New Delhi: Speaking to Karan Thapar, the new Chairman of the Press Council of India Markandey Katju slammed the media saying that he is very disappointed with the way in which the Indian media works. Katju also said that the media is not working for the interest of the people and sometimes divide the people of the country.
Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to Devil's Advocate. How does the new chairman of the Press Council of India view the media? That's the key issue I shall discuss with Justice Markandey Katju. Justice Katju recently while discussing with some newspaper and television editors you said, 'The media have become irresponsible and wayward.' Then you added, 'The time has come when some introspection by the Indian media is required.' Are you disappointed by the media?
Justice Markandey Katju: Very disappointed.
Karan Thapar: And therefore, do you have a low opinion of the media?
Justice Markandey Katju: I have a poor opinion about the media.
Karan Thapar: And you really mean this?
Justice Markandey Katju: I mean this. They should be working for the interest of the people. They are not working for the interest of the people. And sometime they are positively working in an anti-people manner.
Karan Thapar: Now, in that same address to editors you said, 'One of the basic tasks of the media is to provide truthful and objective information, that will enable people to form rational opinions.' Is that not happening altogether, or is it not happening sufficiently and effectively.
Justice Markandey Katju: See you must first understand the historical context in which we are living. India is passing through a transitional period in our history -transition from feudal, agricultural society to modern industrial society. This is a very painful and agonising period in history. When Europe was going through this period the media played a great role, it was of great help in transforming the European society from feudalism to a modern society.
Karan Thapar: Is that not happening in India?
Justice Markandey Katju: No, just the reverse. In Europe, great writers like Rousseau, Thomas Paine and Diderot. Diderot said, 'Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.'
Karan Thapar: Compared to them, what is the role the Indian media is playing during this transition India is going through?
Justice Markandey Katju: Indian media is, very often, playing an anti-people role. Let me give you that in three respects. Number one, it often diverts the attention of the people from the real problems which are basically economic. 80 per cent of the people are living in horrible poverty, unemployment, facing price rise, healthcare etc. You divert attention from those problems and instead you project filmstars and fashion parades and cricket as if they are the problems of the people.
Karan Thapar: So the media uses fashion, film stars and cricket almost as an opium?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes. Cricket is an opium of the masses. The Roman emperors used to say 'if you cannot give the people bread, give them circuses'. In India, send them to cricket if you cannot give them bread. Many channels, day and night, are showing cricket as if that is the problem of the country.
Karan Thapar: You said there were three respects in which the media is being anti-people, to use your phrase. You've given me one, what are the other two?
Justice Markandey Katju: Second is, very often the media divides the people. You see, this is a country of great diversity because it is a country broadly of immigrants. We must, therefore, respect each other and we must remain united. Take for example, whenever a bomb blast takes place, in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, within a few hours almost every channels starts showing that an e-mail has come or a SMS has come that Indian Mujahideen have claimed responsibility or Jaish-e-Mohammad or Harkat-ul-Jihad, some Muslim name. You see e-mail or SMS any mischievous person can send, but by showing it on the TV channels and next day in print, you are in a subtle way conveying the message that all Muslims are terrorists and bomb throwers and you are demonising the Muslims. And, 99 per cent people of all communities, whether Hindu, Muslim, are good people.
Karan Thapar: Is this an instance of the media being careless or the media deliberately not using its guard and not using its intelligence to double check? Which is it?
Justice Markandey Katju: I think it is even worse. I think it is deliberate action of the media to divide the people on religious lines and that is totally against the national interest.
Karan Thapar: You are saying the media is deliberately diving people?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes, because what else is this? When you are demonising the Muslim community within a few hours of a bomb blast showing that SMS has come, e-mail has come from some Muslim organisation, what does it imply?
Karan Thapar: You said you had three examples of the media being anti-people. You've given me two, what's the third?
Justice Markandey Katju: Third is, as I said India is passing in a transitional period from feudal society to modern society. So the media must promote scientific ideas to help the country move forward, like the European media did in the period of transition in Europe. Here the media promotes superstition, astrology and so on. You know, 80 to 90 per cent of the people in the country are mentally very backward, steep in casteism, communalism, superstition and so on. Should the media uplift them and bring them up to a higher mental level and make them part of enlightened India or should the media go down to that level and continue and perpetuate their backwardness? The media through many TV channels show astrology which is pure humbug. Astrology is total superstition that if you wear this colour shirt today it will be very good for you, what is all this?
Karan Thapar: You began by saying that you had a very low opinion of the media, that you were deeply disappointed by the media. I get the impression that, in fact, you don't think very much of the media at all.
Justice Markandey Katju: There are some very respected media people I can tell. For example, Mr P Sainath, I have very high respect for him. He has written many articles showing the farmer suicides. In fact in The Hindu, that quarter million farmers have committed suicide.
