Press Council is a mechanism for the Press to self-regulate itself. The rationale this unique institution is that in a democratic society the press needs to be free and responsible.
For the Press to function independently and effectively as the fourth pillar of democracy, it must have the freedom of expression, unfettered and unhindered by any authority. But, such freedom must be exercised with a due sense of responsibility and high standards of professional conduct.
But, if the norms are breached and the freedom is dishonored, there ought to be a way to check and control it. Again, control by Government or official authorities may prove destructive of this freedom. Therefore, the best way is to self regulation or better co-regulation by those experienced in the profession, assisted by a few discerning laymen to regulate it through a properly structured representative impartial machinery. Hence, the need of a body likes Press Council.
The need for such a mechanism has been felt for a long time both by the authorities as well as the Press itself all over the world and it resulted in the setting up of the first Press Council known as the Court of Honour in Sweden in 1916. The idea gained quick acceptance in other Scandinavian countries, and later in other parts of Europe, Canada, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Today, the Press Councils or similar other media bodies are in place in around 50 countries.
The basic concept of self-regulation in which the Press Councils and similar media bodies world over are founded, was articulated by Mahatma Gandhi, who was an eminent journalist in his own right, thus: “The sole aim of journalist should be service. The newspaper press is a great power, but just as unchained torrent of water submerges the whole country side and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy. If the control is from without, it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within."
The First Press Commission (1954) came across instances of yellow journalism of one type or another, scurrilous writing-often directed against communities or groups, sensationalism, bias in presentation of news and lack of responsibility in comment, indecency and vulgarity and personal attacks on individuals. The Commission conclude that the best way of maintaining professional standards of journalism would be to bring into existence a body of people principally connected with the industry whose responsibility would be to arbitrate on doubtful points and to censure any one guilty of violation of the code of journalistic ethics. The Commission recommended the setting up of a 25 member Press Council on a statutory basis on the ground that the Council should have legal authority to make inquiries.
The Press Council of India was thus constituted on 4th July, 1966 as an autonomous, statutory, quasi-judicial body, with Shri Justice J R Mudholkar, then a Judge of the Supreme Court, as Chairman.
The world of media witnessed huge change over last 44 years when the first Press Commission was constituted. There have debates about whether the Press Council of India (PCI) should be expanded by bringing within its purview the electronic and other media; whether the Press needs two watchdogs - one for the print media and one for the other media or if there should be an all-inclusive media council.
As the debates have matured, people have raised questions about whether the PCI has enough autonomy and if the autonomy of the Press Council be eroded after division. Some have also suggested penal powers for the PCI as the Press has gradually shown insensitiveness to the PCI guidelines. These are some of the questions that are now being debated in media circles.
Well, but as the debate about the PCI is adding new dimensions, the concerns raised by former PCI chair Justice P. B. Sawant in his report on the future of print media, the mother of all journalism deserves mention.
The most serious concern is over the trend of ignoring or suppressing news relating to people's real concerns. Many newspapers have no place for the real issues before the nation and the problems faced by the people.
Next are the "crass commercialization" of the media, the indecent portrayal of women, the glorification of criminals, the devaluation of the office of the Editor, and writings that cause hostility among different social groups.
The report suggests doesn’t talk about problems. It does suggest some dynamic solution:
-Setting up of a Third Press Commission (the Second Press Commission submitted its report in 1982);
-Forming cooperatives of small newspapers;
-Providing insurance cover for journalists in the context of increasing instances of attacks on the media;
-Encouraging neighborhood or community newspapers; and
-Creation of companies run by journalists, and providing newsprint to small newspapers at comparatively cheap prices.
As the market forces are transforming the character of the newspaper industry and the practice of employing journalists on contract proliferate, will the Press regulate from inside. There may be one more Press Council or a Press Council with penal powers but without that conscience market will always find a way out and at a time when vested interests, Indian and foreign, are trying to make a foray into the Indian media scene, the need for such a body seems pressing.
