ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Another Press Commission

This article, published in the 27 May 1978 issue of EPW, reports on the formation of the second Press Commission right after the Emergency. The article grapples with issues like media ownership and collusion with big business, resonant with present debates over the growing corporate power over media and dwindling press freedom. 

Having undone the two major Emergency excesses against tho Press — the legislative assault through a triad of laws, and the forced merger of the news agencies — government has perhaps thought it prudent not to embark on further piecemeal measures to restructure or reform it. Hence a new Press Commission, which is to make a comprehensive study of a situation which has vastly changed since the first one made its report in July 1954. The appointment of the second Press Commission will freeze for sometime debates on issues like diffusion of newspaper ownership and delinking the Press from big business.
Since the 1954 report, there have been several studies on various aspects of the Press. For instance there was the one on small newspapers by a committee headed by R R Diwakar in 1966. Then there was the report of the Fact Finding Committee on Newspaper Economics in 1974, and more recently the Kuldip Nayar Committee's report on news agencies. The Emergency excesses on the Press and the misuse of the mass media were examined first in a White Paper and later as part of the Shah Commission's First Interim Report.
First Press Commission
The first Press Commission has some commendable achievements to its credit. Its report led to certain significant measures towards regulating the newspaper industry. It was following the recommendations of the first Press Commission that the Working Journalists Act was passed and wage boards for the industry were set up. Then the office of the Registrar of Newspapers was created, and annual reports on the Press in India published. The Press Council too followed the recommendations of the first Press Commission, and however unsatisfactory and controversial its functioning was, the fact the Indira Gandhi government decided to liquidate it through an ordinance during Emergency shows that its role was not entirely negative.
One of the principal recommendations of the first Press Commission — the price page schedule meant to protect the small newspapers from the fierce competition the bigger ones presented — was shot down in court and till now no alternative for it has been thought of. The Commission had recommended diffusion by gradual distribution of shares to employees and to a small extent to the public. It had also recommended the conversion of the PTI into a public corporation.
Some of these recommendations relating to the structure of the industry and the ownership pattern of the news agencies were flogged to death by the Indian Federation of Working Journalists. It was all populist rhetoric, with little grasp of the problem. The climax was reached when Nandini Satpathy, as Indira Gandhi's minister for information and broadcasting, surreptitiously got a "draft" bill for delinking and diffusion circulated through certain husybodies among the working journalists; but in the face of severe criticism, she and her government tried to pretend that they had nothing to do with the document. There was naturally a great deal of emphasis on 'commitment' and 'social responsibility' of the Press during Emergency, and the bureaucrats (including police officials who enforced censorship and managed the Press for Indira Gandhi during Emergency even drafted' a code of conduct for journalists and tried to get it across in the name of a so-called 'Committee of Editors' to which the IFWJ was a party.
Terms of Reference
The second Press Commission comes barely 15 months after the experience the Indian Press had gone through under Emergency. So it is indeed intriguing that at least two of the members of the panel announced on May 19 and described as 'journalists' have an unedifying record of sycophancy during the Emergency. One was all praise for it in Indian papers and another, while appearing to be semi-critical of Emergency in India, was selling the government's line abroad.
As for the terms of reference it would be well to examine the departure from the terms of reference of the first Press Commission (appointed in 1952).
The terms of reference of that Compulsion were: the control, management and Ownership and financial structure of newspapers (large and small); working of monopolies and chains and their effect on the content of newspapers; the effect of holding companies, the distribution of advertisements and other forms of influence; method of recruitment, training and employment conditions of journalists; adequacy of newsprint supplies and printing equipment; machinery for ensuring high standards of journalism and machinery for liaison between government and the Press; and freedom of the Press and repeal or amendment of laws not in consonance with it. In the terms of reference for the present Commission, the emphasis has been on impediments to freedom of the Press from the government rather than on pressures from within. The terms, in the order in which they have been announced, relate to adequacy of existing constitutional provisions and laws with regard to freedom of speech and expression; means of safeguarding the freedom and independence of the Press against pressures from all -quarters including trade unions; pattern of ownership and financial structure of the Press; relationship between government and the Press; structure and functioning of existing news agencies; nature of relationship between various elements of the Press, namely publishers, managers, editors, journalists, etc; measures to inculcate in the Press a measure of social responsibility and public accountability; ways and means of promoting the language and rural-oriented press; and facilities for training in journalism.
The absence of any reference to working conditions of journalists is understandable because the first Commission had recommended measures in this regard and machinery for settling disputes has been provided. While there is the mention of trade unions as a possible threat to freedom of the Press, there is no representative of working journalists or newspaper employees in the Commission. A specific term of reference relates to the nature of relationship between various elements of the Press — publishers, editors, journalists; and yet no representative of publishers or working journalists is on the Commission. One of the members might claim to be a working journalist but the nature of his contract with his employer would raise doubts about his status as a working journalist.
Resurrection of Samachar?
The emphasis on promotion of language Press and newspapers with a rural bias conforms to the general orientation of the Janata party. The hostility to the English-language Press is implicit in this term of reference. The reference to news agencies amounts to reopening the Samachar merger issue. Though Samachar has been broken up, the reference to ''structure and functioning of existing news agencies" suggests that the present arrangement might turn out to be a transient one.
Another term of reference ("pattern of ownership and financial structure of organs of the Press ...'') implies that if pattern of ownership and editorial independence are interlinked, so is editorial independence and professional integrity. But the emphasis seems to be more on editorial independence (a matter of internal autonomy) than on freedom of the Press (which has a broader connotation and relates to external autonomy). For example, newspapers owned by trusts are supposed to ensure the utmost "editorial independence" in the sense in which those who formulated the terms of the reference of the second Press Commission would understand. But some of the trust-owned papers were, to use that memorable expression of Advani, willing to crawl when they were only asked to bend during Emergency. Financial viability and independence that large-scale operations imply have not necessarily made for assertion of editorial independence — again as the experience of Emergency would prove. Some of the smaller, indigent newspapers were ready to go to the wall rather than surrender while many of the bigger newspapers gave in without a mumber.
Unlike other bodies which cannot compel production of data or evidence, the Commission is armed with powers under the Commissions of Inquiry Act and will not suffer from the handicaps the Fact Finding Committee did. But will the Commission go into all aspects of the question, and are the members competent for the job? The most likely outcome is that the Commission will produce an omnibus report, with a mass of ill-digested material. Most recommendations of the first Commission remained unimplemented; and the second Commission has rendered those unimplemented recommendations obsolete. Now a new set of recommendations will emerge along with a picture of the vastly changed Indian Press. One can only wait to see how many of the new recommendations will be implemented, and with what speed.
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