Karan Thapar: You're talking about the front page article in Saturday's Hindu?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes.
Karan Thapar: But apart from naming a few individuals, of the media as a whole you don't think very much of them?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes, the general rut is very low and I have a poor opinion of most media people. Frankly, I don't think they have much knowledge of economic theory or political science or literature or philosophy. I don't think they have studied all this.
Karan Thapar: So the media, in effect, is not just living up to its expectations, you would say it is letting down India?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes, absolutely because the media is very important in this transition period. As I said, the media deals with ideas. It's not an ordinary business dealing with commodities, it deals with ideas. Therefore, people need modern and scientific ideas.
Karan Thapar: And that's not happening?
Justice Markandey Katju: The reverse is happening.
Karan Thapar: The media is making India more superstitious, more casteist, more communal; you really mean that?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes, absolutely. You see the TV channels, so many of them showing astrology 'yeh raashi hai, wo raashi hai', what is all this?
Karan Thapar: Alright. I've understood and heard your attitude and opinion of the media, let me now put to you one of the common complaints made of the media by ordinary people and ask to what extent as the Chairman of the Press Council you agree with those complaints and to what extent you disagree. People often say that the media is not always accurate, worse they say the media distorts facts; it twists people's opinions and quotations. Do you hold that view as well?
Justice Markandey Katju: Absolutely, if you've heard of the scandal of paid news in the year 2009 elections, you know what happened. You know earlier the journalist would go to the candidates in elections and ask for money, 'You give me Rs 10,000 and I will publish news in your favour'. Then it appears that the proprietors got a wise idea that why should these working journalists make money why should we not make money. Then they came forward saying 'you give me one crore and a package will be given to you, front page headline news will be in your favour'. And an astounding thing happened in 2009 elections. Candidate A in the front page of the newspapers says he's winning by a large number of votes, by a large majority; and the lower part of the front page paid for by the rival candidate says that candidate A is losing his security deposit. So you see on the same page he's winning by a thumping majority and he's also losing his security.
Karan Thapar: So what you're saying to me, whether we are talking about paid news, whether we are talking about your claim that the media distorts and twists facts ; you're saying the media can't be relied upon when they claim something to be true – it may not be true, it may just be false?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes absolutely because if you are paid to write something you are not writing something which you factually observed. You are being paid to write whatever you are told to write.
Karan Thapar: Now a second criticism made by ordinary people of the media is that it frequently damages the reputation of innocent people by either misrepresenting them or, worse, by suggesting or claiming or proclaiming that they are guilty without reason and without evidence. Again, is that a view you agree with?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes and may I give you an example? In one TV channel, which is a reputed TV channel so I will not name it, on two consecutive days the photograph of a high court judge, where I had been Chief Justice, had been shown next to the photograph of a notorious criminal. The allegation against the high court judge was that he had illegally grabbed some land. I made personal enquiries and I found it was totally false. He had brought land in a rural area, in the open market at the market price, I have all the documents, and this man was weeping when I went there. He said he was going to resign, I said, 'Please don't resign. I will try to do something'. Just see this, you condemn a corrupt judge, I am with you, but why should you condemn an honest judge when he is totally upright?
Karan Thapar: So you're saying the error in this instance was the publication of an honest judge's picture alongside that of a criminal and the suggestion that the two are similar?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes, just see how demoralising it is for a judge who is honest. You condemn a corrupt judge, I am fully with you, I have done it myself. Why should you condemn an upright judge?
Karan Thapar: And you're saying that often the media, through carelessness or maybe deliberately damages the reputation of innocent people?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes. You want to sensationalise something you want to capture without proper investigation. You must do proper investigation and research before you publish all this.
Karan Thapar: So the media does no research, no investigation?
Justice Markandey Katju: Well sometimes it may be doing but sometimes it doesn't. in this case evidently they had not done.
Karan Thapar: Let's focus a little on news television. There is a lot of concern about the quality of debates on television channels. Are you an admirer of those debates or are you a critic?
Justice Markandey Katju: See very often I find those debates totally frivolous. First of all there is no discipline. If there are four people on the panel, all speaking at the same time, is this the way disciplined people should behave? When you speak, I will never interrupt you. But why should you interrupt me when I am speaking?
Karan Thapar: You think anchors are always interrupting rudely?
Justice Markandey Katju: Not anchors, the panellist, the four persons. One person is speaking, the other simultaneously starts speaking, whom are you to hear?
Karan Thapar: People often say that the big problem with debates on television is that they only generate heat, they don't shed light, yet their job is to shed light.
Justice Markandey Katju: That's quite often correct. You should shed light in this age, you should educate people, you should express rational opinions. It's not a shouting contest.
Karan Thapar: So all this criticism that the ordinary people have for the media, whether it's to do with accuracy, whether it's to do with damaging reputation, whether it's to do with the quality of rebates, do you as Chairman of the Press Council agree with all of them?
