Smriti’s Homily To Caged DD and AIR

Tushar Charan

The pugnacious Information and Broadcasting minister, Smriti Irani, has asked the public broadcaster Doordarshan to ‘improve’ its contents to be competitive. She needs to understand that before producing more watchable programmes, DD has to be given genuine freedom—autonomy that actually it is supposed to enjoy under the Prasar Bharati Act. As a ‘caged bird’ of the government, neither DD nor All India Radio, AIR, can successfully face any competition. And let us not be delusional about the ‘autonomy’ of the two public broadcasters despite the PB Act.

Ms Irani pleading for better content—news as well as entertainment programmes-on DD sounds ironic. With her background in the TV industry she ought to have by now shared her ideas with DD top heads on better entertaining programmes. As for news contents, it is hard to image that someone as intolerant of Opposition voices as this government, Ms Irani in particular, really understands what makes news content more credible and more listenable.

She is among those who believe in drawing a ‘red line’ that cannot be crossed in broadcasting news. Red lines may be fine, but what it means in reality is that anything even remotely unpalatable to the ruling dispensation will amount to exceeding the ‘red line.’ That ensures that the news content remains insipid, often stretching credulity. Not the formula for drawing more viewers/listeners.

Some time ago, the Information and Broadcasting minister of the day in the present NDA government had expressed the hope that DD and AIR would become rivals to BBC. It was a ridiculous hope because BBC, despite being funded by the government and its perceived biases, exercises almost complete autonomy without having to face the ire of the government.

During the Falklands war in the 1980s, Her Majesty government was reportedly angry with the BBC, which was found to be too critical of the British action in that remote British island at the southern tip of Argentina. But the BBC survived the displeasure of the government and continued with its independent coverage of the war.

Quite recently, a senior BBC journalist resigned after alleging that she was paid less than her male counterparts only because of her gender. The news was carried in the major bulletins of the BBC along with the allegations made by the journalist as well as the reaction of the management.

In the prevailing conditions, DD and AIR cannot show that kind of ‘boldness’ or exercise a degree of independent editorial judgement. Both have been quite happy to serve as ‘His Master’s Voice’ in the past and today they compete with private channels that pride themselves in being the louder and more aggressive voices of the saffron master.

Except for the infamous days of the Emergency, DD and AIR never functioned so unabashedly as government mouthpieces and vehicles of its propaganda. As an Opposition party, the BJP, today’s ruling party, was highly critical of DD and AIR for functioning as government propaganda arms. It was, therefore, expected that having come to power, the BJP will free DD and AIR from the shackles of the government and the ruling party. Things have moved in the opposite direction.

Views, not news, have become the hallmark of DD ‘news bulletins’. It is not very different from what is seen on most private ‘news’ channels. Even with the government’s vice-like grip over their functioning, both DD and AIR could actually still do better in one important area: ‘Breaking news’ with exclusive announcements of important government moves before any other channel. The private channels would perhaps protest at this ‘discrimination’ but they are hardly in a position to challenge the government when they have volunteered to play the role of ‘lapdog’, as some have said with both sarcasm and contempt.

DD often carries ‘interviews’ with ministers and other senior government functionaries. Because of incompetence or fear of displeasing the authorities, these ‘interviews’ are ‘puffs’ which have little news or journalistic value. But if the same ministers and functionaries begin to make important announcements on DD and AIR first they will certainly make the two media outlets more noticeable and perhaps eagerly awaited.

Let us look at it this way. How many times has a DD ‘interview’ been the first to ‘break news’ with an important announcement? On the other hand, many formal or informal interviews and conversations with government functionaries on private channels have been picked up by various news media.

Even with the firewall that key government functionaries have reported created around them—on orders from the top—nobody can deny that the practice of officials ‘planting’ stories has ended. Nor has the off the record briefing that is supposed to fill in certain blanks or provide a clue to government thinking on an important matter.

This is again a field where DD and AIR could score over others by being the ‘first’ to report. Reporting first in such cases will make DD viewing and monitoring by competitors compulsive.

If all this sounds like advocating favouritism to be shown to DD and AIR then let it be pointed out that this government which assumed power in May 2014 has made its intentions very clear about keeping the private media at an arm’s length. The prime minister on his foreign visits takes along only DD and AIR teams and the army of private channels has accepted the denial of level playing field without protest.

This preference for the ‘sarkari’ media is shown in other forms also—especially on official functions. Ministerial perorations are often ‘exclusives’ on DD and AIR when their inanities are incapable of boosting TRPs or catching wider attention. But don’t conclude that the private media has no fascination for trivia.

The point being made is that the government and its functionaries are able to restrict access to DD and AIR without inviting criticism from the private media. The private media is quite happy and busy blowing up non-issues that can embarrass the Opposition to bother about any ‘bias’ in the government’s dealing with them.

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