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The Press Council: An Expensive Irrelevance

There are proposals to amend the Press Council Act 1978 to give the Press Council of India more powers, including the power to withhold advertisements. These are dangerous proposals. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the PCI does not need more powers. It needs a speedy burial by a statute. But that imposes on the media a burden it must bear if it is to deserve freedom. It must set up a credible, representative body to oversee a code of conduct drawn up by the media itself.


The Press Council: An Expensive Irrelevance

A G Noorani

There are proposals to amend the Press Council Act 1978 to give the Press Council of India more powers, including the power to withhold advertisements. These are dangerous proposals. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the PCI does not need more powers. It needs a speedy burial by a statute. But that imposes on the media a burden it must bear if it is to deserve freedom. It must set up a credible, representative body to oversee a code of conduct drawn up by the media itself.

A G Noorani is a well-known lawyer, scholar and political commentator.

Economic & Political Weekly

january 3, 2009

You praise the firm restraint with which they

write – /I’m with you there, of course:/They

use the snaffle and the bit all right/But where’s

the bloody horse?

–Roy Campbell,

On Some South African Novelists.

n a democracy a body charged with the duties to protect press freedom, to ensure maintenance of standards of journalistic ethics and to rule on violations of both is essentially a “Court of Honour”. It is like a Commission of Inquiry whose recommendations have no legal force by themselves, unlike an order of a court of law. The effectiveness of such a court of honour depends on its independence, integrity, competence, representative character and acceptability by the media.

In Britain a General Council of the Press was established by the industry itself on a voluntary basis in 1953. It had 15 editorial and 10 management nominees. The proprietor of The Times was its first chairman. In 1989, the council, under its new chairman, Louis Blom-Cooper, QC and law correspondent of The Observer, decided to conduct a review of its role and functions. To use an Americanese, it decided to introspect. Our own Press Council of India (PCI) has yet to do that.

Following the recommendations of a committee on privacy and related matters, headed by David Calcutt, QC, on 16 May 1990 a Press Complaints Commission was set up, again, by the press itself. It appointed a committee of editors, headed by Patricia Chapman, editor of the News of the World, to draw up a 16-point Code of Practice for the Commission to enforce.

David Calcutt, when asked later to hold

an inquiry, recommended a statutory tribunal “with teeth” as did a committee of the House of Commons. All such recommendations were rejected. The Press Complaints Commission enjoys greater respect than the Press Council of India has done for as long as one can remember.

India’s Press Council

The PCI was set up by the Press Council Act, 1965. It was swiftly dissolved during the Emergency in 1975 by an ordinance, but revived by the Press Council Act, 1978, its present charter. Its chairman have been retired judges of the Supreme Court; almost all of whom have sought power to punish the delinquent in the media.

The Press Council drew up a 16-point code of conduct on 29 February 1990.

On 18 November 2008 The Indian Express carried this report under the byline of Anubhuti Vishnoi:

The Centre has proposed a slew of controversial

amendments to the Act that governs it which

include punishing newspapers that publish

“objectionable material” by barring them from

getting government advertisements. The

C entre’s proposals come even as it has asked the

council to come up with its own amendments.

The PCI’s Chairman G N Ray told the correspondent “While derecognising newspapers from government advertisements as a punitive measure was one of the proposals initially made by the government, there is no finality on it still. The issue is


still under discussion at the council and no firm view has yet been taken on it.” His predecessor, K Jaychandra Reddy, had suggested deterrent powers that included recommending cancellation of registration of “persistently erring” n ewspapers.

Reddy’s predecessor P B Sawant voiced the same demand on 10 November 1998. He said

The philosophy behind the establishment of the Press Council is that it should be a selfregulating internal mechanism ordinarily of the peers in the profession with the representatives of the public, the readers also having a say in the matter, since freedom of the press is essentially the freedom of the people to be informed adequately and accurately on matters having a bearing on public interest.

Incongruously enough he proceeded to complain.

