Media in India has undergone a vast change over the past few decades since the entry of the private sector in the electronic media in the mid1990s and the subsequent exponential explosion of the digital media during the last two decades. The unbridled proliferation, however, has come at a price. The credibility and respect that media professionals enjoyed after Independence stands vastly eroded.
Things have reached such as impasse that the Chief Justice of India (CJI) has been forced to lament a situation where an irresponsible and irrepressible “ill-informed, biased and agenda-driven” media was “weakening Indian democracy.” Till the early 1990s when the private sector was allowed to enter TV news business, Doordarshan was under the Government control and private print media was by and large selfregulated thanks to the Press Council of India and its code of ethics.
Peer media organisations such as the Editors Guild of India also exercised a sobering influence and, despite occasional aberrations, journalism was a credible and respected profession. The CJI’s remarks that most people still believe in what is printed, is reminiscent of that bygone era.
Things started going out of control with the opening of gates of TV journalism by the private sector. The Press Council of India had no jurisdiction over it and though a section of TV channels tried to bring some element of self-regulating through voluntary organisations such as the National Broadcasting Association, only a handful of media organisations joined As the number of private TV channels proliferated and the rat race for TRP ratings intensified, whatever sense of ethical standards had remained disappeared. TV debates were turned into Kangaroo courts. Helpless victims, including judges, were declared guilty without recourse.
Social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok; premium entertainment platforms such as Netflix, and usergenerated content on YouTube have now turned this Billingsgate-type media landscape into a free for all trolling game.
The rub is that despite diverging strategic interests and ideological inclinations, nearly all involved stakeholder groups have strongly resisted Governmental oversight or any third-party intervention. The regulation of digital news media comprises multilateral and interconnected issues.
These include dealing with contentrelated complaints from audiences, accreditation of journalists, channel and asset ownership, fixing responsibility for defamatory content, defining professional ethics, setting down fair competition rules and revenuegeneration norms.
However there is consensus on the point that digital media, given the basic interactive nature of the online public sphere, requires a regulatory framework.
Today, audiences who are accessing news online can choose between niche websites covering rural affairs such as the People’s Archive of Rural India to satirical news programmes created by non-professional users as well as digital channels of mainstream media.
Given this dense diversity in the online news ecosystem, the regulation of digital news media poses difficult questions. Regulatory policies, whether framed by the Government or self-regulatory bodies, need to consider this complexity that is at the heart of the online public sphere and news ecosystem.
News regulation policies must balance intersecting interests such as encouraging plurality of opinions and options available to audiences; nurturing economic growth of the nascent digital news space, and setting high standards of news gathering, fact checking and dissemination.
The critical question in forming regulatory standards is: who will define these standards, how transparent would the regulatory process be, and how and to whom would errant journalists and organisations be accountable. Selfregulation is touted as the proverbial middle path that has achieved some level of success in countries like the UK. However it has been largely an unqualified failure in India. This does not set an encouraging precedence for instituting self-regulatory norms in the digital news space.