A More Accountable Fourth Estate
A More Accountable Fourth Estate
I am worried. Very worried.
Of late, the fourth estate, in its mad rush for higher TRPs, hits and engagement, has forgotten the code of ethics that drove true champions such as Shri RD Goenka (whose courage was only matched by his balanced approach, untainted by his personal leanings). Under the garb of "freedom of press", due conduct is excused; anything and everything that can be used to sensationalize an event (and in some cases, even a non-event) is pounced on with a carelessness that could, one day soon, have very serious consequences for us.
A major reason for this scorched-earth policy of the fourth estate is, as mentioned, the lack of accountability. False news (over-sensationalization, deliberate misrepresentation of facts, biased reporting, acts of omission and commission, baiting, etc.) is given the highest importance in the form of front pages, landing pages, prime-time debates, etc. - while retractions, which are rare and usually happen only when the reporting agency is forced to issue one - are placed in the least visible of spots.
As the custodian of the nation's awareness and conscience, the fourth estate must behave with greater accountability. Their credo, "the truth at all costs", must extend to their own selves. Since the fourth estate has now proven itself incapable of self-governance and -discipline, stricter, time-bound, legal measures must be introduced:
- Recourse to customers of Fourth Estate
As paying subscribers to newspapers, news channels and other sources of news that claim to be truthful and honest, there is an automatic contract between the consumers and the fourth estate: that the expectation of fair, accurate reporting will be met; that the reporting has not been compromised by other factors; that individual biases of the reporter or the management shall not colour the reporting.
The violation of the terms of this contract must be actionable and those who have suffered - in the form of ignorance, being misguided, lied to, and thus affecting their thoughts and actions in the present and future - must be compensated.
- Special Courts to handle such cases
The existing judicial system is already overwhelmed with its caseload; moreover, time is of paramount importance when it comes to news.
Thus, special courts must be set up where the cases can be heard (in the jurisdiction of the incident under review); the special court must have the power to summon any agent/agency of the fourth estate on the power of a written/emailed complaint.
There must also be provisions for in-camera hearings where the subject of the disputed news item is on-going (such as an investigation), but these records must be made public within a stipulated timeframe (and revealed to the primary petitioner at the presiding authority's discretion)
- Class-actioning to be allowed
It is likely that the same disputed news item may elicit complaints from across the country. The presiding authority can (and should) file all these under a class-action suit against the disputed item, thus eliminating the need for parallel trials.
All records and transcripts must be available online on a real-time basis (the court recorder's filing must be uploaded to the public domain, akin to a Twitter feed), except in cases where the Presiding Authority can exercise his/her discretion regarding an on-going investigation.
All agents and agencies of the fourth estate must also display their connections to other organizations on every article/site/ticker. Just as the fourth-estate demands transparency from everyone else, it must see fit to lead by example.
Connections are defined as (but not limited to)
- Funding/Ownership (the complete chain of funding, including parent- and parent-of-parent-companies)
- Advertising (contracts and/or above a minimum advertisement limit/sponsorship amount/subscription)
- Ideological affiliations (for example, the owner of the Hindustan Times is a sitting Rajya Sabha MP and card-carrying member of a national political party; the anchor of a leading national channel is the spouse of a former minister; the same labels that the media loves to apply to its subjects [for instance, Hindu Right Wing Leader or Controversial Muslim Scholar] must be suffixed to its own agents [for instance, Sonia Singh, spouse of fmr UPA Minister RPN Singh; or Amrita Rai, spouse of Congress Spokesperson Digivijay Singh; MJ Akbar, MP and BJP Member])
All corrections, retractions, clarifications etc. must be compulsorily
- printed on the first page for newspapers, or the highest page(-number) where the disputed article first appeared
- displayed prominently on the ticker every five minutes the first day and every ten minutes the second day, and further a statement issued during prime-time on both days
- prefixed to the disputed article in the case of websites and similar media. Under no circumstances should the agency be allowed to withdraw the article or archive it until at least a month (or longer, as decided by the Presiding Authority) has passed
- Awards and Punishments
The punishments to offenders under this Act could be
- the tendering of a public apology to be issued through all the agencies
- suspension of the agent (any reference to the agent during/after the period of suspension must mention the fact)
- suspension of the agency (the agency must maintain and produce on request any and all records regarding such suspensions, including those which are overturned)
- fines (in the case of paid news or similarly-compromised news items, the fines must be a whole-number multiple of the money earned)
While those petitioners specifically named and shamed by the disputed news item can use this Court's ruling as a basis for seeking recourse in the Civil or Criminal courts, the awards must be limited, together or severally, to
- Covering the costs of the trial
- immediate costs of recovering / repairing damages to reputation (such as issuing a statement)
In the case of class-action suits where none of the correspondents have been directly harmed (in the Presiding Authority's finding), there will be no awards to any of them over and above the cost incurred to prove their arguments (such as hiring expert witnesses, purchase of already-published reports/citations, material costs, investigators' costs)
Any award which has to be paid out by the agency will be done in the presence of the Presiding Authority at the time of verdict, in the form of a cheque post-dated a work-week ahead (to allow enough time for an appellate authority to decide on allowing the appeal)
- Appellate System
All correspondents (petitioners and defendants) must be allowed the right to appeal. It is recommended that only one appeal is allowed per verdict to avoid over-appealing or slowing down of the justice-delivery system.
