news Wednesday, February 25, 2015 - 05:30

The News Minute | October 3, 2014 | 12.37 pm IST

The criticism of Doordarshan’s coverage of Mohan Bhagwat’s speech during the RSS’ Vijayadashami celebrations may be misplaced, given the absence of a clear-cut relationship between the government and the public broadcaster.

The Congress lost no opportunity to criticise the government because Doordarshan covered the event, saying that though Bhagwat held no official position, Doordarshan had been asked to “mandatorily cover” the event. 

Read: Will RSS chief's speech on DD become annual feature, asks Congress

According to senior journalists, this is precisely the problem that India’s public broadcaster Prasar Bharti has been mired in since its inception in 1997. Although Prasar Bharti is a “statutory autonomous” body set up to run Doordarshan and All India Radio. 

So are Doordarshan and AIR free to function and media, or are they an extension of the government? The answer to this question, would probably depend on who is being asked, and in what context.

In March 2013, senior journalist B G Verghese wrote: “The Government’s communication policy, or rather the appalling lack of one, has had a crippling effect on public relations and national morale as AIR and DD came to be used as a propaganda trumpet rather than as a voice of India to its multitudinous diversity.”

Journalist and author Vanita Kohli-Khandekar wrote Business Standard: “Every government, irrespective of the party in power, has treated Doordarshan as an in-house mouthpiece meant to be controlled. They have studiously ignored all talk of financial and administrative autonomy.” She lists out some of the problems that Prasar Bharti faces. According to her, Prasar Bharti has the best assets in the television industry, but does not even own them. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting just never transferred them to Prasar Bharti Corporation.

Now to the question as to why such a situation exists in the first place. Several media critics and senior journalists have been pointing out for years the sheer number of problems that Prasar Bharti faces, starting with the act that brought Prasar Bharti into existence.

Senior journalist and editor of media watch website Sevanti Ninan writes: “anyone seeking solutions to the current problems of Prasar Bharati has to go back to the drawing board and tackle first of all a legislation full of contradictions.”

She details the kind of problems that Prasar Bharti faces in an article published in 2013: “The first reason why Prasar Bharati needs rethinking is because the Ministry, particularly after the notification of the Act, has presided over governance which can only be described as a royal mess. Whether it is because of half baked autonomy or just poor administration by the former bureaucrats appointed as CEOs in the past, today there are 1600 vacancies in the organization, and there have been no promotions in the non-engineering cadres for twenty years or more, so there is a totally demoralized workforce. The vacancies in the programming related service are as high as 83 per cent.”

She continues: “The most unforgivable part of the mess is that the affairs of the corporation take away attention from its job—to provide quality non commercial broadcasting to a range of Indian audiences.”

Ninan says that there is no clear-cut relationship between the government and Prasar Bharti. One of the terms of reference of the Sam Pitroda committee was to look into this relationship, and “therefore how it should be structured”.

Quoting a farmer in one of her columns for Mint, Ninan says: “Less than 10 days ago in Bhilai camp, a semi-urban colony in Chhattisgarh’s Durg district, a farmer asked, how come in a country with 75% employed in agriculture, nobody has started a farm, dairy and animal husbandry channel? His figure may be slightly off the mark, but his logic is irrefutable.”

She argues that public broadcasting in India is a shambles not just because Prasar Bharti lacks autonomy, but also because no government had attempted to ask people what sort of programming and information they needed.

When the Sam Pitroda committee was formed, she said that it was the fourth problem-solving committee that the government had set up since 1996. She says: “No government has been broad-minded enough to set up a committee to look at the best ways to provide people programmes that meet their needs. If you could not bring yourself to give autonomy in the 15 years since you notified the Prasar Bharati Act, stop trying. See how you can remain a government platform and bring the best kind of broadcasting from any source on board.”

So what is the way forward?

In January this year, the Sam Pitroda committee submitted its report to the government. One of its recommendations was that Prasar Bharti be modelled along the lines of the BBC, as a public broadcaster, and not a “government broadcaster”.

Quoting Ninan, Khandekar says: “As Ninan puts it; "No committee matters except the fact that you have lost your audience." If Doordarshan wants to be relevant again, it first needs to get back its audience. And for that it needs autonomy. There we go again…”

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