The Wobbling Fourth Pillar of Democracy

Freedom of Speech and Expression as mentioned in Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution also implies the freedom of the press or the mass media. Moreover, there are safeguards provided in the constitution against the misuse of this right vide Article 19(2) which does lay down certain reasonable restrictions in the interests of sovereignty and integrity of India. Evelyn Beatrice Hall who used to write under the pseudonym S.G.Tallentyre famously used the phrase “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” as an illustration of Voltaire’s beliefs, in her seminal work “Friends of Voltaire”. This phrase is often attributed to Voltaire and very frequently quoted to describe “the freedom of speech”. While The Right to Information Act is based on the premise that democracy must involve an informed citizenry and that a government must be accountable to those governed, what needs to be debated is whether the freedom of expression of the media is in the public interest, always and every time? Furthermore, Do they or should they represent the public on all the issues affecting the country? What should be the minimum professional competence required of them to be appointed the social auditors and watchdogs of democracy?

            For a democracy to thrive it’s pillars need to be strong, competent, committed to the national cause and ethically beyond reproach. The members of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary have their set norms for being appointed in that capacity. On the other hand, do the members of the Media which aspires to be the  representative of the people and the fourth pillar of democracy, undergo any such process? A member of parliament to be called the elected representative of the people  needs to pass the test of the elections. He doesn’t appoint himself, he is elected by the people, for the people. The ministers must be the members of any of the houses of the parliament to head the ministries. The bureaucracy which implements the decisions of the executive are a selected lot who have gone through the most grueling tests designed by the UPSC. Eligibility conditions for being a member of the Judiciary who interpret and apply the laws of the land are the most stringent thereby ensuring that the best people are brought to the helm.

            While all officers of the Armed Forces graduate from either NDA, IMA, OTA, Air Force Academy or the Naval Academy, the bureaucrats from the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA), the IPS from the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy (SVPNPA), do we have one common institute of that standard and repute which all the media persons graduate from? Members of the Armed Forces have to undergo stringent tests to prove their suitability for the job of protecting their countrymen. And that’s not the end, even after being selected, they have to pass the rigorous demands which the training academies have designed to finally get the job of the protector of the citizens of India. While the Parliamentarians, Bureaucrats, Judges and people from the Armed Forces have to undergo such tests of character and fortitude to be rightfully appointed as the representatives and saviours of the people of this country, do all Media persons undergo the same set of stringent tests or anything remotely similar? If not, then what qualifies the Media as the fourth pillar of democracy and how are they entitled to speak on behalf of the citizens of this country?

            Officers from the Armed Forces pass out from their respective academies with the Chetwood motto etched firmly in their hearts and souls. It’s a code which they abide by for their entire lifetime in and out of uniform. Motto of the The Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA) is “Sheelam Param Bhushanam” meaning “Character is the highest virtue”. Likewise, the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy (SVPNPA) has the motto of “Satya, Seva, Surakshnam” meaning, “Truth, Service, Security”. The members of the parliament before assuming their duties swear in the name of God to bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India and to uphold the sovereignty and integrity of India. Do all the institutes from which the media persons graduate from, have a similar motto, or code of conduct in place which everyone swears and abides by. The News Broadcasters Association (NBA) of India did come out with a code of ethics but these are most often not followed in letter and spirit.

            Clearly there are no set journalistic standards laid down for the members of the media. An individual can pursue a course in Mass Communication & Journalism either online or regular from the plethora of institutes which exist in India and abroad, and still be called a Journalist, the watchdog of democracy and a social auditor. So while in every field of work in our democracy there are strict and the most competitive set of standards in place why is it not so in case of the so called, fourth pillar of democracy which is an honour which should be bestowed only on the best of the talents of this country. The onerous responsibility to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government needs to be recognised as a special obligation by the Media and they need to strive hard to be worthy for this recognition. While those in the government and politics are accountable both as an organization and as individuals to the public, the same set of rules do not apply to the media.

            News media reporters are expected to be accurate, truthful, objective, and balanced in writing their stories. While they report on their respective beats, are they in the process subject to the same scrutiny & criticism as the other three pillars of democracy? Media has the freedom to destroy reputations and sometimes whole careers. They have the freedom to report in haste on the grief stricken families of our fallen soldiers without even allowing them the time to come to terms with the hard reality facing them. They can give details of casualties in an Army operation on social media without thinking of the implications. A number of reporters/correspondents reporting form the conflict zone falsely quote “Sources” within the security establishment or a government department to whom they ascribe the information given in the story thereby violating the ethical code of conduct. Any effort to monitor and regulate the media by the government results in hue and cry about killing the freedom of press and killing Democracy itself! The rhetorical explanation given by the media is that an independent media is an extension of a fundamental human right, i.e. the right to free expression. However, it has been historically proved that self regulation anywhere in the world is not the surest of the means to guarantee appropriate behavior.

            Competition & Corporatization of Media has led to the sacrifice of ethical norms, truthfulness & objectivity ignoring the principles of journalism and fairness. The need to do exclusive stories and instantaneous delivery of news compromises the accuracy and fairness of reporting. Twitter handles of pseudo journalists adopt questionable methods and tactics to gain popularity. As the watchdogs of Democracy, is the Media not supposed to be unerring, loyal, vigilant, unforgiving and ready for corrective action, the very qualities which are expected from a watchdog? As the messenger and opinion makers do they not need to be more deliberate and nuanced in reporting? Do the ends justify their means? Should the public not seek information directly from a government department on the subjects being handled exclusively by these departments? The State information departments are meant precisely for that. Why don’t we let officers trained in the information services do the job of the fourth pillar of democracy? It’s time for the public, the responsible citizens of India to put the media under the scanner too. Let us not be information hungry consumers of News and hold the people masquerading as journalists accountable for their inaccurate reporting.

            Over a century ago, and with considerable foresight, Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Somebody, was it Burke, called journalism the Fourth Estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism.” In the prevailing atmosphere of cut throat competition in the News industry, the Social Media users, Digital Network owners and the internet reporters who practice Online Journalism are not bound by any ethical or professional code of conduct. This has a spiralling effect on their Print & Broadcast counterparts too.  The fact of the matter is that “Media” is no longer the suitable candidate for being the Fourth pillar of Democracy.

May Edmund Burke rest in peace!

Article by The Fifth estate

One comment

  1. writers ,columnists should proudly distance themselves from employee/ business journos. There is no such thing like 4th estate for along time any where in the world. All are into business- cum- blackmail with difference only in degree and rate.
    They are simply 5th column for a price.

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