"Insofar as the role of the Press Council is concerned, its prime objective is to awaken the press to the need for conforming to the highest ethical standards. Even in its quasi-judicial role the Press Council does not don the mantle of a taskmaster. Its aims not to punish but to act as a conscience keeper and advisor to provoke the media to introspect on the ethicality of its reportage…"

- Communal Violence in Gujarat: Role of the Media
Special Report of the Press Council of India
30 June 2003

Media policy is back on the official agenda, with recent statements from both the Prime Minister, Mr. Manmohan Singh, and the Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Mr. S. Jaipal Reddy, on the need for a review of existing policies in the context of current realities. A Group of Ministers (GoM) has already been set up for the purpose.

However, news reports on these developments have been somewhat confusing. There is, for instance, some uncertainty about its mandate: while some reports say its task is "to advise the government on how to create a fair and balanced policy framework for the media sector" as a whole, others suggest it will "take a comprehensive look at the entire policy paradigm of the print media sector" alone. It is also not clear whether the GoM is chaired by the Prime Minister or the Defence Minister, Mr. Pranab Mukherjee (presumably the latter would not be representing "security" interests in this particular role). There has been some confusion over nomenclature as well, with reports on the proposal to set up a Media Council also referring to a Media Commission, the Press Commission and the Press Council, as if they are all interchangeable.

In fact, the Press Council of India (PCI) came into being in 1966 -- through an Act of Parliament passed the previous year -- on the recommendation of the First Press Commission, which submitted its report in 1954. After a break during the Internal Emergency (1975-77) declared by the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, the present PCI was established under a fresh Act in 1978. Subsequently, a Second Press Commission, set up by the new government voted into power soon after the Emergency was lifted, submitted its report on the print media in 1982.

Some clarity on who's who and what's what in this area may be helpful in the run-up to the reported review of media policy which, one hopes, will lead to and learn from an open debate on what is a subject of vital public interest.

Fuzzy terms notwithstanding, the proposed Media Council is in all probability envisaged as a replacement for the present Press Council. The PCI was originally set up to help preserve press freedom while striving to maintain and improve standards and ethics in the print media. Obviously the idea now is that a single entity is required to deal in a coordinated manner with the evolving mass media spectrum, which includes a range of broadcast and "new" (Internet-based) media, besides print. The I&B Minister has reportedly sought inputs on how to provide more teeth to the new body - in an obvious reference to the common perception that the PCI is a toothless tiger.

In a recent interview, Justice K. Jayachandra Reddy, who has chaired the Press Council since August 2001, admitted that he was "not happy with the implementation of PCI recommendations" and would like the Council to be empowered to go beyond its present advisory and adjudicatory role. He suggested that it should be equipped with the power to even recommend cancellation of the registration of persistently erring newspapers, if only as a deterrent. He also welcomed the idea of a more broad-based Media Council.

While a broader mandate and enhanced powers may be necessary conditions for a more effective watchdog body, they may not be sufficient to render it a truly public institution, which is what media regulatory authorities are, surely, meant to be. After all, difficult as it may be to remember in today's context, the news media are, in essence, a public trust, a public good - existing primarily to fulfil a public role and serve the public interest. It is not for nothing that the Supreme Court of India, in a 1995 judgement relating to broadcast rights, made it clear that "the airwaves or frequencies are a public property" and that "their use has to be controlled and regulated by a public authority in the interests of the public and to prevent the invasion of their rights." Clearly the principle underlying this landmark judgement is applicable to all mass media.

The U.K. Press Complaints Commission (PCC) seems to perceive itself as an institution dedicated to the public interest. According to its website, its main role is "to serve members of the public" who have complaints about the press and its primary aim is "to ensure that it is accessible to all." To meet these ends, the PCC operates a help-line to assist members of the public in making complaints, produces material in a range of minority languages (including Bengali and Urdu), maintains a 24-hour advice line to handle emergency complaints, runs a text-phone to aid people with hearing difficulties, and makes information available around the clock through a regularly updated website (http://www.pcc.org.uk).

It may be an impossible dream to think of such a range of services for the PCI and/or its future substitute. But it is surely not too much to expect such an organisation to place respect for the public's right to information at the top of its agenda. At present details about the PCI and its activities are not readily available -- due, perhaps, to sins of omission rather than commission.

The PCI website, for example, is hopelessly outdated: the last available annual report is for 2001-02, the latest publication listed dates back to November 2002, and "forthcoming activities" relate to June-July 2003. It is also far from user-friendly. Moreover, the PCI does not seem to respond to e-mailed queries, even from a journalist (in fact, messages bounce back from one of the e-mail addresses on the website). As a result, it is difficult to even determine who the present members of the Council are: although it is supposed to be reconstituted every three years and a fresh team is supposed to have been in place by May 2004, the reconstitution process is still referred to in the future tense on the site (http://presscouncil.nic.in).

It is surely not too much to expect a Press Council to place respect for the public's right to information at the top of its agenda. At present details about the PCI and its activities are not readily available.
 •  PCI Website
In contrast, the Australian Press Council not only has an up-to-date website (http://www.presscouncil.org.au), but it publishes a quarterly newsletter, also available online. APC News includes relevant articles, opinions and news on issues relating to the print media as well as the Council and, in addition, reproduces all the adjudications issued in the preceding quarter.

Another aspect of the APC that may be worth emulating is its composition, especially the fact that members of the public are as well represented on it as are publishers and journalists. The Council - entirely funded by newspaper and magazine publishers -- seeks to ensure that its membership covers a wide range of qualifications, experience and community interests, besides fulfilling the need for gender, ethnic and regional balance. Its public members are selected for their personal qualities, including involvement in community/public affairs, and represent themselves as citizens rather than the organisations to which they may belong. There is at all times a panel of ten members representing the public, of whom at least seven must attend each meeting. This means that one third of the 21-member Council comprises members of the public.

