Prasar Bharati: Not So Public

Expert committees can come & go, but the public broadcaster seems destined to remain the government’s Ministry Of Truth.

BySomi Das
Prasar Bharati: Not So Public
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Suddenly social media is all abuzz with mentions of Prasar Bharati – the public broadcaster of India.  Veterans from the film industry like Shabana Azmi and Pritish Nandy and PR consultant Dilip Cherian have been involved in online conversations about upgrading Prasar Bharati, attending meetings or not being able to attend the meetings. They are all supposedly drawing up a road-map for a complete revamp of the ailing public broadcaster.

An expert committee is being set up for Prasar Bharati (PB) under Sam Pitroda, UPA’s man for all seasons. The committee will focus on the “sustaining, strengthening and amplification of Prasar Bharati’s role as a public broadcaster, with a special reference to its relationship with Government, in the emerging context”.  The group of advisors includes people such as actor Farooq Sheikh, film producer Pritish Nandy, , entrepreneur and social philanthropist Ronnie Screwvala, business leader Tarun Das, director & screenwriter Shyam Benegal,  actor Sharmila Tagore, actor & director Nandita Das,  lyricist Javed Akhtar and management professional  R Gopalakrishnan. And this motley crew of talent does hold out some hope that they might manage to bring us a better and newer Prasar Bharati.

But while an expert committee has been put together on one hand, on the other there seems to be a little trouble in the Prasar Bharati paradise. A little trouble which makes one wonder whether bringing a change at the pubic broadcaster is really going to be that simple or even possible.

While Twitter was abuzz with the progress being made by the committee, news emerged of the sudden resignation of the anchor/ editor of DD News’ English segment, Ajai Shukla suddenly resigning. DD News functions under PB, and the resignation has raised questions of whether the broadcaster can function independently. Shukla was one of the several new faces inducted by DD News in a bid to bring the national broadcaster on par with other channels. He was the editor and anchor of the primetime show News Night.

Newslaundry spoke to Shukla about the reasons behind his sudden resignation. Shukla declined to comment and said, “It would not be ethical for me to comment. I’m sure you understand”. What we do understand is that while Shukla might be holding his tongue, what prompted his resignation is an open secret. According to an Indian Express report, two circulars were issued on behalf of Prasar Bharati CEO Jawhar Sircar which laid down clear “operating procedure/ guidelines” for the new team. The circulars stated that each and every detail from what was going on-air to who was being invited on a panel should go through the scrutiny of Director General (News)/Additional Director General (News). Apparently, the appearance of BJP leader Tarun Vijay on one of the debates on Shukla’s show, during which he hammered the government on several issues, prompted the issuing of the two circulars. Both the circulars were also marked to the Personal Secretary to Information & Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari.

When contacted over email, Sircar said, “Daily discussions regarding ‘News-list’ and panelists/guests on TV are done by every news channel in India, so why are we picking on DD News that has more onerous responsibilities and obligations under the law, than any other private channel?  In every organisation, there are differences of opinion and some leave: can you show one print or electronic media organisation where people do not leave every now and then?”

While Sircar is certainly in damage control mode, Manish Tewari has no qualms in admitting that the government has an extremely intimate relationship with the public broadcaster. While addressing the  inaugural session of a meeting of the expert committee on April 5, he said : “Two-thirds of the I & B ministry’s budget – Rs 18.85 billion out of Rs 28 billion – goes to Prasar Bharati. I am the recruiting authority, the disciplinary authority, the sanctioning authority. Yet, I am supposed to have arm’s length. I am not God”. The candidness with which Tewari states the truth is laudable. The truth about the proximity of the government to the public broadcaster though, is far from it.

This fiscal, the budget allocation for Prasar Bharati has been increased by 26 % as opposed to a reduction in grants to the tune of Rs 273 Crore in the preceding budget.  In fact, last year in May, Prasar Bharati was on the brink of complete bankruptcy. Owing to some administrative discrepancies, the Ministry had decided to hold back all grants to the broadcaster leaving it in a lurch. According to a report in Economic Times, the I & B ministry, which has administrative responsibility for the autonomous Prasar Bharati, had told the broadcaster that it will not release new funds for the fiscal year 2012-13 as audited accounts have not been submitted since fiscal 2009-10. So, what has changed for Prasar Bharati to merit goodies from the government this time around?

