Watching the watchdog? Reviving old, tired ideas...
The suave and articulate Manish Tewari, minister of state for information and broadcasting, stirred up a hornet’s nest recently by suggesting a common qualifying examination and licensing for journalists.
The Editors Guild of India reacted sharply, describing licensing of journalists as an “undemocratic” practice and a tool of totalitarian states to control the media.
Mr Tewari sought to allay misgivings caused by his statement by clarifying that it was no more than a suggestion and that there was nothing official about it. But the words had been spoken and there is continued astonishment as to whether there is more to it than it appears.
Mr Tewari’s statement brings to mind the great debate in international fora in the 1970s and ’80s about a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO). India was a very active participant of NWICO, where licensing of journalists was a key issue. The debate involved the developed West, the totalitarian Soviet Union and its socialist allies, and the non-aligned Third World. The West was accused of fostering gross imbalances in news flow between the developed and the developing countries and unmitigated bias in coverage. The Soviets backed the developing countries in attacking the West while the latter tenaciously stuck to the doctrine of free flow of information.
Within national boundaries, the champions of NWICO spoke of the social role of news (news is a social good and not a marketable commodity), refused to accept the “adversary role” of the media, insisted that the purpose of the press was to purvey development news and sought the adoption of a national communication policy.
Officially, India toed a line that was very pro-NWICO (remember it was Indira Gandhi’s India). On the other hand, the Indian press was dismissive of NWICO and its offspring, Namedia (the Media Conference of the Nonaligned), which took place in New Delhi in 1983. The Indian press argued that reduced to simple terms, NWICO would mean that news would have to be produced to the order of governments. And that was anathema to those used to a tradition of near unbridled press freedom since the days of the national movement. NWICO found scant support in the Indian press.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the virtual redundancy of the Non-Aligned Movement and the rise of technology-led globalisation, with concomitant deregulation and privatisation, the demands for a new world order in news also died a natural death. In India, too, the realisation grew that that government is best which seeks the least to regulate the media, even if indirectly.
Therefore, it comes as a surprise that the very sensitive subject of licensing should be brought up again by Mr Tewari, who should also talk of a common qualifying examination as in the medical and legal professions. Mr Tewari’s suggestion came in the wake of Press Council chairman Markandey Katju setting up a committee earlier this year to suggest minimum qualifications for journalists and measures to regulate journalism schools and university departments.
This is the same Justice Katju who, soon after taking over as Press Council chairman in 2011, had made sweeping generalisations denouncing the media, sought to expand the purview of the Press Council from just the print media to include news television and demanded draconian powers for the Press Council that would enable it to wield the “danda” and strike fear in the hearts of journalists.
Justice Katju had also said that it was “the duty of all patriotic people, including the media, to help our society” by focusing on issues of poverty, economic backwardness, feudalism and social backwardness. This is quintessential NWICO thinking from Mrs Gandhi’s time.
Both Mr Tewari and Justice Katju have sworn that they are prompted only by the desire to improve standards and bring about homogeneity. But licensing or qualifying examinations are just not the answer for this. Qualifications — professional or academic — have nothing to do with the quality of mediapersons. For instance, it is true that historically, Oxbridge graduates have taken a direct entry into the coveted ranks of assistant editors and editorial writers in our leading newspapers. But it is equally true that some of our best journalists across languages don’t boast of having even basic qualifications. The legendary K.C. Roy, who founded India’s first wire service, the Associated Press of India (forerunner of the Press Trust of India), was a school dropout. And he rose to be a nominated member of the Central Legislative Assembly.
Besides, prescribing qualifications or regulating journalism schools cannot improve the standard in the media; media houses can do it by focusing on training and development.
By pointing to the mote in the eye of the media, Mr Tewari has ignored the beam in his own fraternity. The general quality of our politicians and the standards of political discourse often drive us to despair. But will Mr Tewari approve of a qualifying examination for politicians? The founding fathers of our republic displayed uncommon wisdom in refraining from prescribing any minimum qualifications for lawmakers. The same logic should be applied to those who report and comment on policymaking.
The writer is founder and chief executive of the consulting firm Moving Finger Communications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org