Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Cross media holdings, the corporatisation and politicisation of the media, advertising pressures, the managerial takeover of editorial responsibilities, paid news and similar dubious dealings like private treaties have all combined to undermine media integrity

Revisiting Broadcast Autonomy

The Pitroda Committee returns a useful blueprint for a renewed Prasar Bharati public broadcasting corporation but misses some key issues.

By B G Verghese

February, 2014

India is in dire need of broadcast autonomy especially in the form of a truly autonomous, even if public assisted, public service broadcaster. This was a promise made by Nehru to Parliament in 1948 – but one that is yet to be redeemed. The post-Emergency 1977-78 broadcast autonomy committee in its report “Akash Bharati” presented a blueprint for autonomy. That was dumbed down by the Janata Government and a Prasar Bharati Bill was finally only enacted in 1990, brought into force in 1997 and emasculated almost ab initio.

What the government wanted, with cross-party political support, was some kind of official trumpet. Despite brave efforts to make something of it, Prasar Bharati has not lived up to its Charter that few, if any, have even read.

PB’s c.v makes dismal reading. It is probably the largest public broadcaster in the world with a staff of 31,621 full time and 7,269 part-time employees, mostly government employees. DD operates 21 channels and AIR has a network of 326 broadcast stations. The engineering and technical services are numerically dominant and no more than 15 percent of the budget is devoted to programme content as against 60-80 percent by other major international broadcasters. Radio has been downgraded and AIR reduced to a poor relative. The country has over 800 TV channels and 500 FM channels that are only permitted limited news coverage. Community broadcasting, long discouraged, is only now slowly coming into its own.

It was therefore with much hope and expectation that the appointment of a new Expert Committee was announced under Sam Pitroda and seven domain experts a year ago. That report is now in but is not easily available in hard copy and has been virtually ignored in public discussion. The main recommendation is that PB “needs to be adequately empowered and enabled” with independent professionals and financial self-reliance to “unleash its creative forces” beyond the market as a true voice of India, its ethos, culture and aspirations to become a genuine public broadcaster rather than remain a “government broadcaster”.

Stress is rightly laid on appropriate mechanisms to confer financial and personnel autonomy on PB. There is gross overstaffing and staff must become employees and not allowed to remain government servants, a pernicious legacy of official control. The Board should be professionally managed; there must be a complete transfer of ownership and management of all assets and HR to PB to make it independent of Government; funding should come from government, internal resource mobilisation, including monetising the tremendous archival assets of AID and DD; private investment in production; and through “co-opting industry through CSR budgets. There is need to digitise radio and TV; create a world class broadcast service with a global outreach; and set up an autonomous third arm “PB Connect” to manage social media initiatives.

Many of these recommendations are well taken, but there will be reservations on others. Constituting a parliamentary oversight committee “to ensure that PB discharges its duty in accordance with the provisions of the Act and Government-defined duties” is a recipe for political interference. PB is accountable to Parliament through its annual report and budget through the Ministry of I&B and, where needed, through Questions. A “Regulatory (Complaints) body” as a sub-committee of PB is also not a good idea. This should be an independent body and should also cover private broadcasters so as to avoid different rulings by parallel authorities.

The plea to “encourage outsourcing of content creation to external producers” needs to be treated with caution. PB must develop in-house talent while not baulking at hiring producers from the market. This was the position earlier but has been subverted by overly embracing the market.

Likewise, urging PB to share its huge infrastructure with the market, does not go far enough. A PB committee under Prof Indiresen, had years ago suggested hiving off the engineering, technical and R&D wings of PB into a Transmission Corporation as an independent profit centre as their lands, buildings, transmitters, studio facilities, relay stations and towers have considerable idle capacity that could service private and, especially, local and community broadcasting. This proposal should not be discarded without deeper study.

The broadcast receiver licence fee, paid one-time at the purchase point, has most unwisely been relegated as an unsavoury tax. This calls for reconsideration.

Another recommendation that must be queried is that since the State has to communicate messages, there should be a separate “State Broadcasting set-up that should use the existing public and private broadcasting infrastructure”. This appears to be creating avoidable redundancy and encouraging a propaganda machine. PB can and should do the job as a public service broadcaster.

Above all, the Expert Report does not make out as strong a case for public service broadcasting as merited. Current media trends in India in the wake of the continuing communications revolution and market de-regulation are a matter for concern. Cross media holdings, the corporatisation and politicisation of the media, advertising pressures, the managerial takeover of editorial responsibilities, paid news and similar dubious dealings like private treaties have all combined to undermine media integrity. Allegations masquerade as charges and subvert public discourse and result in media trials. The failure to regulate the media – the Press Council is a broken reed – and the fragility of self-regulation has deeply undermined media credibility.

It is in this milieu that a true public service broadcaster has a duty to and can set standards. It is not commercially driven, as are private channels, and rather than merely cater to the (well-heeled) “consumer” can and must cater to the real aam admi whose life hovers around the poverty level. All consumers are citizens but not all citizens are “consumers”. As India is in transition from rural to urban, agriculture to industry, feudal submission to protest, local to global, little identities to fraternity, information is the key to empowerment, equality, gender justice and social awareness. Who more than PB does or can afford to speak to and for all the people in their myriad languages and dialects, and remote habitats?

Nevertheless, the Expert Committee, whatever else, constitutes a good basis for debate and reform. This Parliament is done and legislation must await the new government after the general elections. This gives time for a national debate. Let us use that time purposefully.

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