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Friday, 15 July 2011 00:00
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The Supreme Court’s new rules which make it mandatory for journalists covering the court, on even a temporary basis, to have law degrees are probably the most inexplicable set of rules in recent times. Indeed, the Court reserves the right to withdraw the accreditation, whether permanent or temporary, “at any time, without assigning any reason”, a blanket power that no other body in India, government or private, seems to have possessed or exercised in recent memory. Not surprising, therefore, that former Chief Justice of India VN Khare questioned the norms—when you report on a matter concerning engineering, he asked, do you as a reporter have an engineering degree, so how many degrees do you need?

 

The immediate cause appears to be a complaint filed by Vodafone’s lawyer Harish Salve who complained to the Court that a PTI reporter had misquoted him on the issue of tax avoidance which is permissible under the law. What happened is unfortunate, but the new rules appear to be a completely wrong solution. For one, it is not Salve’s or anyone else’s contention that court proceedings are routinely reported incorrectly. This was clearly a one-off mistake, and PTI’s lawyer has apologised for the mistake, to Salve, the Court and to Vodafone. And given that the case has hurt PTI’s reputation as well, the agency will be more careful in the future. In general, any journalist will tell you, most organisations send their better reporters to places like the Supreme Court, or the finance ministry since there are more important stories to be got here.

Nor is it immediately clear that reporters with legal backgrounds will do a better job. Look at the intricacies of the telecom scandal, for instance, and all the debate over whether Trai had in fact recommended an auction or not (see FE’s edit today “Trai bats for Raja”), and the 2003 Cabinet decision on the matter, or whether it was the NDA or the UPA that first got it wrong … the list of intricacies goes on. It is certain telecom reporters would do a far better job of reporting the Court proceedings than just reporters with a law degree. That, by the way, is also the reason why even the best of lawyers get detailed briefings by clients before they go to argue their cases—the lawyers know the law, but that doesn’t help unless they bone up on the facts/arguments that matter.

Since only one side wins a case, this means half the lawyers who appear

in courts get it wrong. Are we saying some kind of screening needs to be done for lawyers?

Think of the consequences of the rule, as others get persuaded to implement it as well. In 2005, when Business Standard’s TN Ninan asked the finance minister what he thought was a discrepancy in the Budget, P Chidambaram loftily told him that “most people who read the Finance Bill are not lawyers. I am not blaming them for this ...” When Ninan told him corporates who had read the Budget papers also shared his concern, Chidambaram added, “Precisely. They do not know how to the read the Bill...” Chidambaram never decreed that only lawyers should write about the Budget, but just think of what happens if others start dreaming up similar conditions to restrict media coverage. Only journalists who agree there was no telecom scam will be allowed to attend Kapil Sibal’s press conferences … !

Or take some recent Court judgments. One of them, on the rights of sewerage workers, goes on to say that sugar barons and alcohol kings “fatten their purses by exploiting the consuming public”; later it talks of their highly-paid lawyers (“paid in four or five figures per day”) fighting to uphold their clients’ “right to exploit” under the guise of a “fundamental right”. Is this judgment to be applauded for its basic argument, that sewerage workers have to be given protective gear and better working conditions? Or should it be rejected for the innocence the judges have displayed about free enterprises and socialism? Are we saying that judges need to have a degree in basic economics or an MBA before they examine matters that pertain to business or the economy?

That would be defeating the purpose. A judge is meant to be an expert on the law, not an economist or a chartered accountant, or a sociologist for that matter. What the journalist studies, by the same reckoning, is not as

important as his/her ability to report correctly, to understand and analyse the issues at stake. What’s being given is a prison sentence when all that’s required is a slap on the wrist.

Last Updated ( Friday, 25 November 2011 12:35 )
 

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