A tale of two resignations

BY SEVANTI NINAN| IN Media Business | 08/10/2016
The director of BBC Radio resigns, concerned over the impact of technology on journalism. The Prasar Bharati CEO resigns, amid concerns about decisions which impact revenue.
SEVANTI NINAN explains what these two exits tell us

 Jawahar Sircar resigns before his tenure ends.

 

Over the past week there have been two resignations of the heads of public broadcasting organisations, and it is tempting to juxtapose them for what they tell us about the future of broadcasting, and about the BBC and Doordarshan.

When Helen Boaden, Director of BBC Radio, resigned on September 30, The Independent ran an extract from a speech she was scheduled to make in Italy,  in which she looked back at her career in broadcasting, and the way the industry had been transformed by digital technology.

Since she was eloquent in describing what the change meant for television and radio news, and since the organization she had quit was the BBC, there was much sharing of the speech on Facebook and Twitter here in India, particularly among journalists.

Three days later, Jawhar Sircar, Chief Executive Officer of Prasar Bharati, announced that he had asked to be relieved of his job five months prior to retirement. He completes his six year tenure at the public broadcaster in February next year.  Unlike Boaden, he did not dwell on the reasons, so reporters dug out his earlier statements to conclude that his frustration with the intractable problems of running our public broadcaster was the cause.  

 

"What happens at Prasar Bharati clearly does not provoke journalists on social media as much as developments at the BBC do."

 

The resignation was duly reported in all media, but I did not see any consternation among the denizens of Facebook and Twitter about it. What happens at Prasar Bharati clearly does not provoke journalists on social media as  much as developments at the BBC do.

Boaden’s speech is a reflection on how digital technology has changed the news industry - initially an exciting gift, but ultimately a trivializing force, breaking news with speed, but at the cost of context and clarity.

It is also a plea to save the “slow news” of radio. There are comments in it about public broadcasting and public broadcasters which I would like to pull out for the comparisons they lend themselves to, in talking about Doordarshan and the challenge it faces today.

Against Boaden’s reflections on the BBC’s technological  transformation, rammed  through by an earlier Director General, let us juxtapose a speech Sircar made earlier this year to broadcast engineers at Doordarshan,  reflecting quite the opposite pressure in the government-controlled broadcaster. 

“In my first year I had challenged the mindless growth of terrestrial and analog transmission,” he begins, going on to describe his helplessness as investment continues apace in terrestrial expansion, albeit digital terrestrial.  “We have spent Rs 800 crore in the last two years on this expansion even as terrestrial viewership has come down, leading to a 35 per cent loss in DD’s earnings.”

 

"Every country except India understands that if you want to do public service broadcasting it needs to be paid for either by the government of the day or by a funding mechanism it has devised. "

 

He tells the engineers that they will all be affected by the advent of 4G on smartphones as people move away from television (and indeed the additional set top box that Doordarshan’s terrestrial digitisation necessitates) and concludes that since nobody  is listening, the prospects for commercial survival are not bright.

I bring this speech up in the context of Boaden’s speech on digital technology.  One broadcasting head is concerned about the impact of technology on the quality of journalism, the other is concerned about what technological decisions are doing to the organisation’s revenues.

However, the issue that has exasperated Sircar in recent months is not technological choices.  Rather, it is the back and forthing within Prasar Bharati over a decision to sell time slots on Doordarshan to private programme producers - again, in a bid to shore up revenue. The idea was Sircar’s, and is a throwback to a similar practice that existed years ago.

Sell programme time on a public broadcaster?  The idea would evoke incredulity anywhere else in the world where public broadcasting has established a footprint. Why would a public broadcaster put out any programming other than its own? To do so would surely negate the reason for its own existence?

But DD is not a public broadcaster known for its stand-out programming, or news independent of government bias, partly because it has never had the budgets or operating freedom to shore up programme quality. And it operates in circumstances different from those elsewhere.

Here is what Boaden says in her speech about the institution of public broadcasting. “Last month, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) published a survey that suggested that countries with popular, well-funded public service broadcasters encounter less extremism and corruption. Its report says: ‘In countries where public service media funding is higher there tends to be more press freedom and where they have a higher market share there also tends to be a higher voter turnout.’

The EBU argues that a strong and well-funded public service media is not only about providing people with news, documentaries and entertainment – ‘’it’s also about contributing to democracy”.

In these comments, the term well-funded occurs twice. Every country except India understands that if you want to do public service broadcasting it needs to be paid for either by the government of the day or by a funding mechanism it has devised.

 

"Autonomy in practice has been qualitatively different for these two broadcasters. "

 

The first blow to DD fulfilling any of  its  potential came in the early 1990s when the Planning Commission decided to withdraw full budgetary support to it.  From then on, earning revenue has been the primary challenge before those who run it, as also the reason for in-house corruption.

Further, being viable is a challenge when you are saddled with an employee force that is multiples of those in public broadcasters in other parts of the world. Much of the force consists of engineers employed to maintain a vast network of terrestrial transmitters.

Dealing with all this and with the demands of a prime minister’s office keen on using the public broadcaster does not leave you much time to worry about how well you are contributing to democracy. Or to worry about fast and slow news.

As we lament the absence of sense, civility and  real information on our television news channels, the absence of a strong public broadcasting service  for such channels to measure themselves against, is glaringly evident. Doordarshan occupies little mindspace, and has in fact converted itself over the last few years to a distribution platform, rather than a broadcaster.

The idea of slot sales on its channels therefore is not such a far-fetched one. It is seeking to privatise both its programme offerings and its platform.

Even as there is no firm decision on arresting or limiting the growth of the terrestrial network, with its substantial hardware costs, DD Direct (DD’s  free DTH service) is expanding rapidly, adding private TV channels on its platform and charging them a carriage fee which last month went up to Rs 5 crore plus.

In the process, DD Direct or Freedish as it is called, is earning revenue. None of this of course has anything to do with the public purpose a public broadcaster is supposed to serve.But where it is serving the poor is in reducing the costs of watching satellite TV for them.  The public broadcaster’s DTH platform is free, even if it is offering more and more commercial channels that have little to do with public broadcasting.

Jawhar Sircar is the latest in a long line of retired bureaucrats who have helmed India’s public broadcaster since it was conferred autonomy by statute in 1997. As he prepares to leave,  the name of  another retired bureaucrat waiting to step into his shoes is already  being speculated upon. It is a given that it will be headed by a former bureaucrat. 

Boaden, on the other hand, is a broadcasting professional who joined the BBC 36 years ago. So was John Birt, the BBC Director General she talks about as having forced a digital strategy upon the organization.

Such broadcasting professionals as there are in Prasar Bharati were recruited as government employees.  Autonomy in practice has been qualitatively different for these two broadcasters. And that is an understatement.

Finally, one of the positive notes Boaden strikes in her speech is about growing audiences for BBC’s radio’s channels. Does the departing CEO of Prasar Bharati have any positive audience trends to  talk about?

 

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