Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2007 > July 21, 2007 > Public Service Broadcasting : Illusion and Reality

Mainstream, VOL XLV, No 31

Public Service Broadcasting : Illusion and Reality

Saturday 21 July 2007, by N V K Murthy

The Indian broadcast media, Akashvani and Doordarshan, owned and controlled by the Government of India, refer to themselves as the public service broadcasting media. But, are they, in reality, public service media? Let us take a closer look.

When India became free in August 1947, television was not on the scene. We had only sound broadcasting. A radio club came up in Calcutta under private auspices as an experiment in 1923. Similar stations came up in Madras, Bombay and elsewhere. It was in 1927 that a private company, Indian Broadcasting Company Limited, initiated a regular broadcasting service. This company went into liquidation in 1930 and was taken over by the Government of India, which started broadcasting under the Indian State Broadcasting Service. The service was re-designated All India Radio and was a part of the Department of Industries and Labour till it was transferred to the Department of Communications. Finally it came under the Department of Information and Broadcasting in 1941. It was this AIR that the free Government of India inherited in August 1947.

This first Prime Minister of free India, Jawaharlal Nehru, shared his loud thinking on this subject during discussions in the Constituent Assembly and suggested something on the lines of the BBC structure for AIR, but added that the opportune moment had not yet arrived for it.

By the mid-sixties Akashvani had grown into a big network. Experimental Television had also started in the country. During the Indo-Chinese conflict certain deficiencies were noticed in the information media servicing the border areas. With all these things in mind, the GOI appointed a committee headed by Mr Chanda in 1964 to review the work of the various media organisations and make their recommendations for improvement. It recommended that since an information medium cannot operate efficiently within departmental rules, it should be given certain latitude to frame its own rules and regulations including those of recruitment. The government felt that the moment was not yet opportune for such a degree of autonomy.

The first change came in 1976, when Television, by then called Doordarshan, was constituted as a separate Department in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. But, it did not have even functional autonomy. It was tied to AIR’s apron-strings. The News Services of AIR also serviced Doordarshan and the latter could not change even the order of presentation of the news, let alone the content. This was in spite of it being recognised the world over that radio and television were different and distinct media with their own potential and limitations and therefore, different needs. The monopoly and proprietary instincts were so strong in the broadcast media that it led, sometimes, to ludicrous situations. I shall mention just a couple of examples to illustrate this point.

The Film Institute of India was established in Pune in 1961. Later, when television came to India, it was decided to have a television-training institute also on the same campus. It was obvious that the personnel for the two media would, in future days, work hand-in-hand. Yet these two institutions operated independently.

In the early days, when the head of the television training paid periodic visits to Pune, he was not even on speaking terms with his counterpart in film. In later years, the Film and Television Institute of India was established as an autonomous institution under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. But, when, as a logical step, it was proposed to consolidate film and television training into one course, to enable both media to have a steady and larger group of talented and trained young persons to service them, all hell broke loose and Doordarshan opposed it tooth and nail. It behaved as if the family silver was being sold away.

Just before the Asian Games in Delhi, the FTII was told that for almost a year it would not be possible to send any trainees from Doordarshan. The Director of the Institute felt that, rather than keep the training staff and resources idle for this period, they could be utilised to train private sector television technicians, who could be asked to pay a reasonable fee. This was done, thanks to the sagacity of the Board of Governance, despite opposition from Doordarshan.

On another occasion, when colour television had arrived, post-Asian Games, the FTII was asked to introduce colour TV in its training programme. But DD refused to share the colour video cameras, they had imported from Japan, with the FTII on the ground that they could not part with their equipment to an ‘outside’ body. There was a ban by the Government of India on the import of any equipment. It was when the Director refused to start the training course without at least one set of cameras, that had been acquired by Doordarshan earlier, being provided to the Institute for training purposes, that the Secretary ordered one set of equipment to be flown to Pune and the training began. Whether it was radio or television, government departments were loathe to giving up their monopoly. Akashvani behaved no better when it was suggested that selected universities be allowed to have their own radio stations, franchised by Akashvani, to enhance the quality of teaching in graduate and post-graduate classes.

It was only the Emergency in 1975 and the opposition that built up in its aftermath that created the environment for the breaking of this monopoly. The public at large felt that the electronic media had been misused to serve the interests of the ruling party in power. It was during the first non-Congress government that a Working Group was set up under the chairmanship of the well-known journalist, B. G. Verghese, in August 1977. It started work earnestly and submitted a draft bill for an autonomous institution for Indian broadcasting in February 1978. This has never been pursued to its logical conclusion. What we have today is an autonomous institution, called Prasar Bharati, in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and under its control.

IN the early days, when broadcasting was a Central Government monopoly, an autonomous institution naturally meant putting it outside the pale of government control. Many people genuinely felt that private sector broadcasting was the solution to this problem. Now they know better.