Justice Markandey Katju: Not all of them. As I told you there are some very upright media people. I named Mr P Sainath and there are many other names.
Karan Thapar: But the generality of the media you believe is falling?
Justice Markandey Katju: The majority, I'm sorry to say, are of a very poor intellectual level, media people, I doubt whether they have any idea of economic theory or political science, philosophy, literature, I have grave doubts whether they are well read in all this, which they should be.
Karan Thapar: More often than not, media people are of a very ordinary level.
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes, that's right.
Karan Thapar: Justice Katju, let's talk about steps that you believe are necessary to improve news television. Primarily you believe news television and the electronic media as a whole must be brought under the ambit of the Press Council. Why do you think the media's attempt at self regulation by the News Broadcasters' Association headed by Justice Verma is not good enough?
Justice Markandey Katju: I don't see any effect of that move. The media has to be educated They must be told that you are living in a poor country where you have to address the problems of the poor people. What do you show? Lady gaga has come. Yesterday I saw it on TV, read it in papers. Is this the problem of the country? Kareena Kapoor has seen her Madam Tussauds statue and she says she loves it. This is what is on TV and in the headlines.
Karan Thapar: So you're saying that the News Brodcasters' Association's attempt to self regulate under Justice Verma simply isn't working?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes, it is not working at all. One of the reasons is there must be some fear in the media.
Karan Thapar: Absence of a stick means the media gets away with it?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes, absolutely. As I said in many interviews, stick will be used only in some extreme situations.
Karan Thapar: But the need for the stick is there?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes, the fear must be there. Bin bhay hot na preet, Swami Tulsidas has said in Ramcharitmanas.
Karan Thapar: So in other words, there must always be a sanction the media fears. Otherwise the media will not fulfil its role and act, in your eyes, properly?
Justice Markandey Katju: Absolutely.
Karan Thapar: Now, so far what steps have you taken or what steps do you propose to take to bring news television or the electronic media as a whole under the ambit of the Press Council?
Justice Markandey Katju: Well, I have written to the Prime Minister that electronic media should be brought under the Press Council. It should be called the media council and also should be given more teeth. Those teeth will be used in an extreme situation. I met Mrs Ambika Soni, the minister of Information and Broadcasting, to whom I gave the letter addressed to the Prime Minister and I have received a reply from the Prime Minister that they are considering it. On Friday, I met Mrs Sushma Swaraj, the leader of the Opposition, and I gave her the copy of the letter and I said unless there is consensus between both the national parties, the bill will not go through.
Karan Thapar: What response did you get from Mrs Swaraj?
Justice Markandey Katju: She said in this case, probably there will be a consensus.
Karan Thapar: Now, you said that you've received a response from the Prime Minister. What did he indicate in his response? Is he open to your idea?
Justice Markandey Katju: No, he just wrote that we are considering it. I got a written letter, I haven't met him. I have sought an appointment with him.
Karan Thapar: But the Prime Minister has said that he's considering it?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes, he's considering it and Mrs Sushma Swaraj, in fact, when I met her yesterday, I told her that look, this was your suggestion in Parliament. She said, 'Yes it was my suggestion that electronic media should be brought under Press Council.'
Karan Thapar: So the position is as follows: the Prime Minister is considering your suggestion, which suggests, that perhaps he's open to the idea.
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes.
Karan Thapar: Mrs Swaraj has in a sense endorsed it, which suggests that the BJP supports it. Have I summed it up correctly?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes, that's right.
Karan Thapar: Now you've also asked for greater teeth for the Press Council. You think it needs to be able to bite more effectively. I know you are going to use it only in extreme situations, but what sort of additional powers do you want?
Justice Markandey Katju: I want powers to stop government advertisements, I want powers to suspend the license of that media for a certain period if it behaves in a very obnoxious manner. I want powers to impose fines, all this in extreme situations. Normally, if a media commits a mistake, I'll call them, I'll discuss with them that this is not proper and 80 per cent people can be reformed by persuasion.
Karan Thapar: But this is to be used if the media proves to be, to use your phrase, 'incorrigible'?
Justice Markandey Katju: That's right.
Karan Thapar: Now in fact your exact phrase was if the media proves to be incorrigible, harsh measures may be required, some people think that's a threat to the Freedom of Press.
Justice Markandey Katju: Listen, everybody is accountable in a democracy. No freedom is absolute. Every freedom is subject to reasonable restrictions. I'm accountable, you are accountable. We are accountable to the people.
Karan Thapar: And the media must be accountable as well?
Justice Markandey Katju: Absolutely.
Karan Thapar: And that means the media must accept and respect restrictions?
Justice Markandey Katju: That's right.
Karan Thapar: Justice Katju, a pleasure talking to you.
Justice Markandey Katju: Thank You.