What’s a cigarette? Ever heard anyone giving the most accurate definition of a Cigarette? You might hear “it’s something people smoke” or “it’s a tobacco product” and so on. In the movie “The Insider” (a true story) Jeffrey Wigand is a Tobacco industry insider who turns whistle-blower on CBS News’ highly popular programme “60 Minutes”. His decision to speak the truth about the corrupt tobacco industry wrecks his life. CBS gets scared and doesn’t telecast the actual interview but a truncated one in the end. But in a moment during the interview where Wigand describes how the tobacco industry creates addicts, he provides the best definition of a cigarette I have ever heard. He calls it “a delivery vehicle for nicotine”. A delivery vehicle for the addictive and harmful nicotine! In the end the Tobacco companies had to collectively pay damages over 2Bn dollars for their ‘excessive nicotine delivery’ misdeeds.
If you observe newspapers or news websites, lately almost every one of them carries a small disclaimer at the end in case of articles written by columnists. This disclaimer usually says “the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not the newspaper”. There may be a lot of such articles that are essential to be put out for the public but the disclaimer was created because our media has now developed a practice of putting out a lot of opinions that suit its own political or ideological preferences. Excessive nicotine for your brains! Political pursuit constantly demands excessive opinions to be peddled. Most of these opinions through columns are not backed by 100% facts, can spin truths and can consistently aim to cause damage to a particular individual or group. The news site (I will use the term news site for both digital and print for convenience) is therefore “a delivery vehicle for slanted and planted opinions”. Er… much like the cigarette is a delivery vehicle for the harmful nicotine.
Certain news sites are delivery vehicles for character assassination. With the disclaimer, the Editor could then claim he is not responsible for the crap he peddles in his news site. But a recent Supreme Court ruling could change all that. We could probably now call the nonsense of the “disclaimer” of opinions being personal and hold the Editor responsible. Of course, I am stating this as a matter of “interpretation” but not as an actual event that happened. Legal experts will tell us better. Here’s what the SC, while dismissing the plea of the Editor, ruled in an old case from 1999 concerning Sandesh newspaper of Gujarat (Full report at Lensonnews):
"A news item has the potentiality of bringing dooms day for an individual. The Editor controls the selection of the matter that is published. Therefore, he has to keep a careful eye on the selection. Blue-penciling of news articles by any one other than the Editor is not welcome in a democratic polity. Editors have to take responsibility of everything they publish and to maintain the integrity of published records," the bench said… "It is apt to remind ourselves the answer of the Editor of the Scotsman, a Scottish newspaper. When asked what it was like to run a national newspaper, the Editor answered, 'run a newspaper! I run a country'. It may be an exaggeration but it does reflect the well known fact that it can cause far- reaching consequences in an individual and country's life,"… The court passed the order on a appeal filed by the then Executive Magistrate in Vadodara who approached the apex court against the Gujarat High Court's verdict for quashing proceedings against the Editor.
Please note that Editors are liable for even advertisements published in newspapers and not just other content. There are some basic precautions that Editors need to take even for advertisements. Most newspapers now carry “disclaimers” and “buyers beware” warnings on ad pages as well. The Editor has a tough job and cannot be hanged for content he hadn’t considered malicious to the best of knowledge. But in current times Editors have shifted to being Editorialists whose job is to primarily swing opinions. Shekhar Gupta recently mentioned on CNN-IBN that lately Editors have become Business Managers cum Editors and play dual roles. This is hardly a good sign for the media and consumers. The case of SpeakAsia which collected a lot of funds from the public later became controversial and has since disappeared from sight.
A certain newspaper has recently hired a columnist to write an exclusive weekly series on Narendra Modi. This ‘opinionist’ is a known Modi-baiter. There’s ample chance that this writer, in his pursuit to malign Modi, will use a lot of spurious figures and incidents to garnish his articles. The newspaper’s Editor shouldn’t be allowed to escape with the disclaimer that it’s the writer’s personal opinion. He should be made liable for every untruth and half-truth that his newspaper carries. The writer was in any case a “specialist” in targeting Modi in all his previous writings for quite some time. Or for that matter Justice Katju writes about a lot of things as “personal opinions” which newspapers carry with a disclaimer. In case there are damages to any individual or entity the newspaper’s Editor too should be made liable. The Editor specially chooses certain writers to drive his newspaper’s ideology and writers aren’t always picked on merits or analytical skills. But that is much about newspapers where are crimes are far less these days.
Since 1999, when the Sandesh case was first tried, the media has come a long way. As of now TV wields tremendous clout. The TV Editors call panellists and guests who throw wild allegations at people and even use defamatory terms to describe certain individuals. TimesNow was penalised 100 crores for carrying a wrong picture of a former judge in a corruption case. It’s not clear what happened to that case or if there has been some arbitrated settlement. Arnab Goswami carried out a 21-episode campaign against Nitin Gadkari. On CNN-IBN Rajdeep Sardesai repeatedly allowed Sanjiv Bhatt to call Modi a “common criminal”. In the first instance Rajdeep can be forgiven if he was caught unawares by Bhatt’s defamatory term. But when he didn’t stop Bhatt further or didn’t expel him from the panel or interview then Rajdeep as Editor is deliberately allowing defamation of a person and should be held liable. This is what TV Editors have allowed to continuously happen on their channels. The latest SC judgement should now be taken further to apply to certain TV channels who are behaving like dogs without a leash.
In another incident a few years ago an innocent school teacher was declared as a sex operator by TV channel in a fake sting operation. She was beaten up by the public. This had permanently caused damage to her. The then Editor in charge of the channel, Sudhir Chaudhary, who is now with another channel should have been permanently barred from any media operation. Like Wigand’s tobacco industry, much of the TV news and some print media have become mere delivery vehicles. And much of the media has become a delivery vehicle for propaganda, some poisonous stuff and a huge fix of malicious and willful character-assassination.
Disclaimer: This article represents entirely my own assessment and no Editor in India will ever be liable to agree with it.