Saturday, January 24, 2009

Why ban opinion polls when you cant ban opinions

Presented to the Parliament Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances and Law and Justice on the Representation of the people (second Amendment) Bill, 2008
By R Shailesh Reddy, Channel Head, Zee 24 Gantalu – Zee News Limited on 24th January, 2009.

After going through the background note on the Representation of the people (Second Amendment) Bill, 2008, it is understood that the Election Commission proposes “restriction on publishing the results of poll surveys” which includes Opinion poll and Exit Polls.

Opinion polls and Exit polls published by the newspapers and telecast by the News Channels are often done by reputed professional agencies. The period of publishing and telecast of Opinion polls begins well before the publication of notification by the Election Commission and the close of the last phase of the elections.

The primary objection of the EC appears to be that the Opinion polls are “motivated and are not impartial”. I the days of multiple manufactured public opinion, there is little scope to influence the voting population. Multiple manufactured public opinion, because there are eight Telugu daily newspapers with a combined circulation of more than 20 lacs ( the actual figure could be more considering the claims of various publication houses) and close to 10 telugu news channels with over 80 percent penetration to the C&S homes. Every newspaper publishes the Opinion polls and News Channels telecast them. The EC rightly pointed out “the results of elections have been vastly different from the result predicted”. Vast majority of the voting population is exposed to more than one Newspaper and News Channel, thereby leaving little scope for the voter to get influenced. In a way, multiple opinions will help the voter take unbiased and independent decision.

Restricting the publication or telecast of Opinion polls infringes upon the right of freedom of speech and expression guranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. Leaders of political parties often claim during media conferences and ‘near advertorial’ live shows on television about the possible outcome of elections. There is no bar on claims of the leaders which is likely to have equal quantum of influence on electorate as like the opinion polls. While this right of freedom of speech has been freely exercised by the leaders of political parties it is not justifiable to restrict the media, which often disseminates the opinion emanating out of a scientific methodology followed in conducting and analyzing the results of the Opinion polls.

Strong democratic practices should often be strengthened and not barred for questionable credibility and imaginary influences. Opinion polls, I believe, are part an parcel of the strong democratic practices.

The EC should instead issue regulatory guidelines to streamline the publication and telecast of Opinion polls.

To dispel the apprehensions that Opinion polls are “motivated and not impartial” publication / telecast of any such opinion poll should be mandatorily followed by a claimer. For example, A box on Page 1 with specific font size, the details the agency employed to conduct the survey, sample size vis-à-vis actual size, methodology adopted, period of survey, etc,. would enable the reader / viewer judge the credibility of the publication / TV station and the Opinion poll published / telecast.

The Election commission should look at certifying / registering the agencies involved in conducting Opinion Polls. This would avoid fictious and fly-by-night agencies conducting surveys for the specific purpose of the media houses that are suspected to be taking biased stance.

Finally, media houses survive on credibility. Any loss of credibility would seriously affect its businesses. No business house would risk its business and credibility by manufacturing a public opinion which is far from the opinion in reality.

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