The fact that leading film producers of Mumbai have chosen to petition the Delhi High Court against the ugly characterisations of their industry by two television channels ought to serve as a wake-up call to the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, the self-regulatory mechanism created by television channels to curb offensive content.
The Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards put together by NBSA enjoins channels to be impartial and objective, to avoid defamation and libel, to ensure neutrality, to strive to ensure allegations are not reported as facts or that charges are not conveyed as acts of guilt.
While covering crime and violence, television channels are prohibited from reconstructions of crime scenes that are in poor taste and are specifically advised that “visuals or details of suicide or self-harm of any kind” should not cross boundaries of decency.
Two facts are apparent. First, most viewers should immediately be able to assess how far and to what extent television news channels have adhered to their own Code, and whether they have in fact transgressed it insofar as adhering to neutrality, or reporting allegations as facts are concerned, or indeed whether they have crossed boundaries of good taste and decency.
The second, and more worrying aspect from NBSA’s perspective, is that the film producers have chosen not to place their faith in television’s self-regulation mechanism but approached a court of law.
The NBSA is headed by a well-regarded former judge of the Supreme Court and has four eminent retired bureaucrats as members. It also has four representatives of television channels. NBSA, in terms of its powers of authority, may on its volition investigate violations of the Code, but seldom does so, preferring to wait for complaints to be made before taking them up for adjudication.
Clearly, not too many complaints come up for NBSA’s adjudication, for information available in the public domain would suggest that the body has not decided a single complaint since 24 January 2020, nearly nine months ago.
On that day, the NBSA decided five matters, including four complaints preferred by the Government, and let off with a warning a channel that had shown a photograph of a rape victim on the ground that it only did so once, while dismissing the other four. While the decisions may be merited by the facts placed before the NBSA, the impression that the television industry is indulging in a self-serving rather than a self-regulatory exercise is difficult to escape.
Whether words such as “filth”, “scum” and “druggies” are apt characterisations of the film industry, or whether it is indeed “cocaine and LSD drenched” is now for the Court to decide. The burden of proof while seeking prior restraint on news dissemination is heavy, and the plaintiffs will have to contend with this in pressing their action. But, equally, to suggest that a defence of the right to excess forms part of a battle for the truth may prove a stretch. If the NBSA chooses not to regulate, perhaps a court will.