Press Council chairman Justice Katju slams media for dumbing down

first_imgWhether swinging the gavel or wielding the pen, Justice Markandey Katju likes to spring surprises. And, in the process, he often courts controversy. Ever since he took over as the Chairman of the Press Council of India on October 5 last year, he has generated a series of national uproars-by his “poor opinion” of the Indian media and popular icons, call for tougher measures to control the press and the Internet or comments on who should be awarded the highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna. The Editors Guild of India and the Broadcast Editors’ Association have called him “irresponsible and negative” but Justice Katju, who cites Ghalib or Tulsidas with equal ease, insists that he has been misunderstood. In a rare interview with Damayanti Datta, Deputy Editor, India Today, he unrolls for the first time his “grand vision” for the Indian media. Q: You have critiqued the media from the time you took over as the Chairman of Press Council of India. What is it that you object to? A: The media has lost its sense of proportion. Ninety per cent of Indian media coverage, especially electronic media, goes to providing entertainment-lives of film stars, fashion parades, cricket, disco dancing, reality shows, astrology and so on. Broadly, the media has three roles: to provide information, entertainment and leadership. The first two are the traditional roles. Even there, one must have a sense of proportion. How is the Indian media justified in mostly showing glamour, pop music and half-naked women in a poor country? There is cricket day in and day out on television. Cricket is really the opium of the Indian masses. During the India-Pakistan match at Mohali in March last year, the media hyped it up as if a Mahabharat war was on. Had I not spoken out, the birth of a film star’s child would have been on the front page of every newspaper. When Dev Anand died, it became front page headlines in several leading newspapers and I raised my voice against it since 250,000 farmers in India committed suicide in the last 15 years but this was hardly published anywhere except by P. Sainath of The Hindu.advertisementHow is Kareena Kapoor or Lady Gaga or Formula 1 or Sunny Leone important for the Indian masses? Does a hungry or unemployed man want entertainment or food and a job?Markandey Katju, PCI chairmanThis is a poor country with 80 per cent in terrible poverty. There is massive unemployment, sky-rocketing prices, massive problems of healthcare, education, housing etc. In rural areas, things are very bad. Every day on an average, 47 farmers committed suicide for the last 15 years. Millions of farmers have fled to the cities and lost their livelihoods. Unlike in Europe during the Industrial Revolution, where the displaced peasantry got jobs in the newly arisen factories, there are few jobs here since manufacturing is on the decline. Factories are becoming real-estate. It reminds one of John Steinbeck’s novel Grapes of Wrath. There are striking similarities between the ‘Okies’ of the American Great Depression who lost their livelihood and farmers committing suicide in Vidarbha. But the media largely diverts attention from these real issues. How is Kareena Kapoor or Lady Gaga or Formula 1 or Sunny Leone important for the Indian masses? Does a hungry or unemployed man want entertainment or food and a job? Q: What if there is a public demand for these?A: I met the proprietor of an Indian English magazine. He told me that he was a businessman, and would publish whatever the public wants, as long as the laws of obscenity or defamation are not flouted. I told him, you are not in a business of selling commodities. The media deals with ideas. Should you descend to the low intellectual level of the masses and perpetuate that mindset? The problem is, 90 per cent Indians are very backward, of poor intellectual level, full of casteism, communalism and superstition. When people vote, do they see the intellectual merit of the candidate? Ninety per cent of votes go on the basis of caste and religion. Why else would bandit queen Phoolan Devi be elected? Despite killing scores of people, she won on the strength of her Backward Caste identity.Q: If 90 per cent of Indians have low mental abilities wouldn’t the media reflect that?A: The media should uplift the mental level of the masses, not descend to that low level. I am not trying to harm the media. In fact, I want the media to play a great historical role-like the European media played in the 17th to 19th centuries, during the Age of Enlightenment. Have you read Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Rights of Man? The first was about the American Revolution and the second about Edmund Burke’s criticism of the French Revolution. Superb treatises. I want the media to rise to that level.Q: But should one go back in time to find role models from another culture? A: There is nothing wrong in learning from historical examples. Like the heroes of that age-Voltaire, Rousseau, Thomas Paine, Diderot or Helvetius-I want today’s Indian journalists to play a crucial role in transforming Indian society from feudalism into a new age of enlightenment, characterised by reason, science and humanity. This is the “leadership” angle I talked about at a lecture at the Bengal Club in Kolkata on December 5 last year. The traditional roles of the media are two: providing information and entertainment. In the transitional age, there is a third role: that is, giving leadership to the people in the realm of ideas. Media persons, however, can play a great role in this connection only if you correct yourselves. You can show the way and give leadership to the nation, provided you make yourself fit to do so. Q: How exactly do you think journalists need to correct themselves?A: First of all, you have to get all your facts right through careful investigation and committed research. But you have also to read social sciences like economic theory (since the world is going through the Second Great Depression. The first was between 1929-39); history, to