The UK PCC has a decisive majority of lay members, too, and its system of appointments is designed to ensure that lay appointees are themselves selected by a cross-section of distinguished and autonomous citizens. As a result, although the PCC is funded by newspaper and magazine publishers for the benefit of complainants, it is independent of both the industry and the government.

The PCI, on the other hand, has a very different character. Jointly funded through fees levied on registered newspapers with circulations of over 5000 and grants from the government through the I&B Ministry, it is headed by a chairperson who is, most often, a retired judge of the Supreme Court. Of its 28 other members, "20 represent the press and are nominated by the press organisations/news agencies recognised and notified by the Council as all-India bodies of categories such as editors, working journalists and owners and managers of newspapers, 5 members are nominated from the two houses of Parliament and 3 represent cultural, literary and legal fields as nominees of the Sahitya Academy, University Grants Commission and the Bar Council of India." The new Media Council may benefit from being less top-heavy and providing more representation for regular, public-minded citizens.

Being prompt and productive as well as proactive can only increase the effectiveness of an organization meant to redress public grievances outside the judicial system. The UK PCC attempts to live up to its motto -- Fast, Free, Fair -- by ensuring that its "service to the public is free, quick and easy." It aims to deal with most complaints in just 32 working days. The APC meets every month.

On the other hand, the PCI appears to take an inordinate amount of time over its interventions, possibly on account of excessively bureaucratic procedures. For example, its decision on a 2001 complaint from a Ranchi-based editor (about the repeated inclusion of supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the exclusion of others, in the media contingents accompanying the then Prime Minister on overseas tours) was forwarded to the Ministry of External Affairs only in January 2003. This is despite the fact that the Council's own guidelines on the selection of journalists for such tours - drawn up to ensure fair representation across regions, languages, media houses, etc. -- were clearly violated by the government of the day.

The PCI's special report on media performance during the communal violence that took place in Gujarat in February-March 2002 (dealing with 24 complaints and 800 news clippings) was released only in June 2003, following the inquiry committee's sittings in Ahmedabad at the end of April, over a year after the period under review. Even then it was, reportedly, a draft to be finalised at a later date.

Incidentally, the UK PCC received 3,649 complaints in 2003, compared to the average of 1000 complaints per year reportedly received by the PCI. So workload and backlog are not very credible excuses.

Of course, the fact that sections of the press here do not seem to take the PCI very seriously is a major handicap. Even though it is meant to be a mechanism for self-regulation, the Council's guidelines and recommendations are often ignored and/or downplayed and, all too frequently, media organisations do not even bother to appear before its inquiry committees. For example, not only did the Gujarat Samachar boycott the Ahmedabad sittings, but the paper did not respond to PCI notices on five of the six complaints against it.

According to the UK PCC, self-regulation works when the newspaper and magazine publishing industry is committed to it. Throughout the 11 years of its existence, every critical adjudication against a newspaper or magazine by the Commission has apparently been printed in full and with due prominence. Moreover, editors seek to defend themselves against complaints only in relation to the industry's own Code of Practice, written by editors for editors. The industry's acceptance of and commitment to the Code, which is what gives the PCC real teeth, is underlined by the fact that it is now written into the employment contracts of the vast majority of editors in the country. According to the PCC, its success highlights the benefits of effective and independent self-regulation over any form of legal or statutory control. And this is despite the dominant presence in England of the unsavoury tabloid press, the equivalent of which has, mercifully, not yet taken root in India.

If the government is serious about its reported effort to revamp media policy and, perhaps, reconfigure media accountability systems - of which press or media councils constitute a critical part - there are plenty of working models to learn and draw from. The South African model, for example, is one of the most recent, interesting, complex and multi-layered systems of media self-regulation, which includes a press ombudsman.

According to a website set up as a resource for Independent Press Councils (IPC), in November 2004 the total number of non-governmental self-regulating media institutions in the world was between 54 (active, genuine press councils) -- 65 including African "media observatories" -- and 80 (counting similar accountability systems and PCs which may not yet or no longer be operational). Of these, the highest number (26) is in Europe alone.

The PCI appears to take an inordinate amount of time over its interventions. For example, its decision on a 2001 complaint from a Ranchi-based editor (about the repeated inclusion of BJP supporters in the PM's overseas tours) was forwarded to the Ministry of External Affairs only in January 2003.
Although North America has only nine such bodies, the fact that they are all regional (e.g., Alberta, in Canada, has its own Press Council) may make them particularly relevant in the Indian context. It is difficult to imagine how a single Media Council would be able to effectively cover the entire media landscape here, which includes nearly 47,000 registered newspapers and periodicals, not to mention the growing number of television and radio channels, as well as web-based media - all in multiple languages. Decentralisation may well be the way forward to a more prompt, proactive and participatory system of self-regulation.

The IPC website (http://www.presscouncils.org) claims to bring together the largest collection of press codes of conduct in the world. The IPC is dedicated to M*A*S* (Media Accountability Systems), which refers to any non-governmental system of inducing the media and journalists to respect the ethical rules set by the profession. The basic principle is that, in order to serve the public well, the news media must be free of both political and economic pressures. The logic is that to obtain, keep and increase their freedom, the media have to be trusted and protected by the general public; and, to gain that support, the media need to "inform readers/listeners/viewers properly" and, in addition, "listen and render accounts to them."

According to the IPC, a press council is not only the best-known M*A*S but it has the potential to become the best possible M*A*S. One can only hope that the proposed new Indian Media Council will live up to the best traditions of the press council concept, which is fundamentally based on cooperation between the media and the public to protect key human rights such as the freedom of expression and the right to information.