In this regard, let us take a brief look at the experience in the USA, which is still looked upon as the Mecca of private enterprise. There is no doubt that private sector broadcasting did an excellent job in the early days. During the Second World War [1939-1945], it was sound broadcasting that served listeners the world over. There was one broadcaster, Edward Murrow, of CBS network who became a star broadcaster. His live broadcasts from London during the Nazi blitzkrieg brought him worldwide fame. After the war, he returned to his base in the US. Soon radio lost its prime place, which was taken by television. Murrow was trained in drama and voice culture. Sound broadcasting was his forte. He did not relish television very much. However, since the future was in television broadcasting, Murrow’s colleagues persuaded him to try his hand at television. He did so reluctantly. Thus was born the CBS television feature, ‘See It Now’. Soon it caught public attention and viewers eagerly looked forward to it. It was a current affairs programme, which presented important events in perspective so that they could be better understood.

The early fifties was a period when the Cold War between the USA and the Western countries on the one side and the Soviet Union and the socialist countries on the other was at its height. The first Prime Minister of free India, Jawaharlal Nehru, was criticised as a ‘commie’ by conservatives in the USA for his advocacy of seating Red China in the UN Security Council. The Committee for Un-American Activities was born, the leading light of which was Senator McCarthy from Wisconsin. This Committee went on to denounce several US liberals, artistes and writers including, among others, Paul Robeson Sr, Arthur Miller and Charles Chaplin. Several persons wanted Murrow to notice these events in his television programme. But, he took his time. Things came to a head when an innocent officer of the US Armed Forces was named by the Un-American Activities Committee and his discharge from service was demanded, on the ground that some of his close relatives were reading socialist literature in the past. Liberal public opinion in the USA was shocked. Murow went into action. He featured a programme on McCarthy. This proved to be a turning point in the Senator’s career. That he ultimately had to leave in disgrace is not relevant to this article but what happened to the television programme is. CBS announced the discontinuance of the feature because the sponsors had withdrawn their sponsorship. This should provide a lesson to those who advocate private sector broadcasting to get over government control.

The Verghese Committee had recommended the setting up of a National Broadcasting Trust by an Act of Parliament, which would be answerable to Parliament but would be completely independent with its own financial resources. Now the times have completely changed. Broadcasting is no longer a Central Government monopoly. We have private sector broadcasting. Commercial broadcasting is a huge revenue earner, both for private broadcasting and Prasar Bharati, which runs Akashvani and Doordarshan. Even so, the Verghese Committee’s recommendations could be implemented, with some modifications. But it would be unrealistic to expect the government to let go its hold on Prasar Bharati, which wields enormous power. So, the question for civil society remains: how can the misuse of broadcasting by the party parties in power be eliminated at least in some crucial areas?

In considering this problem in today’s context, two things have to be borne in mind. Broadcasting is no longer a government monopoly. It has to face tough competition from private sector broadcasting. Secondly, broadcasting attracts enormous advertising income, both to private sector broadcasting and Prasar Bharati. The Central Government does not have to finance Prasar Bharati. In many ways, it is doing an admirable job in sound and television broadcasting. But, it is not a truly a public service system. Since it may not be practicable to expect the Ministry of I&B to give up control over Prasar Bharati, let us examine how the lack of a public broadcasting system threatens an open democratic society before we consider a solution.

The world over we have seen that any authoritarian party or parties in coalition, on capturing power, try to get control of two areas, news and views immediately and, in the long run, education. We saw this in Nazi Germany, Stalinist USSR, China, India during Emergency and during the NDA regime, and in Pakistan. At one time it was thought that if people of unimpeachable integrity were associated with the management of Prasar Bharati, it might provide a solution to this problem. Such a man, the late Nikhil Chakravartty, the then doyen of Indian journalists, a man whose integrity would not be questioned even by those who were opposed to his socio-political and economic views, was named Chairman of Prasar Bharati. But he left when he realised that the Corporation, the way it was constituted, would not be able to do much.

The answer, therefore, is to set up a separate National Broadcasting Corporation, on the lines suggested by the Verghese Working Group, by an Act of Parliament to oversee and control news, views and educational broadcasting. This will be in the interests of every political party that professes faith in an open and democratic society. Every such party has called foul when in Opposition and when it has found that the party in power has tried to use the government media for its own purpose. No party can hope to be in power forever. So, this is the only possible safeguard against the abuse of the government media. It goes without saying that that the NBT must have financial independence. Even a small percentage of the present budget of Prasar Bharati should be enough. This should be voted by Parliament. A small committee of experts could work out the details. Fortunately, Verghese himself is with us and still able and active. A draft bill could be got ready in a couple of months, if not weeks.

I would suggest that civil society, voluntary organisations and voters’ organisations should be galvanised into building up public opinion that only candidates who are willing to set up such a trust should be elected to Parliament, before the next general election comes around. This seems to be the only way to protect an open, democratic society. Only then can we talk of a truly public service broadcasting system in India.

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