomerate owns multiple channels of communication like newspapers, electronic media and digital media, this freedom rather shrinks since there is concentration of the circulation capacity of a conglomerate to disseminate one opinion. Moreover, contrary to popular belief of multiple views available from multiple sources, content is majorly determined and shaped by news trends generally initiated by one source but eventually gaining visibility in other sources as well with marginal differences. While this might be constructive and useful in some cases, there are chances of replicating a publicity gimmick that is used as a marketing strategy by most advertising agencies. Therefore, one needs to examine as to what inspires or rather what interests lead to publishing and circulation of a news report.
Need for alternate modes of Revenue generation
Smaller newspapers and dailies struggle to survive in the market as the industry mostly recovers costs and derives profit from advertisements. This implies that smaller newspapers and dailies with poor revenues and lower ad rates have to function with limited resources too, which in turn has an effect on the quality of news reports.
Therefore, while prescribing a common standard for the industry, there is a need to delve into fixing a common ad rate subject to market fluctuations. Moreover, other traceable and justifiable mediums of revenue generation can also be explored.  While India can boast of a flourishing newspaper industry at a time when markets are declining in the United States and United Kingdom, one need not neglect another trend, that is, the growth of media and entertainment marked by an increase in advertising spend. In many ways, the growth of the former can be said to have played a role in contributing to the latter phenomenon.
Clash of interests
In terms of identification of interests in the media industry as such, there seems to be contradictory forces operating simultaneously. In other words, a service oriented philanthropic ideal and its practice co-exists with commercial interests. Wherever the scale shifts media, by virtue of the space it occupies in the process of dialogue and communication, cannot naively eschew responsibility of the content produced and circulated.
Lastly, media has to be honest in acknowledging that to be misinformed is worse than being uninformed. Consequently, misinformation needs to be made liable to prosecution through regulation from an independent regulatory body on the basis of clearly formulated and defined metrics.
Thus, in order to have any real impact on industry practices and standards, political thrust- both within the PCI and on the Parliament floors- is required to prioritise and empower the PCI first and then include electronic media within its ambit.
Pallavi Ghosh

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