Now that the Supreme Court has echoed the sentiments of many sensible people and talked about its concern with the hatred that is spread every night on some TV channels, we are left with the big question: can anything be done about it? The Supreme Court was careful not to give any quick answers. It talked about appointing a committee of eminent people to go into the issue and to come up with some solutions. This was wise. The line between restricting hate speech and censoring the media is a thin one and we must be careful not to cross it.
But fair regulation is possible. And it has been done within the Indian TV industry before.
Ask me: I saw it done at the Broadcast Content Complaints Council (BCCC) in the five years that I was a member. The BCCC was founded in June 2011 as a way of ending the stranglehold of the I&B Ministry over television content. Before the BCCC was formed, a babu (or more rarely, the minister) could decide to take a channel off the air if the content displeased him. There was a legal basis to this: various restrictive laws governing cable TV and the like give the government enormous power.
From 2009 onwards, the TV industry had been trying to persuade the ministry that this amounted to arbitrary censorship. Finally, in 2011, the TV industry and the ministry agreed to set up the BCCC which was composed of government representatives, people from the TV industry and four eminent persons from Civil Society. When the Council was founded, Bhaskar Ghose, Shabana Azmi, Professor Anand Kumar from JNU and I were the civil society representatives.
We invited complaints from the public (the BCCC still runs a little scroll at the bottom of TV screens from time to time) about the content of entertainment channels. If the BCCC secretariat found the complaint to have any merit, we would call the complainant and the channel or sometimes, just the channel to our meeting. Having heard the channel’s defence, the whole Council, presided over by a former High Court judge, would decide if the complaint was valid.
We were lucky to have had two outstanding judges as Chairmen in a row: Justice A P Shah and Justice Mukul Mudgal. They were liberal but fair and inherently opposed to needless censorship.
At first I thought that the civil society members would have to act as a buffer between the industry members and the government representatives who would squabble all the time. But by the second meeting, I was surprised to see that we were all on the same side. Decisions were taken by consensus and often industry members were more strident than government appointees when it came to correcting lapses in content creation.
The experience brought home a basic reality to me; one that we often forget. If you put a bunch of intelligent men and women together in a room and present them with the facts, the chances are that they will soon lose their biases, begin thinking objectively and usually come to the right conclusions.
The Ministry had been obsessed with sex and nudity. We got around that quite easily by setting a watershed time in the evening, after which channels could show adult content. As we pointed out to the ministry, the internet was already here and the streaming services were soon expected to arrive. Could we really impose strict standards on broadcast TV, a genre which would soon be outflanked by the new technology?
Instead we focused on the things that really mattered: incitement to hatred, stereotypical caricatures of women or of communities, caste bias, the sexualisation of young children on talent shows, the invasion of individual privacy (shows that used hidden cameras etc.) respect for women (a surprisingly large number of serials lingered for whole episodes on scenes where women were beaten, humiliated or sexually assaulted), etc.
The system worked so well for the five years that I was on the council that by the end, we were getting more complaints from the ministry’s monitors than from anyone else. By and large, genuine viewer concerns had been allayed. To the credit of the government (and I was on the BCCC under both the Congress and the BJP governments), the Council’s views were respected and upheld.
At around the same time that the BCCC was founded, a similar body was also created for news television. I was never a part of this body and we did not worry too much about it because the news universe was very small compared to what we covered (everything else on TV from entertainment to music to sport to lifestyle). I gathered then, purely anecdotally, that the news body was not as active as the BCCC and certainly I don’t think I ever heard of a single major decision involving the news regulator.
I guess that it is a tribute to how well the BCCC functioned (the council continues to thrive though I am no longer a part of it) that there are now hardly any controversies about the content of entertainment channels all over India.
Sadly this is not true of the news sector where, as we have seen, even the Supreme Court has expressed concern about the quality of the content. The obvious conclusion is that self-regulation on the BCCC pattern has failed.
This leads us into an area where no journalist can be comfortable: external regulation. In essence, it is a step back because the whole point of appointing BCCC type bodies was to arms-length the process away from governments and their political interests.
My fear is that even external regulation will either fail or will even be designed to fail. Any regulator can only be set up by the government. And the truth is that the government of the day does not seem as concerned about the content of news channels as the Court is.
In fact, many of the channels that draw the most flack for their content are actually pro-government. And all governments know that TV is a weapon of mass distraction: it creates bogus controversies to divert attention whenever there is a serious national crisis. (You might want to turn on your TV set tonight to see what I am talking about.)
So who will do the regulation?
The only way it will ever work is if regulation is arms-lengthed from the government. If the regulators are drawn from outside of politics and if the regulatory body is given teeth to force the channels to listen, then it could make a difference.
But can the Supreme Court set up such a body? Doesn’t it fall to the government to institute a regulator? And does anybody believe that this government will regulate its greatest supporters?
So, as much as I admire the spirit of the Supreme Court’s remarks, it is worth keeping in mind that a solution will not be easy to find.
That is the problem the Court will face when it sits to find a way out of the present situation. Hate sells and when it benefits the powerful it is almost impossible to fight.
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