The Act does not give any power to the Council if the newspaper concerned does not comply with the direction. That renders the whole exercise futile. In fact, the purpose of establishing the Press Council itself is frustrated. Hence, the Press Council has now suggested an amendment to the Act seeking power to the Council to impose a fine up to Rs 10,000 for non-compliance and per day fine up to Rs 100 till the compliance is made.

The PCI as a statutory body is very much amenable to the writ jurisdiction of the high courts and the Supreme Court. There is a significant body of case law on the government’s power to withhold advertisements. But what the persistent lament betrays is a woeful ignorance on the part of successive chairmen of the basic concept of a court of honour. Accustomed to passing encorceable orders and to great deference, they feel frustrated, if not humiliated, at what they perceive is the Council’s impotence. They do not, indeed cannot, realise that therein lies their strength; provided they acquire it by making the PCI relevant and worthy of confidence and expect.

In the very month in which G N Ray spoke the press in Kashmir was gagged. Editors were beaten up. News vendors were thrashed. On 3 November the authorities asked the press not to publish statements and advertisements urging people to boycott elections to the State Assembly. Greater Kashmir of 4 November published the photostat of a letter to all editors by K B Jandial, Secretary to the Information Department of the J&K Government.

It reads thus: As you are aware that there is government advertisement policy under which government advertisements are being issued. This policy clearly prohibits publication of certain objectionable material. Any newspaper violating it is required to be delisted from the list of newspapers approved for government advertisements. It has been observed that newspapers have been publishing materials which grossly v iolate the policy. The government has taken a serious view of this tendency. You are advised to please restrain from publication of such objectionable and seditious material in your newspaper failing which the government shall be constrained to take action under rule (sic). I am confident that given our long association and friendly relationship coupled with your commitment for healthy journalism and peace and tranquility of the State, no such occasion shall arise for us to take action. Looking forward to your valuable cooperation and support.

Why did not the PCI take notice of this insolent directive? What is “objectionable” material; any writing to which the government objects?

There is no warrant for the assumption that a retired judge of the Supreme Court is best qualified to sit on such a body. The Government of India’s “White Paper on Misuse

january 3, 2009 EPW Economic & Political Weekly


of Mass Media during the Internal Emergency” (August 1977) published, at p 40, this revealing extract from a letter by the then Chairman, N Rajagopala Iyengar, former judge of the Supreme Court to V C Shukla easily the most despicable minister for information and broadcasting we have ever had, on 13 August 1975 during the Emergency, confidentially in this conspiratorial vein:

You remember I spoke to you about the desire of some members to have a meeting convened for the purpose of discussing the Emergency and the censorship. I had an informal meeting of the Delhi-based members and I was able to convince them that this is not necessary or desirable. So this will not figure in (sic) the agenda of my meeting that is being called.

R S Sarkaria, also a former judge of the Supreme Court, was appointed a Commission of Inquiry on M Karunanidhi after he was dismissed as chief minister of Tamil Nadu during the Emergency (1976); Chairman of the Commission on Centre-State Relations (1983) and of the Press Council. In 1990 he solemnly told a seminar on the right to information that India was not ready for such a law reminding his listeners that it took the United States two centuries to enact the Freedom of Information Act. It was under his chairmanship that the PCI gave the B G Vergheses Committee a mandate to probe into the rapes in Konan Poshpora in Kashmir. The PCI adopted that infamous report.

Ravi Nair Case

Consider the Ravi Nair case. On 4 November 1993 the Observer of Business and Politics published a news report by its “Political Bureau” in New Delhi under the headline “Fernandes Aide on ISI Payroll?” It proceeded to make the following statements: “several State Government agencies are believed to be closely monitoring the activities of Mr Ravi Nair”. Pakistani intelligence operatives in New Delhi working under diplomatic cover “are reported to have made use” of him for highlighting human rights violations in Kashmir; he is “even believed” (sic) to have been “commissioned” by the Pakistan High Commission to prepare “a detailed document” on the subject, “particularly in the context of the Sopore massacre”. The report had no by-line.

