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Audit thyself
June, 20th 2007
On the face of it, the information and broadcasting ministrys proposal to ask television channels to appoint auditors is a good one. It keeps the government off the channels backs, and there will not be incidents of the type where the I&B minister himself felt he had to stay up late at night to see what channels were offering by way of racy content, before banning one of them. At the same time, as most parents will testify, there is a need to keep a watch on whether channels are offering anything other than appropriate entertainment during family-viewing hours. And, in the case of the news channels, there is the need to ensure that reporting is not inflammatory or deceptive. During the recent Gurjjar agitation in Rajasthan, it has been alleged by the I&B minister, some news channels were showing old footage of clashes and passing it off as current footage at a time when the situation on the ground had begun calming down.
While the viewing of adult content in cinema halls is regulated by the cinema hall management, which is required by law to ensure that those in the audience are of the appropriate age, this cannot be done on televisionthough late-night viewing is one logical option. In theory, some addressability is also possible in areas that have conditional access systems and/or direct-to-home systems (consumers have the option of shutting out channels that they do not want), but these constitute a small fraction of the total number of TV homes in the country. In any case, transgressions are possible by mainstream channels. So, even in CAS or DTH homes, how do parents lock a channel when they do not know which programmes are A, U/A, or just U? For all these reasons, a formal process of self-auditing content commends itself.
The problem, however, is that if the guidelines or specifications that the auditor has to enforce are too narrowly defined, the country will be back to the old problem of censorship and moral policing, even if it is now practised internally. Possibly, the government is just trying too hard, and the solutions being discussed may be worse than the disease. In the newspaper world, for instance, all manner of scurrilous publications exist, but over a period of time, customers recognise them for what they are and those whose reputations are hurt, go to court for redress. In any case, censorship of newspapers is unconstitutional except in specific circumstances that are clearly defined, whereas television in its entertainment avatar has to be treated the way cinema isso a formal certification process is the logical way to go.
The problem that has come to the fore in recent weeks is of course some of the programming that has begun to surface on the TV news media. The ideal answer to the problem of unsuitable news content is for the industry to draw up standards or programming codes and publicise adherence/non-adherence to these codes by various channels. But the competition for audiences is so strong that bad programming can drive out goodas is already in evidence. But here too, it is wise to keep out any government role because any concession there will prove to be the thin end of the wedge. The TV channels themselves need to be aware of the dangers of excess, and exercise responsibility.
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