Justice Markandey Katju's recent statement and the follow up action about fixing educational qualifications for journalists raised much dust....
Justice Katju's views came on the heels of an intense scrutiny of media behaviour on recent events. Ever since he took over as the Press Council of India Chairman, Justice Katju did not hesitate to express his dissatisfaction with the performance of media, whether about paid news or about the unfair coverage given to minority communities in the press. The transgressors in each of the cases were neither 'unqualified' nor 'uneducated'.A It is strange that educational qualifications somehow got picked as the primary malady ailing the media when all evidence points elsewhere.
If we look at some of the biggest names in the national media today, we find that most of them have been to premier national and international universities and have acquired degrees in journalism, sociology, anthropology, international relations and what have you. They belong to the uppermost crust of Indian social pecking order. A few of them have also been severely exposed in Radia tapes, the paid news affair, and several other unsavoury political manoeuvres. This was perhaps a lack of education but certainly not 'qualifications'.
When in 1990s the media business began to take off in the private sector in India, the high profile national channels recruited children and relatives of politicians and bureaucrats as a strategy. With this masterstroke, the channels ensured that they had unbridled access to power and therefore insider access to all the news that matters. But this also pre-defined the profile of the journalist to be from upper-class/upper-caste background and from a certain social set. Many of them are still setting the agenda for style and substance on the national media.
Professor Robin Jeffrey spoke of the absence of Dalits and tribals in the Indian newsrooms. The absence of women in senior positions in the media has also been much debated. All these factors account for lack of diversity in the newsrooms and therefore, in news content, which Justice Katju repeatedly points out.
Some of the news organizations also began to make their editorial staff responsible for getting advertisements, which again proved to be in serious conflict with their news function. When these instances came to light in the Jindal vs. Zee case or other instances, it became clear that the moral vacuum is not a consequence of lack of qualifications but that of compulsions of the market place.
There are news organizations that have drawn the lines of ethical transgression and more or less stay within the limits. Many are repeat offenders. In the case of paid news, some of the news organizations have been named and the PCI report clearly points to the involvement of the highest levels of management in it.
Given this moral vacuum in the profession, is it fair to blame the young foot soldiers for lacking in education? Many young journalists who join the profession go through in-house training before they are put on regular work. There are also university journalism graduates who come equipped with all the theoretical knowledge about the profession.
But when we look at the performance of either, we see that there are some who throw their training to the winds and quickly ally themselves with the rich and the powerful; there are some others who are fired by the desire to serve the larger social good and are willing to face a lot of hardship. There are class/caste and other interests at work and it is not just 'qualifications' that distinguishes a good journalist from a bad one.
Journalists are a part of the larger social milieu. The media houses also represent the current business ethics, and provide a context within which the 'aam journalist' operates. If the institution does not provide environment conducive for ethical functioning, the qualifications of a journalist are immaterial.
The problem of ethics can be addressed largely through statutory regulation that defines what is in public interest and what is not. Starting from the licensing process of media organizations, conditions like 'the fit and proper' filter for ownership need to be in place. Individuals known for breaking laws in other businesses should automatically be disqualified. Similarly, violations like the 'paid news' problem must see swift and decisive disciplinary action that can act as deterrence. Lax regulatory environment is a major incentive for repeating the offences.
Along with Justice Katju, many feel that the media have been going overboard in their reactions to some events like the Delhi gang-rape or the Indo-Pak issues. Over the last decade or so, there has been an explosive growth of online blogging and citizen journalism. There is technology available to exercise one's right to free speech. Many do so, not just because they have the ability and access, but also because they feel that mainstream media have somehow fallen short of public expectations. Mostly, individuals with a world-view fill that vacuum on these sites, not corporate media interests.
Interestingly, many of the blogs have become very popular because they resonate with the reading public. The bloggers may neither have training as journalists nor have degrees from respected universities. They are just concerned citizens with human values, and that seems a good enough starting point for a journalist. It is when the aam aadmi is sidelined to privilege the 'corporate citizen' with all their market muscle, that journalism acquires an ugly face.
Since India still has limited Internet access of about 12 per cent with some 150 million estimated users, conventional media continue to have sway over popular imagination and play a powerful role in the lives of people. It is the responsibility of the state to safeguard public interest by ensuring regulatory oversight of this industry.