April 17, 2001


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Arvind Lavakare

Don't spare the rod, Sushmaji

It was simply waiting to happen. And now, buoyed by the Tehelka tempest, Dileep Padgaonkar has actually done it -- spat and scorned at the Press Council of India.

Writing in his Sunday column of April 8, 2001, the executive managing editor of The Times of India believes that "Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj would do a good turn to the Indian media if she throws out the PCI lock, stock and barrel."

Padgaonkar's venom is essentially aimed at the PCI chairman, Justice P B Sawant, whom he dubs as "arcane, misguided," "plainly authoritarian" and "a Marxist apothecary." Those pejoratives are, mind you, against someone who was once a judge of India's Supreme Court.

The outburst is strange for an editor who has docilely suffered the queer designation conferred on him by a management whose philosophy -- so says poet-cum-playwright-cum-ad visualiser, Arun Kolhatkar -- is to put news and views in the spaces left unoccupied by an avalanche of advertisements.

Leaving aside his personal attack on Justice Sawant, Padgaonkar's arguments against the PCI are:

1. It is the smaller publications rather than the big newspapers that have come under fire for blackmail, sensationalism and other misdemeanours.

2. Nowhere in the world, excluding perhaps Australia and Sweden, has any press council been able to function effectively.

3. The self-regulatory mechanisms of media organisations should be trusted to uphold journalistic standards.

The above is evidence that Padgaonkar must have been consumed by wrath rather than rationale when he penned his column of April 8. First, since he accepts the guilts at 1 above -- even assuming for the moment that the big newspapers are pure as angels -- his advocacy of self-regulation is as much meaningless as the continuance of the PCI is meaningful on that count itself.

Further, if press councils haven't been effective in the rest of the world, it doesn't mean that India's cannot be; in fact, the argument is as faulted as saying that since democracy has worked only in the capitalistic world, it shouldn't have been allowed in "socialist" India.

Even Padgaonkar's acquittal of big newspapers from misdemeanours is a flawed verdict. In this writer's last column, it was seen how Mid-Day newspaper had violated the provisions of the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986. Now Mid-Day is hardly a "small" newspaper and what it was found guilty of by the PCI was hardly a minor misdemeanour.

The Times group is itself not "small." And yet wasn't a reporter of the Marathi newspaper from the group caught red-handed recently while accepting a bribe from a legislator? Was that a misdemeanour or not? And in February 1999, the PCI passed severe strictures against The Times of India itself for asking its editor to protect its chairman, enmeshed in FERA violation cases, by lobbying with political leaders and writing articles in his support -- wasn't that a misdemeanour, Mr P? Is that also the reason why you are now hurtling those pejoratives at the PCI chairman when he is just some weeks away from retirement?

Paradoxically, Padgaonkar seems to forget that the PCI -- first set up in 1965, abolished in the Emergency and re-established in 1978 under the Press Council Act, 1978 -- was itself conceived as an agency of self-regulation. That is precisely why law-makers must have denied it the power to mete out punishment of any kind to the offenders. Consisting primarily of working journalists, managers and owners of newspapers, the PCI's avowed objectives are preservation of the freedom of the press and improvement in the standards of Indian newspapers.

The editor of a leading newspaper itself has accepted that there is indeed much scope for improvement. Writing in The Indian Express of January 28, 1999, the paper's editor-in-chief, Shekhar Gupta, confessed, "It's difficult to defend the English media at the best of times. God knows we do commit crimes each day, on each page, including the rape of Queen's English."

Now the rape of English is something that we old-aged readers have come to accept, often amusingly, just as we do the not-infrequent appearance of the same news report on two different pages of the same edition. But blatant bias? Grave accusations without evidence? Insulting innuendoes? Must we accept all of that again and again and again? Must we accept them without any redress for us and any punishment for them?

Consider Gupta's confessions in that same article at a time when the English media was shredding the Sangh Parivar for attacks on Christians that had become the talk of the town the world over. Reacting to the charge by the BJP and its supporters that with regard to the Jhabua rapes, the Gujarat incidents and the Staines killing, the entire media, particularly the English language media, were indulging in enemy action, Gupta confessed that --

1. "…there has indeed been no evidence yet that anybody from the Sangh Parivar was involved in the rape of the nuns."

2. "…despite all the commotion and outrage in the media and the world, not a single Christian has been killed in Gujarat yet."

3. "There is no evidence yet that Dara Singh was actively involved with any Sangh Parivar organisation."

4. "On facts therefore, it would seem that we in the English language media have something to answer for."

That rare confessional from one of its leading lights was all that the media had to suffer for the considerable defamation it had wrought on the saffron crowd as well as the entire Indian nation. There was absolutely no punishment coming from the PCI or anyone else for what had truly been a gross perversion of the truth. It was a classic case of facts as well as comments being free, scot-free, for our "self-regulating" media.

Things haven't changed a wee bit since that confessional. Thus --

1. Red carpet coverage is given to the Pope even as he claims, on our soil, that Christianity is the only route to man's salvation and that Asia needs to be evangelised, but the singing of Vande Mataram at a ministers' conference is vehemently lambasted.

2. Articles projecting the Kumbh Mela as mere bathing by naked sadhus are splashed on the front page but those citing the UN's support for a uniform civil code are peremptorily thrown out.

3. Astrology being made a graduation discipline is ridiculed no end but not a word is published against the fundamentalism taught in Muslim madrasas.

4. Plebiscite in Jammu & Kashmir is advocated by by-line correspondents ignorant of the UN resolutions and other facets of history.

5. Intruding terrorists from Pakistan are labelled as "militants" but Mani Shankar Aiyar is permitted to dub our resigning defence minister as a "terrorist."

6. Pervez Musharraf is interviewed by our journalist over two and more full pages as though he were our best friend.

7. Separatist Hurriyat leaders are allowed to call our prime minister all manner of names in chats and interviews.

All of the above is done in the name of freedom of the press that is oh-so self-regulatory, so honest and honourable.

There then is a point for Sushma Swaraj to note as she goes about with her plan to establish a media council covering the print and television activities. What Sushmaji should remember is that old saying she must already know as a mother: spare the rod and spoil the child.


The All India Newspaper Editors Conference is said to have evolved a 15-point code of conduct dealing exhaustively with all aspects of media coverage including attachment to truth, fairplay and obligation to national interest. Excellent, but why is the media concealing that code from us the public? Fear, is it?

Arvind Lavakare

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