Political ads on FM, but no news

BY Sajan Venniyoor| IN Law and Policy | 21/11/2008
If political ads are broadcast without the context of impartial news reportage and analysis by the broadcaster, it will achieve manipulation of news and views.
SAJAN VENNIYOOR says the government decision to allow political advertising on FM radio is most ill-advised.




"In the hands of wealthy owners and beholden only to serving the needs of advertisers, … broadcasters have made of themselves a socially corrupting influence, advocates of political polarization, panderers to the intellectually dead, and failed owners of what has become a creatively stagnant corpse…"   


-- Robert Butche, Newsroom Magazine, 27 Oct 2008





In an interview in August 1953, Dr. BV Keskar, the then Union Minister for Information & Broadcasting, poured scorn on the demands made by some ‘merchants’ for commercial broadcasting. Famously puritanical – Keskar’s pet peeves encompassed much of popular culture, including film songs and the harmonium, both of which he virtually banned from All India Radio – he was scathingly dismissive of commercial broadcasting, arguing that it was "bound to bring down the quality of radio programmes and convert them into a cheap vaudeville show."


Though his views would be considered eccentric, even heretical, in the corridors of the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting today, he was somewhat prescient when he pointed out, "Radio will then become subservient to the goal of getting advertising revenue at any cost, and the advertisers will dictate the type of programmes they want to be broadcast."


News has just come in that the Election Commission (EC) has decided to allow political ads on private radio channels and asked the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting to amend the relevant laws and codes.[i] The request had come from the I&B ministry, which wanted the EC to allow political ads on radio, since it was allowed on TV.


There had been a sustained campaign by private FM channels to allow political advertisements on radio, a move that could net them anything up to Rs.150 crores in an election year.


Breaking the Code


Political ads are banned under the general Advertising Code for broadcasters, which says "No advertisement shall be permitted, the objects whereof, are wholly or mainly of a religious or political nature; advertisements must not be directed towards any religious or political end." In 2004, the Andhra Pradesh High Court had struck down Rule 7(3) of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act that bans political ads on TV, saying it was discriminatory and violative of the right to freedom of trade and business under Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution.


The Election Commission pointed out that the ban on radio and TV ads wasn’t its idea, and that regardless of the AP High Court¿s judgment, Rule 7(3) of the Cable TV Act was still in the statute book. In what has become a standard operating procedure for resolving broadcast disputes, the matter was then taken to the Supreme Court.


On 13 April 2004, the SC directed that political parties, contesting candidates or any other person could advertise on the electronic media provided they got the ads cleared by the Election Commission. The court order did not specify it, but the ban on political ads continued on radio, possibly on the grounds that radio could not be monitored as easily as television.


Oddly enough, there has never been a legislative basis to the ban on political advertisements on radio. The AIR advertising code has been incorporated into the FM radio policy by an executive decision, but unlike the provisions of the Cable TV Act, this has no legislative force.


Private radio in India is unique in several respects. In spite of being the oldest of the electronic media, it was the last to wash up on India’s shores, as recently as the year 2001, when Radio City Bangalore went on air. It also has the distinction of being the only medium on which news is banned.


If the radio industry had lobbied for the broadcast of news as assiduously as it has done for political advertisements, we would have been spared the mass-market cookie-cutter programming for which FM radio is infamous.


Public property, private good


At the launch of Sangham Radio, (India’s first community radio station, in Pastapur, Andhra Pradesh), retired Supreme Court judge, Justice PB Sawant said with a laugh, "As I have said to Bhaskar, it would take just one PIL to blow away his monopoly!"


Bhaskar Ghose, who was among those present, just grinned; back in 1995, he was the Secretary, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting when Justice Sawant wrote the historic judgment on the airwaves, declaring them to be public property to be utilized for the public good.


The airwaves judgment had said, "Airwaves, being public property, it is the duty of the State to see that airwaves are so utilised as to advance the free speech right of the citizens." The judgment pointed out the dangers of "the privileged few – powerful economic, commercial and political interests" coming to dominate the media.


In the 13 years since the Supreme Court judgment, AIR’s monopoly of radio news has never been challenged by private broadcasters. Their concern, it now appears, has been more with the right to broadcast political ads than political news, or any other kind of news.


"By manipulating the news, views and information," the Court had warned, "by indulging in misinformation and disinformation, to suit their commercial or other interests, they would be harming – and not serving – the principle of plurality and diversity of views, news, ideas and opinions."


Prohibiting any sort of independent news, while simultaneously allowing political advertising, is a recipe for bad radio. It is as far from the spirit of the airwaves judgment as one could possibly get. If political ads are broadcast without the context of impartial news reportage and analysis by the broadcaster, it will achieve just the sort of manipulation of news and views – driven by commercial and political interests – that the Supreme Court had warned against and unleash the medium’s potential for ‘misinformation and disinformation’. 


The merchandising of politics


"The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal is the ultimate indignity to the democratic process," said presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1956. Half a century later, merchandising candidates for high office has evolved into a fine and expensive art. The US Federal Election Commission computes the media expenditure on the 2008 presidential election at $420.7 million, of which 335.24 million dollars went to the broadcast media.


In the run-up to the 2008 election, Barack Obama placed a 30-minute advertisement on all the major US TV networks. Ross Perot had done much the same thing in 1992, with a series of half hour ‘infomercials’. The point is that a political ad on radio or TV can come in many guises. It can be longer than a news bulletin, if the money is right, and even sound like one.


Even without resorting to outright slander or vilification, a political ad can be, to quote a recent Congress complaint against BJP poll ads, "full of falsehoods, misrepresentations, false allegations and communal overtones and constitute a totally misleading appeal to voters".[ii]


The provocation for this outburst was a newspaper advertisement in Delhi. Even with all the checks and balances promised by the Election Commission, the impact of a slew of well-crafted political ads on radio or TV in subaltern India, on a guileless and receptive audience, can only be imagined.


The virtuous Dr. Keskar had observed, "Those who advocate commercial broadcasting consider radio to be just a business.  Government, on the other hand, considers it an important medium for education, entertainment and culture, which must all help the people to prosper and the country to progress. The success of broadcasting should not be judged merely by the number of radio licences issued, or the revenue brought in¿¿.


That was half a century ago, when the zeitgeist was different. Today, both the advocates of commercial broadcasting and the government itself has made it unmistakably clear that the success of broadcasting can be judged only by the number of licenses issued and the revenue brought in.


After all, radio is just a business.




i "Election panel allows ads on FM channels" – Hindustan Times, 17 November 2008

ii ‘Congress lodges complaint against BJP poll ads’ – www.sify.com.



[i] "Election panel allows ads on FM channels" – Hindustan Times, 17 November 2008

[ii] ‘Congress lodges complaint against BJP poll ads’ – www.sify.com.

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