A free, fair and fearless media is an essential component of a democratic polity. In elections, it is required to inform and educate the voter on issues involved, the policies and programmes of political parties and candidates and their track records so that they are in a position to make an informed choice. One of the positives about media’s role in 2009 parliamentary elections is its persistent targetting of candidates with a criminal record. The media did generate public opinion against some of the more notorious gangsters who had been winning successive elections with their money, muscle and manipulative skills. The judiciary laid the ground by barring certain notorious criminals from contesting elections. Not to be left behind, they put up members of their families as proxy candidates. It is a matter of great satisfaction that this time round most of the criminals that contested elections in UP and Bihar were defeated.
Another plus is that certain newspapers and media channels used their skills in investigating journalism to expose the frauds of MK Subba Rao – the lottery king responsible for ruining countless families among the poorer sections of the society through his lottery rackets.
Negatives outnumber the positives so far as media’s performance in the polls is concerned. Although media claims that it has its fingers on the people’s pulse, it has almost always failed to correctly read the public mood. In elections after elections, media went awfully wrong in its predictions. Its unanimous view that no party would get a majority in UP in last assembly elections was turned out to be a mere guesswork. In this election, the dominant media theme that both national parties were shrinking was off the mark. It also failed to underline the issues that concern the lives of the people. It indulged in sensationalism and frivolous reporting instead of informing and educating the voter. More often than not, debates on news channels were exercises in mud-slinging. There was a lot of thunder but hardly any light. One thought the public broadcaster was better placed to reflect the true character of the campaign. But that was not to be. DD news failed the nation once again. Campaign news was dominated by the Congress trio—Sonia Gandhi, Dr. Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi—with a smiling and charming Priyanka thrown in off and on. The “balancing act” was performed by briefly mentioning NDA’s prime ministerial candidate and someone from the Third Front. Public broadcaster turned out to be dynasty’s private channel.
Unhealthy competition and the greed to make money during election season led media to flout with impunity norms of media ethics and guidelines issued by the Press Council of India—the statutory body set up for self-regulation. A case in point is Varun Gandhi’s speech in which he is accused of making an utterly unacceptable statement. He was booked by the police for violating the law. Several channels repeatedly telecast his speech hundreds of times totally unmindful of its likely consequences. This served no social purpose and did lead to communal tensions and might have resulted in riots. It was none of media’s concern. Their objective was to attract eyeballs to increase their TRPs and maybe to demonise a party they didn’t like.
Media’s responsibility in such cases has been laid down by the Supreme Court in its landmark judgment in what is known as Congress versus Bhupesh Gupta and Hindustan Times. The case pertains to a report carried by the English-language daily of a statement made by CPI stalwart Bhupesh Gupta in which he made serious and specific charges of corruption against Indira Gandhi.
Media’s most ignoble role in the elections was the widespread emergence of paid news syndrome. An overwhelming majority of newspapers and news channels are guilty of indulging in this malpractice that has distorted the electoral process, misguided the voter and brought shame to the profession. This malpractice was started by certain mass-circulated language papers in Punjab and Gujarat in the early years of the 21st. century. These newspapers sold editorial space for covert advertisements to help parties and candidates in elections. They carried “stories” written by advertising agencies favouring particular parties and candidates and published them as “news”. The scandal made a newspaper a laughing stock when it
carried two “news” items prominently on the front page saying rival candidates would win handsomely from the same constituency. Since neither the Election Commission nor the Press Council of India made any serious effort to nip the evil in the bud, it spread like wildfire. This time round, almost all newspapers and channels indulged in this malpractice barring a few noble exceptions.
One of the most disgusting instances came to light in Gurdaspur constituency of Punjab. A mass-circulated language daily had sold its top columns on the front page to a candidate to carry whatever he/she produced as “news” during the run-up to the poll. On a crucial day close to the polling day, the local edition of the paper carried a
“news” (that was in fact a paid advertisement) on the front page saying the rally by the rival candidate was a big flop and that he was bound to lose heavily. On the third page of the same edition, the paper carried the real news that it was one of the biggest rallies in the constituency in recent history. The candidate that got the paid news published won by a razor thin margin. Is the Election Commission really concerned about free and fair polls? Did the Press Council of India that has expressed deep concern about this malpractice take the issue to its logical conclusion?
Media will have to reinvent itself if it is to regain its credibility and pristine glory. Self-regulation is the best course but the government must act as a facilitator to set up an effective media council to regulate media in its totality—print, electronic and internet. The Council needs to be manned by persons of integrity who can enjoy the confidence of media professionals and the people. Professional bodies like Editors Guild of India and Indian Media Centre must play a more pro-active role to ensure that media follows its code of ethics.