know how other countries solved their problems; literature, to learn how to entertain as well as educate; and Urdu poetry, because the voice of the heart comes out here more than anywhere else. And then you can help the society to grow and prosper. advertisementQ: But even Europe saw the parallel growth of cheap vulgar press that ultimately gave birth to today’s tabloid journalism…A: I am not talking of those. And I am not talking of the present European media but that between the 17th and 19th centuries, the historical period when Europe went through its transformation from feudalism to modern society. Transition in history is a terribly painful period, full of wars, turmoil, turbulence, revolutions, chaos and intellectual ferment. Only after going through that fire did modern society emerge in Europe. India is presently going through a similar fire, and my guess is, it will last for another 15-20 years. Here the media becomes extremely important because ideas become a powerful force in an age of transition. You people have a great, historical role to play, and if you do it correctly you will win the applause and respect of the Indian people. Q: What sort of role do you have in mind for the media?A: If you promote rational, scientific and modern ideas, you will help people get over this transition period faster, with lesser pain. You cannot totally eliminate the pain but you can reduce it, and shorten the transition. We must become a modern, industrial state. That should be our national aim. Modern industries will generate the wealth needed for social upliftment. But we must also think of the rural society. In India, unfortunately the whole policy of the government is to benefit a small section of the urban people. As a result, farmer suicides are going on. There are 49 ‘dollar billionaires’ in India, and the 10 richest Indians earn $350,000-$700,000 per minute. Four of the top 10 richest people in the world are Indians. On the other hand, 80 per cent of people in the country are living at Rs 20 a day or less. About 47 per cent of Indian children are malnourished, which is 10 per cent higher than that in Ethiopia and Somalia-the poorest countries in Africa. We stand 66th among 88 hungry nations but we write off $70 billion annually as tax cuts for the rich. The divide between the rich and the poor in the last 20 years has crossed all limits. This is not acceptable. The media must highlight all these. But you are highlighting fashion, film stars, cricket and other superficial things. Q: Don’t you think the media also highlights politics and politicians?A: I would prefer media to highlight real issues, which are socio-economic. You hardly have any agricultural or labour correspondents, and this shuts you out from over 75 per cent of society. But you highlight Dev Anand’s death on front page as if it is the greatest catastrophe. I also watch Dev Anand’s films for entertainment. But he is not a great historical hero. If you think Dev Anand is a real hero, you have a poor intellectual level. In public speeches, I openly say, 90 per cent of you Indians are of a poor intellectual level. And yet surprisingly 90 per cent of Indian people love me. Why? Because they know that I am criticising them for their benefit, not to harm them. Today people in this country are looking for guidance from genuinely patriotic people. I want Indians to have better lives. I want them to prosper. I want poverty and unemployment to be abolished. And all patriotic people including the media should want that.Q: Is this your impression of journalists? That they are not respected?A: Listen. Please don’t ask me. Ask 100 people at random without disclosing that you are a journalist and you will find out. You may be shocked to hear their views. Madhu Kishwar said on Rajya Sabha TV that most journalists are bribable and manipulable. But, I believe, there are many honourable journalists, too.Q: You have made an appeal that the Bharat Ratna award should go to Ghalib, Sarat Chandra and Subramanya Bharathi. Are you aware that Sarat Chandra had written very negative comments about Muslims? A: Sarat Chandra had given a speech in 1926 against Muslims, which I totally disapprove of. But in Palli Samaj, he praised Muslims. In Chapter 12 of this book it is mentioned (1) whereas in caste-ridden Hindu society people fight with each other, among Muslims if someone is in difficulty others get together and help him. (2) One rich Muslim Jafar ill-treated his step-mother and the Muslim community boycotted him, whereas Govind Ganguly beat up his widowed sister-in-law but no one intervened. (3) The Muslims of village Veerpur came to their Zamindar Ramesh and wanted their own school because Muslim children were refused admission in the local school. So, you see, nobody is perfect. In his writings Sarat Chandra launched a powerful attack against injustice, women’s oppression, caste system and superstitions. So let us not be too critical about a person just because he has some defect. We have to make an over-all assessment of a writer by studying all his works, and not just one speech. Q: Instead of Press Council you wanted an umbrella body, a Media Council, that would include electronic media and the Internet. Could you tell us something about it? A: Look, first of all I have to say that people misunderstood me. I am a very democratic person. In my judicial career, I have given very strong judgements supporting freedom. Unless you have freedom, ideas cannot grow and, in a transition period, ideas are very important. At the same time, no freedom can be absolute. Every freedom must come with responsibilities. Electronic media particularly, has been placing emphasis on non-issues-film stars, cricket, and so on. Q: Can’t an artist or a sport person be a hero? Isn’t Sachin Tendulkar a great inspiration to generations of young Indians?A: Not for me. For me, heroes are those who have sacrificed to take the country forward in history, those who help abolishing poverty and other social evils. What inspiration? Cricket is the opium of the masses, to keep people drugged so that