Connect this instance of increase in funds for Prasar Bharati with that of Kapil Sibal’s strange idea of investing Rs 100 crore in social media to counter the Internet Hindus. Please refer to Siddharthya’s article on Newslaudry on the 100 crore investment proposal where he dissects the cause and effect of such a move.

The pattern is clear here. Join the dots and you know Manish Tewari’s earnest attempt at revamping DD seems to be nothing more than a regular pre-election exercise. In fact, at the inaugural session on April 5, 2013 Manish Tewari made no bones about the fact that the government would flog Prasar Bharati for its benefit and if the body was to be independent then the government should have free rein over advertising through alternative channels. He said, “(If the public broadcaster has to be independent) then allow me the liberty for a full-spectrum communications agency – print, broadcasting, online, which lets me put my views across since the government spends huge sums in development schemes that need to be communicated”.

Member of the Content and Programme Committee and editor of The Hoot, Sevanti Ninan, wonders why a government on the last leg of its term would initiate such a massive overhaul process. When we spoke with her, she said, “There are 11 expert groups in the expert committee. Each group would make recommendations within a time period of six weeks.  I don’t know why they are undertaking this just before the elections time because if there are radical recommendations there is no time to implement them”.

Former Secretary General of Broadcast Editors’ Association N K Singh, speaking to us said, “You can’t expect the national broadcaster to be completely independent of the government. However, to use it as a means of promoting its schemes is not justified.  It is the people who would judge what good the government has done for the country. It is the duty of the government to bring out schemes for the welfare of the people”.

Director of Centre for Media Studies and another member of the Programme and Content committee of Prasar Bharati, Vasanthi Rao,  agrees that revamping DD News is a pre-election exercise, adding that the government’s dual approach towards the public broadcaster has put it in a catch-22 situation. “DD News is struggling to find a place in the current media space. However, the government wants it to earn revenue and also gives its mandate to carry. Attempt at professionalising the channel by getting external professionals is as futile as putting band aid on cancer.” She says that the real culprit is the Ministry. “The channel had three power centres, the old guard at DD, the Prasar Bharati and the Ministry.” Even PB Board chairperson Mrinal Pande, sitting right beside Manish Tewari  at the inaugural session,  launched a stinging attack on the Ministry blaming “intricate circles of bureaucratic power” surrounding the institution for the current mess it finds itself in.

In such a scenario, what hope does the committee under Pitroda hold for PB? Will it help PB liberate itself from the clutches of government control? PB itself hasn’t shown much willingness to change its ways. Both Singh and Rao say that in DD the staff is so aligned towards the government that they see the new team as outsiders. Politics is rampant, so are power struggles. In such a situation, autonomy is unachievable.

The eminent members who are part of the committees don’t think that it is a futile exercise. While there are bureaucratic impediments and there are work culture-related problems, both Ninan and Rao say these issues are being addressed by them. However, neither is sure about the end results. Ninan says, “Either you can overhaul an ailing body or you can let it run the way it is running. I see value in it. The exercise in itself is useful but am not sure about the result. I am part of it because I would like to make some contribution from my experience gained from recent research in the field, it really doesn’t bother me even if there is no direct, immediate outcome”.

The committee under Sam Pitroda with advisors from the media fraternity could be a blessing in disguise for PB. A strong public broadcaster that reaches 150 million households has the potential of molding opinion, educating, informing and entertaining the population in the right way and also be a direct point of reference for news for the international community who see India through the eyes of BBC and CNN.

If it is a question of funding, Sambudda Mitra Mustafi, a fellow at Swaniti Initiative in a write-up for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations has a solution. “The government should look at options like the license fee model of funding, where if each of India’s 150 million TV households paid 10 cents (Rs 5) a month, it would generate $168 million (Rs 840 crore) in revenue annually. This is eminently do-able. Last year, BBC News and BBC Parliament put together had an operating expenditure of only $105 million (Rs 525 crore). In 1996, Al-Jazeera started with an initial grant of $137 million (Rs 685 crore).”

There is no reason, why PB cannot come up with a similar model of revenue generation thus denting some of the smugness that Manish Tewari currently shows for funding the public broadcaster. For this to happen though, the public broadcaster and the expert committee will have to rise to the occasion. Till such time, it would do well for the government to rechristen it as the Ministry of Truth.


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