The formation of a federation, ostensibly to address the concerns of regional broadcasters, indicates a sharp cleavage in an increasingly polarised media. The newly formed News Broadcasters Federation (NBF) appears to have the blessings of the current government, but that will only queer the pitch for the fragile and fractured state of self-regulation in broadcast media.
Last week, the headline of the Right-wing website Swarajya barely hid its glee as it announced the new federation: “End Of Lutyens Dominance? Over 50 Channels Led By Republic Join Hands To Form News Broadcasting Federation”. Arnab Goswami, the owner-editor-in-chief of Republic TV, is well known for taking potshots at what he calls Lutyens media (at least till he was rewarded with the membership of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library).
But is the newly-formed NBF really about the struggle to find that elusive space in Lutyens media? Or is it a move to establish its own domination in the broadcasting media space and assert a superior rapport with the government?
Of course, the government tried to be even-handed. Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar welcomed the formation of the new body but he also met with a delegation from the older News Broadcasters Association (NBA), headed by Rajat Sharma who is known to be close to Prime Minister Modi. The NBA press release had discussions on “key matters including the importance of the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA), a transparent ratings system and new technologies in broadcasting”.
So, why the new organisation? Wasn’t the NBA, of which Republic was a part till last year, able to represent broadcasters and their business interests?
Clearly not. Of the 866 private television channels in India (as on October 31, 2018), 383 are News & Current Affairs TV Channels while 483 are Non-News & Current Affairs TV Channels. In 2018, the membership of the NBA stood at 27 broadcasters representing 69 television channels.
Undoubtedly, these channels comprise the major television channels but over the last few years, regional news channels have seen a spike. And either they didn’t find a space for themselves in the NBA, or they stayed away. Indeed, in his annual report for 2017-18, NBA president (and India TV owner) Rajat Sharma bemoaned the lack of interest of regional broadcasters in the NBA: “Another issue of concern is the unwillingness of news broadcasters particularly the regional broadcasters from becoming members of NBA. It is disheartening to report that despite our best efforts, we have not succeeded much in strengthening our membership. It has only had a trickle effect. We have 29 broadcasters representing 71 channels in the membership of NBA. We hope broadcasters will see value in being members of NBA and we look forward to welcoming them. Every news broadcaster should voluntarily join the NBA to make it a unified voice of the news genre. NBA Board during the year under report decided to grant Associate membership to digital broadcasters and we hope digital broadcasters in the news genre will join the NBA”.
NBF’s very august company
The 50-odd channels that have signed up for the new federation are a mix of politically-partisan channels close to the governing National Democratic Alliance, those owned by industrialists who are under the scanner for dubious business deals, regional channels with considerable local viewership and even a spiritual channel.
Apart from the Arnab Goswami-Rajeev Chandrashekar duo of Republic TV and Asianet News Network, it has former BJD and now BJP Jay Panda’s Odisha TV and VRL Media, owned by the industrialist, media publisher and BJP leader from Karnataka, Vijay Sankeshwar. There’s also Puthiya Thalamurai, owned by the SRM Group which floated the Indhiya Jananayaga Katchi (IJK), a party that formed an alliance with the NDA in 2014 and switched to the DMK in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and Raj News, owned by M Raajhendran who is close to the DMK.
The list available in the public domain also features industrialists with a controversial record. There’s News 7 owned by the VV Group of controversial mining baron Vaikundarajan, and Kolkata TV, owned by Kaustuv Ray of RP Infosystems, arrested last March for an over ₹500-crore fraud of a consortium of 10 banks.
Curiously, the list also features Sri Sankara TV, which describes itself as a “multilingual spiritual channel, broadcasting programmes that uphold Hindu culture and traditions”.
But there’s also the popular Polimer TV, Gujarat TV and Nirmana TV, which began in cable television in Ahmedabad and has spread to Rajasthan, Maharastra, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Assam and West Bengal, Prag News, owned by Sanjive Narain’s AM Television, and National Voice, which started out on a DTH platform by senior editor Prabhu Chawla in 2017.