they don’t revolt against the horrible condition in which they are living. The Roman emperors used to say, if you can’t give people bread give them circuses. Here it is cricket. Keep people involved in non-issues so they can forget about poverty, price rise and unemployment. Tendulkar is a good cricketer no doubt, but how is he socially relevant? Is poverty abolished because of his century? Or has his career raised the standard of living of the people of India? That you can do by abolishing communalism, superstition, casteism, and by spreading scientific, rational and humane ideas. Entertainment for a little while is okay. But the thrust of the media’s coverage should be socio-economic issues. Instead, you give pages to Munni badnaam hui darling tere liye or Sheela ki jawani. This is your intellectual level. What to do? That’s when I decided to speak up.Q: You have been criticised as someone trying to curtail media freedom. How do you respond to that? A: When someone tries to rectify the market-driven media, the media owners scream and take refuge in Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution (Freedom of Speech). They raise an alarm when anyone questions their irresponsible sensationalised views being peddled as news. The middle class Indians are easily swayed by the peripheral issues the media raises (which are really non-issues, like lives of film stars, cricket, pop music, reality shows, etc) which they dish out with propagandist zeal. When I raise my voice against this, I am branded as a dictator who wants to crush media freedom, someone who wants to impose Emergency. But I am the strongest advocate of freedom. I am in favour of calling over media persons who do wrong things and discuss with them the responsible roles they should play. Harsh measures should be adopted only in very, very rare cases. I saw the social media that Kapil Sibal criticised. I have nothing to do with Sibal since I am not into politics, but I took a look at them and they were obnoxious, filthy, pornographic material, showing some religious figures having sex with animals that are considered filthy in that religion, such animals sitting on top of their most holy places etc. Now, if this is shown there may be communal riots. We must no doubt be tolerant. We must show respect to all. But why should mischievous persons have the freedom to show this. Should we have communal riots? These are inflammatory, outrageous material. And I gave my opinion that they should be filtered out.Q: There have been talks of self-regulation of the media. What’s your take on that? A: Listen, self-regulation is no regulation. It’s all empty talk. You know, in 2009, the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) tried self-regulation. They imposed some fine on Rajat Sharma’s Hindi news channel, India TV. He walked out and then they requested him to come back. After that, has there been a single punishment? Then what self-regulation are we talking of? Every day I see many channels showing astrology or some such nonsense, half-clad women, film stars, cricket and so on.Q: So you think a stronger press council would help? A: I had suggested that the Press Council be given more teeth. The Press Council Act was made several decades back when electronic media wasn’t even born. It should be brought in now. It’s not as if the Chairman is alone in the Press Council. We have representatives from the press, journalists, proprietors, MPs, one member from Bar Council of India, one from the UGC and so on. If the electronic media comes under its purview, it will become a Media Council with representatives of the media on it. It’s not as if I alone can act as a dictator or something. I have to carry the majority with me. In the last meeting of the Press Council some of my proposals were accepted by the majority, while others were rejected. I, too, accept whatever the majority decides. So where is the problem? But the power to punish must be there. Right now the Press Council has only the power to admonish and censor, which is almost nothing. So I wrote to the Prime Minister, requesting that the Press Council of India Act be amended to include the electronic media, and that the Council be given more teeth-to be exercised only in exceptional and rare cases. Q: What exactly do you mean by “more teeth”? A: We should have power to fine, power to cut off government advertisements, and in extreme situations when repeated warnings fail, we should have the power to suspend license. Suppose a media entity keeps fanning communal hatred, and despite several requests does not cease to do so, we should suspend its license, at least till they come to their senses. Some checks must be there. As Tulsidas said in Ramcharitmanas, “Bin bhay hot na preet” (without fear there is no love and affection). Every freedom is subject to reasonable restrictions in the public interest. Classical example was given by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the legendary judge of the US Supreme Court, when he said you don’t have the freedom to falsely shout fire in a crowded cinema hall, causing a stampede. Q: Wouldn’t that give the government the right to censor the media? A: I don’t believe that regulation of the media should be done by the Government. It should be done by an independent statutory authority. The Press Council is not under the Government. It is an independent statutory authority. I am not subordinate to the government. In fact, I have often made statements criticising the government. For instance, I have criticised the Congress Government of Maharashtra for not protecting journalists. I have called the award of Rs 100 crore in damages in a civil defamation suit against TV channel Times Now a shockingly disproportionate order. I have also pulled up the Government for delaying payment of advertising bills for years on end. Media people must realise that I am not their enemy.advertisementQ: Would you say that journalists come off worse compared to, say, judges?A: I wouldn’t say so. There are good and bad people everywhere. There are also good and bad judges.last_img