Prasar Bharati's Ghar Wapasi

BY Padmaja Shaw| IN Media Practice | 03/06/2015
The BJP's misuse of the media has echoes of Indira Gandhi's Emergency. Yet when out of power, the party is in campaign mode for the autonomy for Prasar Bharati.
PADMAJA SHAW argues for a fairer use of spectrum space.
Prasar Bharati's Ghar Wapasi

 “History repeats … first as tragedy, then as farce”, Karl Marx famously wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.  In India we seem to be going through the farce.

Forty years ago, when a national Emergency was declared by the Indira Gandhi regime, India was at a different cusp of history. It was not too far from the days of the Congress party split in 1969, the nationalisation of banks, the abolition of princely purses and such other radical measures by her government.

In 1971, Mrs Gandhi’s government got a great political boost after India’s intervention in the creation of Bangladesh. But politically, the Congress party was losing its grassroots structure by then. All India Radio, which was a monopoly and was recognised by the government as a vehicle for propaganda for the development programmes of the government, became an instrument and a platform for Mrs Gandhi’s political messages as well.

When the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) was launched in 1975, the possibility of satellite television and its ability to put the leader in direct contact with the electorate to receive her undistorted message was a boon. The SITE project was almost coterminous with the Emergency and both on AIR and TV one got to hear about the 20-point programme of Mrs Gandhi and the 5-point programme of Sanjay Gandhi.  

Neither the 20-point programme nor the 5-point programme was an anti-national, anti-democratic agenda. Both, in fact, still remain part of the development objectives of the government and several items conform with the Millennium Development Goals of the UN.

The media scene was limited then and the public’s access to the media was also limited.

Opposition leaders raised a hue and cry around the broadcasts and news coverage about these programmes, saying that Mrs Gandhi was misusing the media for personal publicity and the promotion of her son, Sanjay Gandhi. In fact, one of the main planks for the election that followed the Emergency was autonomy for the broadcast media.

And soon after, an attempt was made to bring autonomy to the state-run media and Prasar Bharati was created. It is a matter of recorded history about what each of the current BJP leaders said about the need for autonomy once they got into power.  L.K. Advani, information and broadcasting minister in the Janata government,  who asked B G Verghese to draft a blueprint for an autonomous broadcaster, later said that the Verghese committee recommendations far exceeded their mandate and the government was merely looking for functional autonomy.

Later, Sushma Swaraj attempted to undermine the autonomy of Prasar Bharati by reintroducing the 22-MPs oversight clause.

Pramod Mahajan famously asserted that Prasar Bharati now needed to be under government control as the government had invested heavily in the system.

In its current stint, the BJP government shows complete ownership of the so-called autonomous Prasar Bharati by making some hard interventions in its day-to-day functioning, and also making its intentions quite clear.

When out of power, the BJP is in campaign mode for the autonomy for Prasar Bharati.  It objects even to the legitimate coverage given to the PM or ruling party seniors, accusing the government of misuse of the media.

Before the 2014 elections, Doordarshan was attacked repeatedly for censorship and unfair coverage of opposition leaders. Post May 2014, the BJP and its Prime Minister have shown no hesitation in using the state-run media, AIR and Doordarshan as a major propaganda vehicle, mostly for fireside chats of the Prime Minister which deal with what development communicators would call Behaviour Change Communication (BCC) and some try to justify the policies initiated by the government.

The Mann Ki Baat of Narendra Modi began to be aired on All India Radio initially, but today it is carried by private FM channels, Doordarshan and other DTH platforms as well.

These chats are about the Prime Minister projecting himself as a leader deeply concerned with the welfare and well-being of the people. He has so far addressed children, farmers, students before and after the board exams, and the general public on various issues. In some of the speeches, the Prime Minister goes on to defend controversial legislations and policy matters like the Land Acquisition Bill or One Rank One Pension.

It is one thing to promote a policy after it has been approved and is about to be implemented.  But a debate is raging about these issues in and out of Parliament and only the Prime Minister has the privileged access to the blanket coverage the state-owned media are willing to provide.

The BJP already demonstrated the depth of its access to privately owned radio and television networks during the elections. It continues to have the same post-elections. It is not clear if the public exchequer is paying the private channels for the transmission of Mann Ki Baat.

The unprecedented saturation blitzkrieg of opinion on broadcast media needs to be balanced with a more democratic allocation of spectrum space, which after all has been described by the Supreme Court as a public resource that belongs to the people of India.

The Prime Ministership is a political office that represents a part of the ideological spectrum in a multi-party democracy. It is precisely for this reason that the BJP and its earlier avatar Jan Sangh made such a hue and cry about Indira Gandhi’s media presence. One would expect a minister like Mr Jaitley, who has been a virulent critic of the misuse of media, to understand this.

During Indira Gandhi’s and Rajiv Gandhi’s tenures, the media penetration was far lower and still the opposition felt threatened by the limited coverage given to them.  Today there are more channels but several of them also carry the Mann Ki Baat programme along with Prasar Bharati channels. When fewer channels and less access can cause alarm, so many channels, both state and non-state carrying the same should be far more alarming?

Mann Ki Baat should be made a regular feature. In the interest of the “fairness” doctrine or “equal time” doctrine of broadcasting in democracies, opposition leaders must be given slots in the Mann Ki Baat programme to present their sentiments about issues.

All India Radio and Doordarshan already have a tried and tested method for determining who should get how much access, which they use for election broadcasts. A similar method should be adopted here as well. If private channels choose to transmit such broadcasts, then they should be obliged to provide equal space for other voices as well.

Having said this, however, the listeners’ response can be quite unpredictable. Overexposure on the broadcast media generally leads to cynicism and finally to rejection in most cases. This, however, is determined by the material reality of the listeners and the credibility of the claims made on these broadcasts.

Mrs Indira Gandhi’s media misuse has left an indelible blot on her political legacy, which has also permanently handicapped the Congress party in its ability to regulate the media. The haphazard expansion of the private media is partly a result of this regulatory apathy in the Congress years.  This has had tragic consequences for the way the media industry grew in India.

Now the BJP in power is enacting the farce of media overuse, both public and private, on an unprecedented scale. It remains to be seen how the political fortunes of the actors in this farce will unravel.   

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