The Media and Democracy

Posted in media, public policy, social theory, society by Gautam on December 9, 2008

I promised a post on the ‘Economics of the Pay Commission’; in the interest of the worlds current diversion, it’ll take time.

James Spader won the Emmy Award for the television soap ‘Boston Legal’ twice; probably will a 3rd time.


The recent event in Mumbai thrusted responsibility of the fiasco on all possible players; personal discussions itself have brought in the press and politicians alike, apart from the defence forces and the security agencies; not to mention intelligence agencies; then there’s the judicial system’s inability to help in the necessary convictions… moves on to the police and able bodies citizens playing vigilante; finally our inability to prove democracy useful in putting the right people in power.


Spader in one of the episodes says something very interesting and I must quote him because this has been pertinent in several instances; “…I am a great fan of the press. The kind of news they give us in times like 9/11, Katrina… is nothing but spectacular. But at all other times the media is just a business; and like every other business it aims to make profits,.. and aims then to increase the margins of those profits by giving the people what they want to hear.” –

Now, before I go on to explain the necessity of this post, I have to bring in the move by the government to regulate the press in the form of the Broadcast Services Regulation Bill 2007. This Bill is pending in the Parliament and the major things that it introduces are:

  1. Licensing of all ‘Broadcast Service Providers'(BSPs); these BSPs are to include internet and mobile services alike.
  2. Establishing an authority to monitor the content of broadcast media by BSPs- such authority is to be called the Broadcast Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) which is not completely independent; selection of members of the authority is at ther discretion of the top echelons of the political scenario.
  3. Laying down of a ‘content code’.
  4. Rules and regulations of deniability of licences to BSPs
  5. Laying down of limits on the total share in BSPs by a single legal entity to reduce monopoly.

Prima facie this is an attempt, a rather preposterous one, at the infringement of the Right of ‘Free Speech’ of the citizens of the country and placing a substantial amount of the power of the press in the hands of the government. Unlike the United States, the framers of our constitution did not find it necessary to include the Freedom of Press as a separate Right. This ‘freedom’ was instead construed as implicit in the Free Speech guarantee of our Constitution. This guarantee under appropriate sub-clauses of the select provision is subject to restrictions upon it in the interests of the society. As such the scope of such interests is kept wide due to the ‘implied’ nature of the freedom of press. The scope of the restrictions that can be made to fall under such sub-clauses is likewise wide. This move by the Ministry of Information Broadcasting (MIB) has sought to exploit this feature.

There can obviously be no grounds for approval of such a move by the government and the Media agencies have expectedly reacted to this bill with great uproar. The major grounds of such uproar are:

  1. The BRAI is not an independent body and is a blatant move by the government to gain control of the media
  2. Formulation of the ‘content code’ is a form of censorship and is as such violative of the ‘free speech’ guarantee.
  3. Such power to eh government is likewise, open to abuse.
  4. Deterioration in standards of journalism

and so on.

The grounds of disapproval however, on review are not as obvious. A few years back at a debate, I was arguing in favour of a motion “the media is actuated by economics and not ethics”. I started with “So what…” was’nt a fan of James Spader then so I followed it up with my own version of his argument. I had to refute a few very major points though and for the sake of this post bring them up here:

First and foremost is the idea of ‘trial by media’. It is sheer injustice that an accused be subject to criticism-constructive and destructive- before he be tried in court as per the just canons of the law; lest such criticism should mobilise public opinion against or in favour of him. whatever the case, it is not right that he be subject to two trials; lesser so that he be subject to the stress and trauma of it. Public opinion has to in some way or the other affect the proceeding s of trial; before that the proceedings of investigation. That this should jeopardise the dispensing of justice is not fair. that this should result, even in a single case, in the conviction of an innocent is beyond doubt the worst we can do to our society; moreso when we claim it to be ‘democratic’. the word ‘democratic’ raises a few very interesting issues. The media is by far the most effective instrument of a democracy. If this instrument is to be a ‘free instrument’ as it is deemed to be under law, as seen above it is likely to be used to an extent where it will be in conflict with dispensing of justice. Where do we stop?

