The foremost duty of media is to showcase the truth and present it to the viewers, but nowadays unethical practices of media lead to adjudicating the rights and wrongs. The media does not have any right to adjudicate the rights and the wrongs. Media trials have caused wrongful portrayal of alleged accused and have acted as a helping hand in destroying their careers merely by the fact that they were accused, even though they have not yet been portrayed guilty by the court of law. Media trials have evolved as one of the greatest challenges to society which even affects judicial proceedings. With technological advancement, it has become very common for the media to follow unethical practices in order to obtain wrongful gain.
In this article, we will discuss the issues of unethical media including cross-media ownership, paid news syndrome, press-politician relationship, media trials, etc. We will also be addressing the regulatory framework to be followed and how social media can act as a tool for change.
Today, multinational companies all over the world control most of the media outlets. For them, it is not only a source of profit and business growth but also a road to control and power. They follow their economic interests by investing in media groups. A well-known name in the media empire is Rupert Murdoch. In Australia, he not only controls media platforms, but he also has control over international media platforms, including India.
The Reliance Group in India, operated by the Ambani family, has considerable influence over media outlets. They own the media company Network 18; Network 18, in turn, owns several TV news channels. Corporate business ownership limits the simplicity and legitimacy of the media. In the Akash Ambani case where he was involved in a car accident in the year 2013, very few media houses actually covered this incident to its full extent, and some had to delete their story later from those who reported it. Clearly, the company’s control over the media did not encourage the public domain to report information about the case.
In addition, a significant proportion of the shares are also owned by a large number of companies that control many media platforms. Sun TV Network, 77 percent of the shares of which are held by Mr. Kalanithi Maran, will be an apt example in this regard. Again, Sun TV’s promoted Kal Radio is an institution in which Mr. Maran holds shares in an individual capacity as well as a Sun TV promoter. With this in mind, if one person has too much influence over the media networks, it is very clear that these channels will be seen in the same direction under the control of the same individual.
In the same way, and in the same context, these networks would be present. Thus, a major motivation behind the restrictions on cross-media ownership is to preserve the diversity of media so that citizens have access to diverse viewpoints that enable them to have access to a wide variety of views and thereby participate fully in the democratic process.
Paid News Syndrome
The Indian media helped democracy to take root, rise, and prosper on its soil in the post-independence period. Eventually, however, democracy itself is under attack from the same media, especially during elections. The syndrome paid news began to spread in the body named society which in turn infects the credibility of media. Paid news may be interpreted as the publication or broadcasting, for the benefit of the party, of a news item that is usually biased or misleading in return for consideration. It is an old phenomenon, but during the 2009 general elections, it became particularly noticeable.
Different explanations for the increase in paid news were found by the Standing Committee. A few of the main contributors are low pay levels and a decrease in journalists’ autonomy, media corporatization, and the tug of war between editors and managers of newspapers and networks.
In most cases, the media house managers enter into an arrangement with a group to publish paid news, which then requires the reporters to report news in favor of the organization paying them. Journalists are therefore limited to serving as publicity agents, copywriters in advertisements, etc. Instead of journalists, administrators play a more active role in the collection and distribution of news that would raise revenue. The relationship between management and journalists is soured by such intervention and leads to a hostile work climate.
Also, a private arrangement is often an agreement between media corporations and corporate organizations or non-media companies, in which a few shares of the company are allocated to the former for advertising space and favorable publicity by the latter. This phenomenon began in 2003 when Times of India (TOI) publishers Bennett, Coleman Company Limited (BCCL) decided to start a paid content service called Medianet that sent journalists to cover companies’ product launches for a price. This move was widely criticized, but it was later swept under the carpet, and other media networks have boomed with this activity.
In the case of Dr. Narottam Mishra v. Election Commission of India & Ors, on June 23, 2017, the petitioner, current Minister of Home Affairs, MP, was disqualified by the ECI for filing false accounts of election spending and using paid news during the 2008 elections. The Commission has identified 42 cases of paid news against Mishra. He appealed to the High Court of Delhi, which stayed the Commission’s disqualification order. In addition, the HC has prevented ECI from pursuing any cases relating to paid news and has claimed that such disqualifications impair the freedom of expression of the person. As a result, the Commission moved to the Supreme Court in October 2018, which remained with the High Court of Delhi on the question of investigating the cases of paid news. The judgment of the Supreme Court on this case is still awaited.
People are entitled to obtain correct and objective information from the press, on the basis of which opinions are formed on various issues of public interest. To describe and penalize paid news, there is no straightjacket formula. Now the fate of paid news and ECI’s power to investigate these issues rests on the Supreme Court’s decision in the Narottam Mishra case.
The Constitution of India guarantees the right to freedom of expression under Article 19(1), i.e., the right to hold opinions without any interference and the freedom to seek, receive, impart information, ideas of any kind regardless of the frontiers, either orally, or in writing, or even in print, or in any form of art, or through any other media of the person’s choice. This is also subject to special duties and responsibilities and the rights or reputations of others.
Even before the court has given its verdict, this phenomenon of declaring the accused as a defendant is an unethical media practice known as the media trials. It is the widespread publicity of the accused’s guilt and the imposition of a certain impression of him, irrespective of any judgment provided by the court of law. Where court trials have been widely publicized, the media has also played a major role in causing hysteria among audiences, making it almost difficult for the trial to be a reasonable one. There were reasons why the media’s exposure to such cases was sensationally high.
The Supreme Court in the Manu Sharma matter further outlined the dangers of a media trial. It observed that there existed a serious risk of prejudice being caused if the unethical media exercised unrestricted and unregulated freedom in so far as carrying out parallel trial procedures without being held up to any standard. In addition, the constant scrutiny of any accused without any conclusive exposition by a competent court of law also runs contrary to the rights of the accused. One of the core concepts of criminal jurisprudence is the presumption of innocence (ei incumbit probatio qui dicit non qui negat – the duty of evidence rests on the one who asserts, not on the one who denies), but this no longer seems to be the case in the present state of affairs.
Media plays a crucial role in shaping a healthy democracy and is truly a backbone of a democracy. Its impact is really noteworthy, which reminds politicians about their unfulfilled promises at the time of elections.
But besides the good character, the evil of media is trendy these days. Excessive coverage or the hype of sensitive news has often contributed to communal protests. The illiterate are more prone to provocation than the literate. Constant repetition of news, especially sensational news, leads to apathy and insensitivity. The media should take utmost care in airing or publishing such sensational news. No doubt media is a watchdog in the society but what about media itself; who will regulate the malpractices of unethical media like paid news, media trials, and malpractices arising out of cross-media ownership? There should be a proper framework for media. In recent years, the media, like other institutions, have come under the influence of politicians. The media thus no longer reports about the people’s grievance but in favor of the ruling party. It has been contaminated by political factors.
The media is meant to be either like a hero battling with a mic or like a mirror showing us or pretending to show us the bare facts and the astringent reality of life.
Editor’s Note Media is one of the core pillars of any democracy. It acts as a watchdog in society and helps people to get access to various news and events happening in the world. Consequently, it also helps in shaping the opinion of society. However, there have been various instances in the present times when the accountability, reliability, and transparency of media have been put into question.
This article highlights the practices of unethical media like that of cross-media ownership, the issue of paid news syndrome, media trials as well as the adverse impact of media trials. There is an urgent need for a proper regulatory framework to prevent the unethical practices of media. The author has concluded by saying that media should be very careful in airing and publishing sensational news as it has a deep impact on the views and opinions of the people and of the nation as a whole.
Submitted by Satyam Batra and Bhavesh Balani, 2nd Year Students at the Institute of Law, Nirma University.