By B.G. Verghese
Among the agenda of reforms being urged or promised, few are more needed, and overdue, than the grant of autonomy to the public service broadcaster, PrasarBharati. This, hopefully, is now on the anvil and, apart from preliminary steps already taken, such as a more professional approach to newscasting, a Committee has been set up under Sam Pitroda to make specific recommendations for the future. The new Minister for I&B, Manish Tewari, has come in with a new broom and some cobwebs have started disappearing.
The Government’s communication policy, or rather the appalling lack of one, has had a crippling effect on public relations and national morale as AIR and DD came to be used as a propaganda trumpet rather than as a voice of India to its multitudinous diversity. Now that reform is promised, one must beware inventing a solution in search of a problem. That such a danger lurks is evident in a roundtable broadcast over DD recently where there was a certain lack of clarity on the subject.
The first fallacy is that PrasarBharati (PB) is His Master’s Voice, a creature of the Union Government. This it is not. It is a national public trust whose purpose and functions are spelt out in Section 12 of the PB Act, 1990. Prime among these is “safeguarding the citizen’s right to be informed freely, truthfully and objectively on all matters of public interest, national or international, and presenting affair and balanced flow of information, including contrasting views, without advocating any opinion or ideology of its own”. The Act requires Parliament to make due appropriations for PB which is accountable to it through the Ministry of I&B and its annual report. Additional funding is permitted through broadcast receiver licence fees, currently not levied, commercial broadcasting, sale of programmes, etc.
Broadcast information is a service like the supply of electricity, water and telephony; but, unlike the others, it is somehow considered a free good. The PB Act permits the Corporation to levy fees for all external and monitoring services in the same manner as the BBC is funded by the Foreign Office for its external services. This is not being done. It is however being selectively paid for other home service extension broadcasts, though not in a uniform, standardised manner.
Personnel policy has been a huge millstone around PB’s neck as the bulk of its staff remain seconded from government cadres and are therefore under the discipline of the Department of Personnel. Lazy staffers prefer the security of government service while the government enjoys the power of cadre control. There is a fierce official reluctance to let go. Even the CEO, Directors of Finance and Personnel and other senior staff are primarily selected from among government servants. There are certainly good people in the official ranks but to exclude others in the first place is clearly anomalous. In-house engineers too are excluded from programme jobs. This again is discriminatory and makes no sense. This is autonomy with fetters.
In a classic case, S.Y. Quraishi, a Haryana IAS cadre officer, selected by PB’s first in-house recruitment board to be DG Doordarshan, was summarily removed by an illegal and underhand Governmental fiat for the ostensible reason than that his cadre control officer allegedly wanted him back in Government!
PB has been a hardware-led organisation with a surfeit of transmitters and relay stations and a corresponding complement of engineers who far outnumber the programme staff. This is a top-heavy structure with huge idle capacity and a paucity of programme content or staff. It had neglected foreign language development with the loss of the old monitoring service and is unable satisfactorily to reach the world outside its borders. Great events are currently going on in all of South Asia, but PB has little capacity or capability to reach out and report let alone interpret these events to its domestic audience. People tune into the BBC and CNN to find out what is going on in Bangladesh and Myanmar, Southeast and West Asia, Africa, China and Latin America. It has few foreign correspondents or stringers. Equally, the voice of India is scarcely heard abroad.
Why should PB not have regular daily and weekly bulletins or round ups on its near and further neighbourhood with good commentaries on economic, political and cultural developments. Where are the in-house commentators and in-house productions that once made AIR and early-PB lively channels? The talent is there. Likewise, why should PB not have more community and local broadcasts to reach out and down to the grassroots as intended, because of a crippling paucity of programme staff?
One answer would be to farm out idle time to local community broadcasters and institutions on payment so that the transmitters are optimally utilised. Some franchising is being done but not in a structured manner. The other option- and the two are not mutually exclusive – would be to hive off the entire transmission system into an independent PB Transmission Corporation that would be free to service private and commercial broadcasters and become an independent and highly remunerative profit centre. Such a proposition was indeed examined by a committee PB appointed quite some years back under the late P.V Indiresan, in collaboration with the French broadcasting organisation, and found feasible. Unfortunately the idea was not pursued as PB was mired in its own problems and inhibitions.
The research and development wing of PB too should be hived off as yet another profit centre that could become a national asset. After all it was PB that, in collaboration with ISRO, pioneered the set top boxes and related systems for the SITE (Satellite TV Experiment) multi-lingual programme in 1976 in rural India that became the first successful direct-to-home broadcast service in the world.
The PB Act calls on the Corporation to take such steps as it thinks fit “to establish a system for the gathering of news for radio and television”. This is something PB is well placed to do, nationally and globally. It needs to build its own oral and audio-visual news services that provide an additional, standard-setting, third major news service for a country of a greater size and diversity than all of Europe (plus Russia) and North America combined. Standard-setting is important in the light of the editorialised and sensationalised new reportage current today and phenomena like “paid news”.
Autonomy within PB must travel down through the regional to the local and community kendras. So too must accountability, not to the I&B Ministry (which is but a conduit to Parliament), but to anindependent Broadcast Complaints Commission. Such a regulatory body was initially provided for but never constituted, as a parallel complaints authority was proposed to be set up to regulate private broadcasting. In the event neither body was constituted. A single complaints body is very necessary, possibly with regional affiliates in view of the size of the country and its multiplicity of languages.
These are among the broadcast reforms that should be contemplated. India deserves nothing less. Public service broadcasting, unlike private broadcasting, must primarily be designed to cater to the citizen, not just the consumer.