Interestingly, there’s also TV9 Bharatvarsh, the Hindi language channel that launched in March this year as the latest in a slew of TV9 channels in different languages. TV9 was started by Associated Broadcasting Company Pvt Ltd and has been embroiled in a messy battle for ownership, with the exit of founder Srini Raju, a takeover by Alanda Media & Entertainments Pvt Ltd (its owner Jupally Rameshwara Rao is said to be close to the Telangana Rashtra Samithi) and the arrest of co-founder and CEO Ravi Prakash in June this year.
Collision of business interests?
It’s really early days yet, but how will the new organisation leverage its political clout with its business interests?
Distribution is a major tussle in an already overcrowded market, more so for regional broadcasters.
Almost since its inception, Republic TV has been at odds with the rest of the broadcasters over alleged violation of interconnection regulations. In May 2017, before Republic became its member, the NBA wrote to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) seeking clarity on the channel’s alleged unethical distribution practices.
Republic TV, listed as an English news channel, was registered under several multi-systems operators (MSOs) giving it an undue advantage over other channels, prompting other broadcasters to cry foul. TRAI responded by directing MSOs to stick with their Logical Channel Numbers (LCNs). Last July, TRAI came out with the Telecommunication (Broadcasting and Cable) Interconnection (Addressable Systems) Regulations 2017, unsuccessfully challenged by Star TV and Vijay TV in the Supreme Court.
In February, TV18 complained to TRAI about Republic Bharat being listed outside the non-Hindi news genre. And to add to the jousting, TRAI came out with its draft regulations on tariffs and interconnection regulations (Telecommunication (Broadcasting and Cable) Services Register of Interconnection Agreements Regulations, 2019) in April this year.
So, while the broadcasters and their associations fight it out, what’s in it for viewers?
Last year, the NBSA completed 10 years of self-regulation, processing over 2,777 complaints, according to the report of its president, Rajat Sharma. He went on to add: “Self-regulatory bodies often are an easy target by cynics. However, we know that the NBSA can firmly proclaim that it has fulfilled its obligations to its members and to the public.”
From the record we already have of the broadcasters—both in the NBA as well as the newly formed NBF—it would be hard to be anything but cynical.
Broadcasters, with very little exception, are pretty much a law unto themselves. They have flouted almost all the guidelines in their own code. Channel anchors have reduced news to a raucous spectacle, they have routinely violated viewers’ privacy, jumped into bathtubs, abused, bullied and hectored those they have interviewed. They don’t follow any labour regulations and hire and fire at will. They have cut news-gathering budgets and resorted to studio shouting matches. They have actively engaged in inciting and inflammatory programmes, airing doctored videos and openly celebrating political party victories, witch-hunts against political dissenters and the arrest of civil society activists.
Amongst the over 2,000 complaints, the list of non-compliance is a disturbing indicator of how much broadcasters value self-regulation as a principle.
Take the example of India TV, which pulled out in a huff when a complaint of erroneous reporting was upheld (one of the first cases taken up by the NBSA under Justice Verma; Sharma was treasurer then and came back to become its president in 2014). Or that of Zee News, which is yet to apologise to scientist and poet Gauhar Raza, despite its appeal being rejected by the NBSA. Or what about TV9, which walked out of the NBA in 2011 after it was pulled up for a dreadful story on “gay culture” in Hyderabad and stayed out till it joined the NBF. Or even the complaint upheld against Republic TV for false reporting last year.
In 2008, Goswami, then editor-in-chief of Times Now, was convenor of the committee to draft the NBA’s code of ethics. (The same code he is so often accused of flouting and the same code that the NBA has been trying to get successive governments to make statutory, a la the code of the Advertising Standards Council of India.) Today, the government hails his new organisation and hopes it will submit its recommendations “where truth does not become a casualty”.
Forget the irony that just died quietly somewhere along the way, what about the fact that the news is already a casualty. In the recasting of the Republic, what will be televised?