In the current romance between political parties and media channels, poor Prasar Bharati finds itself cast in the tragic role of the first wife in the attic. Take a look at the television scene in Tamil Nadu, for example. Sun TV, Kalaignar TV, Vasanth TV, Makkal TV, Puthiya Thalaimurai TV, Jaya TV, Captain TV and Win TV form the roll call of channels with overt and covert links with the major political parties. In fact, political links are not confined to generation of content. Major parties have slowly extended their control to cable television operations and can thus influence the distribution of content.
In these circumstances, while the judicial systems and the Election Commissions efforts to check paid news are welcome, it is difficult to overlook their averted gaze from the issue of channels with clear political affiliations. So long as TV channels are effectively controlled by political parties, it is futile to pretend paid news is a tactical issue which can be easily controlled by law. This is another example of our general tendency to strain at gnats and swallow camels.
The larger issues are how best we regulate the media and who should do the job. Most readers who have bemoaned the death of the telegraph would be surprised to know that in the eyes of the law, the television signal continues to be regarded as a telegraph. Yes, what all of us watch every evening are de jure visual telegrams.
It is the far-fetched definition of a television signal as a form of a telegram which has permitted Trai to act as the broadcasting regulator. Unfortunately, Trai is a technical body which doesnt understand the social and political implications of the media. It has therefore adopted a rather laissez faire attitude towards broadcasting and self-regulation by broadcasters is open to abuse as hardly any member of the public seems to object to the content being broadcast.
In this dog-eat-dog world of broadcasting journalism, it would require a major scandal before the government of the day discharges its duty by enacting a law to regulate broadcasting and setting up a separate broadcasting regulator.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly chided the government for the legal fiction of regarding the television signal as a telegram and has urged it to enact a broadcasting law.
In the Bronte novel, the first Mrs Rochester perishes in a grand fire she sets off which burns down Thornfield Hall. Mr Rochester loses a hand and an eye and then Jane returns. Since the CEOs of Prasar Bharati differ from Mrs Rochester in being sane rather than mad, they are unlikely to set ablaze the establishment. Manish Tiwari, as minister of I&B, has stated the Prasar Bharati Act provides for autonomy. However, Prasar Bharati CEO Jawhar Sircar is also right as de facto Prasar Bharati has limited autonomy. The assets of Doordarshan and All India Radio remain under the governments control and not Prasar Bharatis though the Act was passed in 1990 and notified in 1997. The Indian Broadcasting Service has two wings, a programme wing and an engineering wing and is housed entirely in Prasar Bharati as a legacy from earlier days. It belongs to neither of its masters and is somewhat neglected by both. What the ministry of I&B continues to control is the Indian Information Service. This group of officials mans the new services of both AIR and DD. In fact, the majority of the cadre posts of the IIS are within Prasar Bharati, a supposedly autonomous organisation. The CEO of Prasar Bharati has a rather nominal control over his news services when all postings and transfers, and confidential reports are controlled by the ministry of I&B.
In fact, it is true to say that there is an all-party consensus that Prasar Bharati need not function as an autonomous unit and can very well be used as an organ for propagating the official line. The concept of a public service broadcaster is ill-understood as a reading of the recent Pitroda report on Prasar Bharati reveals and so long as political parties have access to their own controlled media channels, Prasar Bharati must be content to remain in the attic like the first Mrs Rochester.
The author is a former DG, AIR, and served as the CEO of Prasar Bharati. He was also CMD of Arasu Cable TV Corp