Ravi Nair moved the PCI presided over by P B Sawant. A solitary para sums up the Inquiry Committee’s verdict on Ravi Nair’s

Economic & Political Weekly

january 3, 2009

case which the Council adopted. It reads thus: The Committee considered the records carefully. It noted that the impugned report was based on the information given to the newspaper by the governmental agencies, the names of which the respondent newspaper had disclosed in his written statement. The Committee further noted that the newspaper had offered to publish the retraction if the complainant could get a declaration from the governmental agencies. If further noted the apparent contradiction between the statements made by the complainant in his complaint and the letter written by him to the editor in regard to the correspondent’s effort to verify the facts from the complainant. In the circumstances, the committee felt (sic) that the impugned report was based on the information received by the respondent newspaper from authentic sources and, therefore, there was no substance in the complaint. The Committee decided to

recommend to the Council to dismiss the complaint (emphasis added). Governmental agencies which smear a

human rights activist are “authentic sources”.

The flaws are glaring. The Committee readily accepts a bare assertion, without any evidence being adduced in its support, that the report was based on information received from government sources. “Felt” is short of conviction based on proof. It only indicates a certain proneness to believe. It characterises these sources as “authentic”. It is not concerned to check whether their “information” was accurately reproduced by the paper. The mere mention of the names of the agencies, Intelligence Bureau, Research Analysis Wing and the Ministry of External Affairs suffice to inspire confidence in the Committee and the Council.

The PCI abandoned its own earlier rulings as well in the one case of Ravi Nair as also the “Norms of Journalistic Conduct” it so confidently prescribed to regulate the conduct of the media. Para 2 of this document sub-titled “Prepublication Verification” reads:

On receipt of a report or article of public interest and benefit containing imputations or comments against a citizen, the editor should check with due care and attention its factual accuracy

– apart from other authentic sources with the person or the organisation concerned to elicit his/her or its version, comments or reaction and publish the same with due amendments in the report where necessary. In the event of lack of absence of response, a footnote to that effect should be appended to the report.

Note that a duty is cast on the editor himself to verify independently.

In a case decided the same day as Nair’s case, “The Committee was of the view that the news reports were defamatory per se and had been published without verification of the facts. The newspaper had thus violated the Council’s norms relating to “pre-publication verification of facts”. In another case, also decided that day, a reporter was criticised for publishing “whatever he (his source) had told him. He did not care to verify the truth or otherwise…from other sources”.

The Press Council of India suffers from two inherent defects. First its composition may be distinguished, but it is not representative. The list of members reveals distinction; not representative character. The press does not own it as its own and its chairmen do not behave as if they belonged to it. Faced with dissenters they become super “patriots”.

They are rank outsiders; and ignorant ones at that. The two former chief justices of India, A S Anand and S P Bharucha, and a former judge of the Supreme Court, Rama Pal, betrayed ignorance of literary writing in their comments on Arundhati Roy in a contempt of court case. Several judges of that Court reveal the same infirmity. Hence their ignorance of the very concept of historical fiction.

Disposing of a special leave petition seeking a ban on the airing of the serial, the Supreme Court directed in February 1991 that the following announcement be made along with the telecast of each e pisode: “No claim is made for the accuracy or authenticity of any episode being depicted in the serial. The serial is a fiction and has nothing to do either with the life or rule of Tipu Sultan. The serial is a dramatised presentation of Bhagwan G idwani’s novel” (emphasis added).

The order was devoid of reason or legal sanction. What right or power has a court of law to impose this stipulation on the telecast of a historical novel? Frankly, what is the intellectual equipment of a judge in matters outside the law?

The PCI does not need more powers. It needs a speedy burial by a statute. But that imposes on the media a burden it must bear if it is to deserve freedom. It must set up a credible, representative body to oversee a code of conduct drawn up by the media itself.

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