Some years ago, I was part of a high-profile planning case involving the largest Hindu temple in Britain. There must have been over a hundred articles in both local & national newspapers. Although I didn’t expect always to agree with the line these articles took, I did get annoyed that many of them contained simple errors of names, facts and figures. I remember one day thinking: I know the actual story behind this article on the temple and I can see that some things are reported incorrectly. Does this mean that there might be mistakes in all the other stories in the paper?
Even so, I do agree with Lord Justice Leveson that the British press has served the country “very well for the vast majority of the time”. In his long-awaited report, Lord Leveson proposes that the press should establish a new and tough regulator backed by legislation to ensure it is effective. This hopes to balance the need to protect the public, but stops short of any measure that might be seen as state control of the press.
No doubt, there will be plenty of debate on the various conclusions and measures of the Leveson report. However, I think the proposals fit broadly into an approach that might be supported by the Hindu tradition.
There is a statement from one of the oldest Hindu scriptures that could be a useful guideline for press reporting: It goes: Only say what is both true and pleasing. Don’t try to speak the truth if you can’t say it nicely. And, under no circumstances say that which is untrue just to please or interest people.
For Hindus, these principles are not rules or laws. They are intended to inspire us to choose better behaviour. But, although self-discipline is seen as the best way to lead us towards more ethical conduct, there still needs to be a back-up if we behave badly. So, I think it’s wise that the Leveson report recommends that there should be statutory legislation to ensure that the self-regulation of the press is independent and effective.
There was no mass communication or social media opportunities available at the time the ancient Hindu texts were written. But, whether we address one person or a thousand, the principle is the same: our words carry the power to affect others – for good or for bad. Our words can inspire, encourage, offer support and enlighten. They can also mislead, corrupt and hurt.
Hinduism believes in personal free will - but it says that freedom must always be balanced by the responsibility to behave well towards others. In particular, the Bhagavad-gita recommends that we think about every word we say and ensure that it passes three tests: Is it true? Is it beneficial? And, is it kind?
Weekend Word on BBC Radio Wales 30th November 2012