Siddharth Varadarajan, writing in The Hindu ( March 30) must be the first one in the media to raise an important issue concerning reporting court proceedings that seems to have become a matter of concern to the Supreme Court. It would appear that the Supreme Court has thought it fit to specify that reporters accredited to cover the courts must possess a law degree.
According to Varadarajan, the Supreme Court “has also quantified the amount of reporting experience, at different levels of the judiciary that these correspondents must have”. It is not clear in what context the Supreme Court made that recommendation, but this calls for media attention. In the first place one needs to know how the Courts from that of the Magistrate’s to that of the highest in the land are routinely covered by the media. In how many cases have the Courts had reason to complain of bad, incomplete or wrong reporting? Has the Supreme Court made any study of this and, if it has, can the report be made available to the media for undertaking corrections? If the Supreme Court merely goes by hearsay that reporting of court proceedings has been and continues to be poor, would that be fair to the media? Justice Markandey Katju has been making adverse remarks about the media off and on, to the media’s distress. The leading dailies in India have a reputation to defend. They would never permit poor reporting under any circumstances, Justice Katju’s beliefs not-withstanding.
For years now newspapers have been reporting court proceedings without, to the best of one’s knowledge, challenged. One remembers cases argued by the likes of Nani Palkhivala like the Golaknath and Kesavananda Bharati case with considerable aplomb. And let it also be admitted that at least in some cases known to this writer, who has also in the past worked as both a reporter and as an editor, newspapers have had lawyers to report cases. But reporting is much more than merely quoting a judgement. It is an art in itself that even a good lawyer, howsoever knowledgeable, cannot be expected to have mastery over. And this is where honest differences in opinion can spring up between the judiciary and the media. As long as no error has been committed, as long as the process of judgement been strictly observed, there remains no cause for complaint. But first, let this be admitted: not all newspapers cover High Courts, let alone the Supreme Court. Many probably depend upon news agencies, which is fair, and the presumption is that news agencies are more than particular that their reporting does not invite adverse attention. In principle, the Supreme Court has a point. Covering Courts requires skills, competence in understanding the subtleties of law, the technical terms used etc to be able to report “correctly”. But a newspaper covers a case not for a lawyers’ journal but for the common man and it must also take the needs of the common man into consideration.
The further point can be made that a good lawyer does not necessarily make a good journalist. A compromise, in the circumstances, becomes inevitable. But the issue raised by the Supreme Court has put the media in a tight position. If the Supreme Court insists that the media must abide by the guidelines laid down by it in the coverage of court proceedings, what is there to stop other branches of government – that, too, at all levels – from laying down similar conditions in the coverage of Parliament, Legislatures, universities etc? Where will it all end? The media goes on the assumption – which is time-tested—that an average reporter should be able to give a reasonably accurate report of an event or some proceeding. Copy submitted by him is usually double-checked before it goes into print. These days there are over 300 journalism schools in India – not necessarily of any high standard – that teach the basics of reporting. The best of them may not train students in specialities like law, engineering, science and even the arts (dance, drama, music, theatre, literature, cinema and painting), but for all that they have been known to have learnt the tasks allotted to them on the job.
In many cases, newspapers outsource coverage of music performances etc to professionals. In any event, before taking any action that can end up in needless embarrassment, the Supreme Court could do well to have a good discussion with the Editors’ Guild of India which has already urged the highest body to refrain from laying down any guidelines for reporting court proceedings, suggesting that it instead call editors for discussing the issue.
According to The Hindu (4 April) “appearing for the Guild, senior counsel Rajeev Dhavan told a five-judge Constitution Board headed by Chief Justice of India D.H. Kapadia that laying down guidelines would imperil free speech and the Courts had no jurisdiction to do so either”. “If a statute is brought, free speech and administration of justice will be at peril. We have not developed sufficiently rich jurisprudence on the question of balancing the media rights against other rights… prima facie there will be sensationalism in the press and you (the court) can’t stop it”. Mr Dhavan made some suggestions. As he saw the situation, the media must be warned that their reporting must not be mala fide, that it must stay within the sub-judice time frame and it must not pre-judge a case to the point of vitiating a fair trial. Senior Advocate K.K. Venugopal is reported to have noted that the Supreme Court had inherent powers to lay down guidelines for reporting matters sub-judice. As he put it, “rather than impeding free speech (the guidelines) would assist the media itself as well as all other courts, both civil and criminal in upholding life and personal liberty under Article 21….” But the very core of all discussion is whether Courts must insist that the media must employ as correspondents only those who have a law degree and none else. This is a challenge to Journalism schools. At the same time, the media may find itself compelled to employ lawyers as correspondents on a full-time basis which will be a wholly new development. It could end up restructuring the reporters’ desk, with the generalists being replaced by specialists in particular fields. Whether that is a sound idea is another matter. And that, no doubt, will be for the publishers to think over. It might even affect the position of the Editor to the detriment of the media, with questionable consequences.