Worry when every FM channel falls in line obediently with Modi’s speech.

Worry when every FM channel falls in line obediently with Modi’s speech.

Was the PM’s Mann Ki Baat the kind of ‘news’ private FM channels would like to serve us?

By Arunabh Saikia

Published on :

Welcome to India’s sanctimonious Sundays.  They begin at 11 in the morning. Just a little rider here though:  the first 20 minutes entail making a choice between the Indian Prime Minister and one of his tag team partners in the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan, actor Amir Khan, who seems to have a had a drastic change in his political and environmental beliefs over the last few years.

But since Khan is hardly the only or first one to have been bowled over by Narendra Modi’s charm, we’d leave it at that. However, his latest set of admirers – private FM channels – by airing Modi’s second “Mann ki Baat” in entirety, have added a new page to the much contentious private radio-news relationship.

Currently, the “Policy Guidelines for expansion of FM Radio Broadcasting services through private agencies (Phase-Ill)” state that FM channels are  “permitted to carry the news bulletins of All India Radio (AIR) in exactly same format (unaltered) on such terms and conditions as may be mutually agreed with Prasar Bharati, no other news and current affairs programs are permitted under the Policy”.  Which essentially means you can do a copy-paste of the AIR bulletin, but can’t do your own news or current affairs programs.

Modi’s weekly address christened “Mann ki Baat” is not strictly news or even current affairs, but it doesn’t quite fall in the other categories of information that can be disseminated through the medium either:

(a) Information pertaining to sporting events excluding live coverage. However, live commentaries of sporting events of local nature may be permissible;

(b) Information pertaining to Traffic and Weather;

(c) Information pertaining to and coverage of cultural events, festivals;

(d) Coverage of topics pertaining to examinations, results, admissions, career counseling;

(e) Availability of employment opportunities;

(f) Public announcements pertaining to civic amenities like electricity, water supply, natural calamities, health alerts etc. as provided by the local administration;

(g) Such other categories not permitted at present that may subsequently be specifically permitted by Ministry of Information and Broadcasting from time to time.

So what really transpired that led to private FM channels (most of them at least) broadcasting Modi’s address in entirety?  Did the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry ask FM channels to air the address? Or did the channels choose to do so voluntarily? According to Uday Chawla, Secretary General of Association of Radio Operators for India (AROI), it was a “two-way process”. “On the first occasion the I&B Ministry approached us but then second time we did it voluntarily,” he said. Chawla believes it is a step in the right direction. “We’re very certain that this government is serious about letting private radio players do news and letting us broadcast the speech is testament to that,” he explained.

But is airing the Prime Minister’s address really the ideal training ground – as Chawla calls the exercise – for prospective independent news disseminators?  Yes, if you want private FM channels to be parroting what All India Radio says, but not if you want them to be credible news sources with reach probably greater than any other medium. For if this was an example of political discourse that FM news channels are expected to indulge in, it is worrisome for reasons more than one.

First, the fact that the FM channels accepted what the ministry directed, ostensibly in order to be in the good books of the government, and increase its chances of being able to do independent news, inspires very little confidence in the integrity of what are future news sources.

Second, Modi’s “Mann Ki Baat” is as Modi-esque as it gets in terms of public communication on the Prime Minister’s part. It’s a comfortable one-way format that has no allowances for any kind of counters – surely not what potential independent news sources in the making with mass reach should resort to in order to prove its readiness to do news.

This also begs the question, should FM channels also air speeches by Chief Ministers, Leaders of Opposition or leaders of other political parties? This is of consequence if elections are due in a state (like they are in Delhi).

Also, Modi’s address, to put it bluntly, sounded like a eulogy to himself and his government.  It was not by any means an honest inward-looking address that took stock of the month gone by (in which case it would probably have been fair to broadcast the speech as an educational feature).  The speech was littered with rhetoric – often at the cost of facts. He spoke about how someone wrote to him how people, as a result of his cleanliness drive, have started collecting garbage in trains at one place in absence of garbage bins – a claim that sounds totally off the mark since trains do have garbage bins. Also, he conveniently lauded the Human Resources and Development Ministry for coming up with special infrastructure to incentivise education for specially-abled students in schools and universities, again forgetting to mention that this was but the duty of the administration under the Disabilities Act that was formulated almost 20 years ago. On the same subject of education, he expediently refrained from condemning Smriti Irani’s archaic endorsement of exclusively vegetarian canteens in the Indian Institutes of Technology.

There’s nothing wrong with the Prime Minister of a country addressing citizens on a regular basis. It’s a good practice. What is worrying is when any FM channel you flip to at that time has his speech and nothing else. No songs, no RJs, no gags or even advertisements. That is alarming.

FM channels airing the PM’s weekly address, in the hope of the government allowing them to do news is a terrible idea. The government has set the tone of subservience and with FM channels accepting it we have perhaps lost what could have been a bunch of independent news sources (as soon as next year) with unparalleled reach.