Doordarshan, Political Masters and The Redundant Debate Over Autonomy

Doordarshan, Political Masters and The Redundant Debate Over Autonomy
Doordarshan, Political Masters and The Redundant Debate Over Autonomy
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Deepthy Menon | The News Minute | October 4, 2014 | 12.30 pm IST

Back in the days when the only kind of news that one heard on TV was read out by Rini Simon and Gitanjali Aiyar, the focus was largely on their diction and faultless English. The content was usually boring footage that informed the viewer of the event, the ministers in attendance and a synopsis of their speech – simple style of reporting the story the government wanted their people to hear. Little more was expected from Doordarshan – they were wholly owned and controlled by the government then. 

Times have supposedly changed, with an ‘autonomous’ Prasar Bharati monitoring what Doordarshan broadcasts. Cut to the scenario since Narendra Modi’s anointment as the majority choice Prime Minister of the nation. Doordarshan has a packed itinerary – the Prime Minister, after all rarely misses a chance to speak to the junta that elected him. He also believes in speaking through only the public broadcaster despite the slew of private 24 hour news channels that would package and market his interviews better. 

Is that enough to conclude he has turned Doordarshan into a state-run channel for propaganda? If opinions were divided till now, the live broadcast of the RSS head Mohan Bhagwat’s Dussehra speech settled the debate. The DD news director was quoted later as saying that it was a news-worthy event and therefore covered live. Let’s go with the assumption that Doordarshan was not coerced into toe-ing that line to save face. Does that then imply that this was the first time the RSS chief was saying/doing somethingthe nation needed to know? 

On the contrary, if DDs coverage was coerced by the ruling government’s diktats, there is an inevitability to that scenario too. In over thirty years, this country has not had a government with absolute majority to do just what it pleases. Coalition dharma had gagged previous governments into keeping minority and regional sentiments at the forefront of any decision. This government, in contrast, fears none. So then, the message that can be read into the live broadcast of the RSS speech was - Dear media channels and Modi baiters that cried foul, grin and bear this unabashed avatar of Doordarshan as the BJP government’s mouthpiece and the preferred vehicle for ultra-nationalist proselytization of impressionable audiences.

Is it really all that surprising? Political speeches getting disproportionate airtime have been the norm during elections too. Private news channels too had offered Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi ample air time during the pre-elections and campaigning phases, didn’t they? (that Gandhi junior ruined the valuable air time secured for him is a debate for another day!) – No channel admitted that it was a way of acknowledging the huge monies spent by political parties on advertising across various platforms. Instead editors made these events appear as news worthy and warranting live telecast. So why scoff now at the RSS chief’s speech being broadcast live? More importantly, all private channels cut into significant chunks of Bhagwat’s speech too. They believed it was important to cut live or into DD’s feed of the event, didn’t they? 

India was aware of the PM’s track record and the BJP’s Hindutva focus when they gave them an overwhelming mandate. There has never been any doubt either that he is heavily influenced by the RSS and their ideologies. If social media is any barometer, India is very proud of the performance of its Prime Minister, his programmes and the direction being charted by the government. Why then should we now act horrified about how Doordarshan is being used by the Modi government as its mouthpiece? Private channels are not beholden to cover Narendra Modi, his visits or speeches exhaustively. They cover it breathlessly too, don’t they? Why then cry foul over Doordarshan pushing the envelope a tad bit more by broadcasting the non-political wing of the Hindutva brigade’s Vijayadashami message live? 

Several voices that protested Doordarshan’s abuse as a state broadcaster have been hinting at autonomy - a la the BBC or ABC–a transition from being the state broadcaster to a true public service broadcaster? Earlier this year, there were discussions on making the Prasar Bharati, the ‘autonomous’ body that controls Doordarshan and AIR into a professionally managed body instead of a beehive of government babus who kow-tow to the power centres in New Delhi. 

Academically speaking, the State, obligated to promote pluralism and free flow of information of ideas to the public, should not interfere with the broadcasters’ freedom of expression. But how do you make a case for the public broadcaster’s freedom if they are also part of a converted majority that believes and endorses State action and wants to see more of it? Why single out Doordarshan as the mouthpiece of the government, when private media channels too are spending a significant amount of air-time on covering the government, their programmes and speeches? 

Discussions on whether autonomy will help DD stay away from broadcasting events like the ultra-nationalist RSS chief’s speech is redundant in the current environment. It is possible only once there is broad agreement that there is a grave problem when the public service broadcaster behaves like a state broadcaster. A big chunk of India’s population appears in favour of the ultra-nationalist brand of politicking and governance. Till they acknowledge that pluralism cannot thrive in an environment where minorities are told be silent and accept majority wishes as fait accompli, India’s public service broadcaster will function as a state broadcaster! Private media channels too might offer more chunks of airtime to applauding the State’s initiatives – its after all what their target audience want to watch too!

(Deepthy Menon is a burnt out TV journalist, with no political allegiance, left or right. Her current avatar as a mercenary writer and communication strategist is largely her way of funding her insatiable lust for travel and stories).

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