The media and the government are both inclined to be serial offenders where the quality of India’s public sphere is concerned. The government has a really poor record as a custodian of the country’s airwaves. It ignored the 1995 Supreme Court ruling that the airwaves belong to the people and therefore debars news on FM radio, and does not set up a public authority to regulate the airwaves. It is singularly responsible for the sham autonomy of its public service broadcaster. How many countries with a long history of independent democracy have such a poor record of public service broadcasting?
The latest additions to this dismal record are twofold: one, a move to bring an ordinance that makes it easier to remove the chief executive of Prasar Bharati. Two, a recasting of the Uplinking/Downlinking policy which governs TV channels to make amendments which allow the government to decide who can get a licence and who can continue to telecast. Again, there should have been an independent regulator for this. The dependence on the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India to handle broadcasting on the side, is convenient for the GOI but does nothing positive for broadcasting.
Then we come to the media’s record in providing what passes for news and entertainment. The new policy announcement puts the number of private satellite TV channels in the country at 745, 366 TV channels in the category of 'News and Current Affairs' and 379 in the category of 'Non-News and Current Affairs'.
If the country has 366 TV channels in the news and current affairs category, only 13 fewer than the number of entertainment channels, it tells us that the TV industry’s idea of news is rather wide ranging. And that the line between entertainment and news is rather thin. And that the government which licenced them in the first place, was not doing its job. Did it have criteria at the time of licensing? Did it do any monitoring after it gave licenses to see if these channels were adhering to any criteria?
It stands to reason that no sensible country requires 366 news and current affairs channels, nor is its economy likely to provide the advertisement or subscription revenues to support these.
The debate provoked in the media after last week’s announcement has been partial, hardly any media outlet has attempted to look at the totality of the situation which provoked the amendments to the policy guidelines. And that is, there are many non-serious players today in the news segment, which leads to competition for the same advertising pie, and leads to cost cutting in the gathering and presentation of news. It also leads to channels which operate from a particular political persuasion, or have a media outlet purely for the clout and protection it offers.
The recast guidelines attempt to deal with this situation by making what the government calls significant changes in the eligibility criteria of companies seeking to operate TV channels in India. It has increased the net worth criteria for those wishing to operate a news channel, from Rs 3 crore to Rs 20 crore for the first channel, and Rs 5 crore for each additional channel. The similar change for non news channels is from Rs 1.5 crore to Rs 5, which is hardly a serious discouragement.
Other policy changes: All TV channels would be required to operationalize their TV channels within a time frame of one year from the date of permission, and a performance bank guarantee of Rs 2 crore for news channels has been introduced. In the event of non-operationalisation of the permitted channel within a period of one year, the PBG will be forfeited and permission cancelled.
Two, one of the top management persons in the applicant company should have a minimum of 3 years of prior experience in a media company, for both News and Non-News channels.
And three, renewal of the permissions of TV channels will be considered for a period of 10 years at a time subject to the condition that the channel should not have been found guilty of violating the terms and conditions of permission including violations of the Programme and Advertisement Code on 5 occasions or more.
Not surprisingly, tv channels in the private sector and their sister newspapers in some cases (such as the Times of India) have only seized upon the last. Everybody is incensed that TV channels should be made punishable for cumulative violations of the broadcasting code. Freedom of speech has been invoked. The News Broadcasters Association has called it a “direct assault on the self regulatory regime put in place by broadcasters”.
In India the license to broadcast is essentially the license to uplink and downlink, since the private sector is not allowed to do terrestrial broadcasting. The principle of losing a broadcasting license upon accumulation of violations of a laid down code is not some strange, unheard of principle. It has been debated even in this country in the past when broadcast regulation legislation has been drafted.
The problem with the Ministry introducing this clause now is that there is no public or self regulatory authority in place for all channels, to decide on what constitutes a violation. The self regulation that exists today does not cover all channels. The NBA covers broadcasters who have among them some 40 TV news channels. And we hear little of how the Indian Broadcasting Federation adjudicates on complaints.
Self regulation does not necessarily ensure that channels will not freak out whenever it suits them. If news channels decided to cash in on the Anna fever at the Ramlila Maidan in August and join the movement, in a sense, certainly the NBA’s regulatory authority did not do anything to cramp their style.
So, to get back to the opening point of this harangue, the media and the government are both inclined to be serial offenders where the quality of India’s public sphere is concerned.
Lets go back to the government for a moment. Doordarshan did not provide a balanced counterpoint to the Anna mania in August, though it could well have. It chose to censor any footage that showed the extent of public participation.
If you ask I and B Minister Ambika Soni why Doordarshan does not fill the role of a responsible, balanced broadcaster, she is quick to retort, we cannot tell them anything, they are autonomous. With an IAS officer of the Ministry as the acting CEO? That is laughable autonomy. The ministry is trying to ensure that another CEO of prasar bharati like B S Lalli does not emerge to give it a hard time by being a law unto himself, so it is about to bring an ordinance to this effect. Is the country’s media going to town over this?
No, just as nobody campaigns for private sector FM radio to be allowed to broadcast news. Shutting down a TV channel for offences hits their investment. Not putting out news on radio, does not.
And finally lets go on to the Press Council for which the government has selected a new chairman. Justice Markandey Katju has been making all sorts of pronouncements in his first speech about what the media should cover and what it should not. When it requires harsh punishment and when it does not. If the last press council chairman was someone who did not stand up to media owners in the Council on the question of exposing paid news practices, this one has begun to tell the media what it ought to cover before he has even got to work. Time for civil society and the media to ask what purpose having the Press Council serves.