Mankind has gone through different ages when people’s lives have been dominated, or majorly influenced, by an invention or breakthrough, even by certain ideas. The industrial revolution led to a major transformation. There was the idea of nationalism which created different countries. There was socialism — as opposed to capitalism — which changed the way societies were governed and economies run. There have also been great medical discoveries that have benefited us in countless ways. However, for several decades now, we have been in the age of information technology.
It began with the discovery of radio and the first newspapers. Then, the coming of big-screen cinema. Later came television. In fact, TV has become so popular that many leading newspapers in the developed world have either had to close down or, additionally, go digital. But in the last two decades or so, another form of media has taken the world by storm — social media. Led by Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and Instagram, with the smart cell phone and computer as its main medium of communication, it has probably overtaken TV as far as viewership is concerned. As a major influencer, too, and opinion-maker, social media is not too far behind TV.
Nevertheless, it’s the regulatory framework for the media that has become highly controversial and contentious. In most countries, there are regulatory bodies that monitor content. Here, there is the Press Council, usually headed by a retired senior judge. If a party is aggrieved by a news report, it can complain, the Press Council hears both sides and gives its ruling. The offending publication, if found guilty of misreporting, is obliged to publish an apology. If the aggrieved party is not satisfied, it can go to court and sue the publication for libel. That threat, along with the censure of the Press Council, is a powerful check on misreporting. Which is probably why in India at least — and I daresay in many other parts of the world as well where there is freedom of expression — the print media is considered more responsible and credible and, therefore, taken more seriously than the electronic media.
Yet, when TV “live” reportage first burst on to the world scene, it blew the print media away. Perhaps the most dramatic TV reportage of this kind was the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, two days after he had assassinated US President Jack Kennedy. Oswald was apprehended after he killed a policeman just after shooting Kennedy. He was first lodged in the basement of the local police jail. When he was about to be transported to a more secure jail, TV cameras and reporters were present. Jack Ruby, owner of a nightclub, emerged from the crowd and shot Oswald, killing him. Millions worldwide saw the footage “live”. Though Ruby was later sentenced to die, a conspiracy theory emerged that Oswald had been silenced so that he could not disclose the other conspirators.
The other “live” event that everyone remembers is of course the tragic downing of the twin towers of the New York World Trade Centre. In India, “live” TV coverage came into its own in Kargil. And then, with the terror attack in Mumbai. There was live reporting of the event, just outside Taj Hotel, little realising that the terrorists inside were watching on TV what was being disclosed. Since then, there has been self-regulation in the coverage of such events.
However, no regulatory framework acceptable to private TV channels has yet emerged. There is admittedly an “Information and Technology Act”, but it is ineffective. The result is that TV channels do what they please. This has showed up in the coverage of the suicide (or murder) of the late actor, Sushant Singh Rajput. A virtual trial by media is taking place, with the law courts playing little role. A drug angle is also being played up and Bollywood maligned. Lawyers on both sides have happily appeared on TV, whereas they should really have confined themselves to court.
But at least Indian TV is admitting that effective regulation is needed. For the social media, however, there are till now no checks whatsoever. Smart phones and computers lend themselves easily to hate speech and fake news. The trouble is, much of this is made to sound credible. Cambridge Analytica, whose former head has just been barred in the UK from running a company or even being a director for seven years, is a good example of the menace. The social media organisation played an insidious role in at least two major elections, that of the US and India. In India, in 2018, both the BJP and the Congress accused each other of using Analytica in polls across the country. The CEO admitted having offered clients “unethical services”, which included bribery and honey-traps.
But let’s be fair. Social media has become an indispensable vehicle. It is here to stay. Want material on a particular subject? Just key in Google Search. Schools and colleges worldwide have mostly been closed since the pandemic struck last March. Some 1.3 billion students, which is the population of India, have been affected and classes have had to be taken online. Can you imagine the disruption this would have caused if social media had not been there? So, when a regulatory framework is eventually put in place, the benefits that the social media has brought to our lives also need to be acknowledged and taken into account.
— The writer is a veteran journalist