Code of Media Ethics:
Recent studies in the USA have suggested that an increasing number of people believe that newspapers are not to be trusted because they carry half- told or misleading stories resulting from lax standards of reportorial research and back grounding of news stories. And that is true in a country where Press Freedom under the First Amendment is much more pronounced than in India. Many of us who consider the US Press as a standard should remember that the charge could be equally leveled against much of Indian reporting as well. So, what it is it that we need to follow? Some of the codes which are universal for media personnel hold true in India as well. Let us take a look:
Seek Truth and Report It:
Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information. Journalists should:
Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.
Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability.
Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity and clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information and yes keep promises.
Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.
Never distort the content of news photos or video. Image enhancement for technical clarity is always permissible. Label montages and photo illustrations.
Avoid misleading re-enactments or staged news events. If re-enactment is necessary to tell a story, label it.
Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.
Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so.
Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.
Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.
Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.
Give voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid.
Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.
Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.
Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public's business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection.
Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect. Journalists should:
Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.
Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.
Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.
Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know. Journalists should:
Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.
Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.
Clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct.
Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media.
Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.
Expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.
Abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.
Apart from all the codes discussed above there are some specific concerns of Indian Journalism that should be kept in mind:
Communalism is one of the greatest threats to the fabric of our free society and to the nation's solidarity. The press has a vital role to play in promoting democracy, secularism, national unity and integrity and the rule of law. It is the duty of the press to help promote unity and cohesion in the hearts and minds of the people, and refrain from publishing material tending to excite communal passions or inflame communal hatred. To this end the press should adhere to the following guidelines in reporting on communal incidents in the country:
a) All editorial comments and other expressions of opinion, whether through articles, letters to the Editor, or in any other form should be restrained and free from scurrilous attacks against leaders or communities, and there should be no incitement to violence.
b) Generalized allegations casting doubts and aspersions on the Patriotism and loyalty of any community should be eschewed.
c) Likewise, generalized charges and allegations against any community of unfair discrimination, amounting to inciting communal hatred and distrust, must also be eschewed.
d) Whereas truth should not be suppressed, a deliberate slanting of news of communal incidents should be avoided.
e) News of incidents involving loss of life, lawlessness, arson, etc. should be described, reported, and headlined with restraint in strictly objective terms and should not be heavily displayed.
f) Items of news calculated to make for peace and harmony and help in the restoration and maintenance of law and order should be given prominence and precedence over other news.
g) The greatest caution should be exercised in the selection and publication of pictures, cartoons, poems, etc. so as to avoid arousing communal passions or hatred.
h) Names of communities should not be mentioned nor the terms "majority" and "minority" communities be ordinarily used in the course of reports.
i) The source from which casualty figures are obtained should always be indicated.
j) No facts or figures should be published without fullest possible verification. However, if the publication of the facts or figures is likely to have the effect of arousing communal passions, those facts and figures may not be given.
So, where are we?
There has been criticism of the media paying attention to frivolous stories, such as fashion shows in place of farmer’s suicides; that there is a disconnect between mass media and mass reality; that the poor are structurally shut out from the media; that corporate agendas dictate the media, and the institution has become more elitist than the other estates of democracy—the legislature, the executive and the judiciary apart from many others.
Agreed! To be sure, the Indian media is not infallible. The tragedy of farmers’ deaths cannot be denied. There is elitism also and we do need to be more ethical.
But what about the victims of the Bhopal gas disaster, or the oustees of the dams on the Narmada River? Or the Sikh survivors of post-Indira Gandhi assassination massacres in 1984? Or the victims of the Gujarat pogrom? Who, if not the Indian media, kept those stories alive?
It is one thing to be moved, quite another to be moved by the idea of being moved. And a journalist is supposed to be good at observing facts, reporting them accurately and objectively, and telling stories. Ethical concerns, in that case, will themselves be taken care of.