This is the question that the provision of a ‘content code’ in the Bill tries to answer. While I was making my refutations, someone questioned what interest the media had in “…watching Shahid Kapur liplocked with Kareena?”; even “what business it served to know about Elton Jhon without his pants in a tub with another man?” none of which should be of the business of anyone was the obvious answer. It cannot even be refuted however that it is such news in many cases that raises media TRPs massively; it cannot be refuted that this’s what the people want to know- if not for anything else other than entertainment; even if it is at the cost of humiliation of a few individuals of the society. Now the conflicting interest here is of democracy-what the larger population wants- and the interests of the individuals subject to such infringement of their privacy. Even if we did not bring in the the concept of ‘free market economies’ and ‘ethics’ of the media, simply dealing with the freedom of press and freedom to privacy and comfort would not make this debate any less complex. A provision in the Bill mandates that when such content as may interfere directly with the personal aspects of ones life is to be broadcast, it shall need the expressed consent of such individuals before such broadcast is made.


In the course of the recent operation in Mumbai, the media openly mocked any idea of responsible journalism it had; much lesser an idea of common sense that it might have sought to propagate. Critical details relating to hostage locations were let out through the media to the terrorists which cost the lives of people. Critical details relating to the positions of the commandos were let out in a similar way; details regarding the mind of weapons being used and an idea of bullet proof used by the men was conveniently handed over to the terrorists; this is likely to have given them an idea as to where to hit the soldiers. Admiral Sushil Kumar accused Barkha Dut of this now; during the war in Kargil, she was accused of doing a similar thing. Only here it was across the border and much more lives were at stake; while it might have been portrayed as brilliant/courageous reporting by many, it should have been seen as careless. The UN peacekeeping forces came out with something called as embed reporting which you can read up on as a solution to the exact same problem.

The question therefore, did come down to an ethical code and a content code for the media; such problems did force certain individuals to consider some form of regulation upon this industry.

I ended my vocative in that debate with a quote by President Kennedy which said,

“There is a terrific disadvantage in not having the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily…. Even though we never like it, and even though we wish they didn’t write it, and even though we disapprove, there isn’t any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press.” – this was basically one of my ways out of the debate; people tend to think it easier to believe such people than trust their own reason.

While he is not completely right, the freedom of press has its own advantages that far over weigh parts that we do not approve of . And whatever the case maybe, we absolutely cannot undermine the nature of the forces through which the media operates- the major one being public opinion.

Therefore when we talk of democratising the media, 2 things can be considered; we can either interpret it as a free press– where the society at large gets to do what it wants and where the needs of the larger people govern the kind of coverage by the media. Or we can on the other hand envision a democratically regulated press. Such concerns were raised by the Press Council of India and the International Federation of Journalists (on behalf of the Indian media). The BRAI had to be a completely autonomous body with the press having a majority of representation and the remaining being conscious members of the society. The present Bill however is a clear attempt at government control of the industry which should by no means be acceptable.


I would do justice to this post by mentioning a book by Noam Chomsky called ‘Necessary Illusions’. Now while this book may not be entirely in sync with the wupsa de pasion(g) of this post, it attempts to give a good picture of the role played by the press in the democracies and of how important a source, rather an instrument of political power the media has become is major democracies; one such would be ours.

However, as Handel says in his his opera umbra mai fu, ‘there has never been a shade’ such as the ‘free speech’ guarantee of our Constitution from the confines of an unchecked power upon the State, its functionaries or any other body.

Other factors such as monopoly and licensing that have been addressed in the Bill raise concerns of equally major natures.


2 Responses

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  1. joelpedersen said, on December 11, 2008 at 11:22 pm

    Fascinating read! Thanks!

  2. gautam said, on December 12, 2008 at 1:43 pm

    thanks; I’v put off ‘violet’ ( temporarily though… I’m working on something there before I can get it on track.

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