While telecasting a news report on the provident fund scandal in Ghaziabad, theTimes Now news channel correctly pronounced the name of Justice P.K. Samanta (from the Calcutta High Court, since retired), but the photograph flashed on the screen —for all of 15 seconds or so—was of retired Supreme Court judge, Justice P.B. Sawant. On the mistake being pointed out to the channel, an apology was carried on the scroll normally reserved for breaking news.
But Justice Sawant took the matter to a Pune court for loss of reputation, which awarded Rs100 crore as damages. Times Now appealed against the order and Bombay High Court asked it to deposit Rs. 20 crore in cash and furnish a bank guarantee of Rs.80 crore before its appeal could be heard. On appeal, the Supreme Court refused to interfere with the Bombay High Court order.
What was clearly a genuine error by a Times Now staffer now seems to be assuming the dimensions of a national crisis with far-reaching effects for all forms of media across the nation. Editors' Guild to the Press Council's new chief have already expressed anxiety at the possible ramifications of the case. Times Now's Editor in Chief, Arnab Goswami has separately issued a statement of apology:
"We are extremely apologetic to Justice Sawant for the mistake and any personal damage done to his reputation because of the inadvertent error of running his picture instead of another judge".
"The picture ran for only about 15 seconds and was a genuine oversight in the course of a broadcast. We deeply regret the mistake and assure Justice Sawant that it was not part of any intentional malice in reporting,"
Writing in the Hindustan Times, Times Group's main competitor in Delhi, leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha, BJP's Arun Jaitely, weighs in:
As someone having familiarity with the quantum of damages Indian courts award, this order appears to be somewhat unusual. Observers are still unable to come to terms with the quantum of damages awarded even in cases of death or disability caused by Union Carbide in the Bhopal gas tragedy. The quantum awarded in various death cases, be it an accident or otherwise, in India, is normally modest. The quantum awarded recently in the Uphaar fire tragedy is a case in point. If a former judge is entitled to R100 crore for his photograph being flashed erroneously on account of being mistaken with another phonetically similar name, will this precedent be applied by Indian courts to other ordinary mortals who complain of loss of reputation on account of far more serious allegations? I am not aware of a single case where even 1% of this amount has been awarded to an ordinary citizen or a public person for loss of reputation. There is no better way of shutting down Indian media than by awarding punitive damages against journalists, newspapers or TV channels that are completely disproportionate to the value of money in Indian society.
Each media organisation is expected to exercise due care and caution. Errors, however, will take place on account of the very nature of the news circulation business. If channels or newspapers are to suffer such an order, on the assumption that R100 crore are to be the normal damages awarded to a citizen, we may in the next 10 years become a nation without media organisations.
Citizens deserve a free and fair media. We can't have a free and fair media by having the Press Council act as Big Brother, or with the government threatening to de-license news channels, or with the judiciary imposing unreasonable punitive damages on them. We need an independent and a vigilant media as much as we need an independent judiciary
Also read: Vinod Mehta's Delhi Diary on the same subject