Appeals must be filed within 2 working days of original verdict. In the interim, the original orders will stand in all aspects except in the case of awards borne by the agency.
The appellate hearing must be held within a month, the date subject to the availability of the Appellate/Hearing Authority and that of the primary petitioner(s). (If the primary petitioner is unavailable to attend, he/she/they can nominate any other co-petitioner on their behalf)
If an appeal is unchallenged by the other party at the Appeals Hearing, relief will be granted to the appealing party. The Presiding Authority will then direct the reversal of the earlier judgment in toto.
In case the appeal is turned down on merit,
- the Presiding Authority will impose fines on the agency (if it is the agency that has appealed) that will be at least ten times the original punishment, subject to a maximum of 1000 times. The verdict of the appellate authority will be binding, final and non-reviewable.
- the Presiding Authority will impose a fine deemed to be high enough to deter such frivolous appeals from the petitioners. If the petitioner(s) had sought awards in their original filing, the fine will be a whole-number multiple of the same.
- The Authorities
The two-tier system should be staffed by
a) Presiding Authorities, who are retired judges or sitting judges deputed to these Courts or other officers appointed by the Supreme Court of India after consulting with the state and central governments. Presiding Authorities will hear arguments and hold court.
b) Appellate Authorities, retired senior judges or other officers appointed by the Supreme Court of India after consulting with the state and central governments. Appellate Authorities will not hold court; they will decide on the merit of appeals based on written submissions. Three authorities will independently review an appeal and the majority decision shall be held. The identity of the Appellate Authorities shall be held secret and all parties to the case under review shall be barred (under criminal law) from getting in touch with them in any manner.
c) Other staff members as necessary for the conduct of the court: Clerks, Recorders, a division of the local police deputed to the Court for ensuring smooth conduct
- The Process
Petitioners must be able to file their complaints at any time of the day or night. Complaints can be filed in any one of these ways:
1) Through the nearest police station, where the role of the police is restricted to acknowledging receipt and mailing it across, sealed and tamper-proofed, to the nearest Court.
2) At the court itself, where there will be sufficient staff on hand to guide the filing and acknowledging receipt.
3) Online through a portal
- What should be filed in the complaint
- Complainant's details (name, proof of address, aadhar number, affiliations that may be relevant to the case)
- Evidence (URLs, snapshots, photocopies, clippings, digital media)
- Any request for awards
- The agency and the agent responsible
- Hearing within 8 hours of filing if the case might lead to communal or societal tension OR 2 working days of filing if otherwise
- Appeals: Filed within 2 working days from time of verdict AND Decision on appeal within a week; Fresh hearing within a month from the day of appeal being awarded
- Data and Information Systems
All offline filings shall be entered into the system within 6 hours of receipt (if there are too many complaints about a single item, only the master complaint needs to be filed within the first 6 hours, and the remaining must be filed and the e-acknowledgment issued within 24 hours or at least 1 hour prior to the hearing)
All online filings will be updated on a real-time basis.
The system will index complaints based on the URL/headline/agent and intelligently tie together complaints on the same issue. The automatic generation of the class-action suit can be reviewed by any of the correspondents and a separation can be requested if necessary. A Preliminary Authority will decide the merit of such a separation based on a cursory review of available material.
- Positive Reinforcement
Every quarter, the Courts shall publish a region-wise, medium-wise, language-wise report before the 10th of the next month. The agencies which have received the least number of complaints can state the fact prominently on their products/services until the next report is published.
If it is mandated that the highest-ranking (say, top 2 or top 5%) of such agencies be automatically approved for covering government functions and shall be granted a premium of 10% on the advertising charges for ministry-sponsored ads (and perhaps even a bigger tax break on advertising/sales revenues), it shall serve as a strong enough motive for the agency to clean up its act and become responsible flag-bearers of the fourth estate.