Can commerce and public interest co-exist?

BY B.P. Sanjay| IN Law and Policy | 17/08/2006
If print media history provides any clue maximum dilution can be expected in the important area of cross media ownership.

B P Sanjay

The Government of India has come up with a  Broadcasting bill which is now placed on the Ministry for Information and Broadcasting¿s website for so-called broader consultation and public discourse. The manner in which the broadcasting bill has traversed the path of constantly trying to placate the industry is reflective of the policy formation process.  At the outset the debate seems to be hijacked by the industry federations and media companies with dominant and intersecting signals emanating from Mumbai and echoes in Delhi. A controlling and effective media industry lodestar is based in Chennai.  Kolkata and its left bastion is perhaps content with the disproportionate sound bytes and column space it gets and is perhaps no mood to upset the apple cart of the broadcast/media  industry.  This might appear cynical but the manner in which a systematic articulation for community radio has been stymied and archived in the so-called GoM forum is a clear indication that commercial interests override any other considerations. It is in this context that the broadcast bill and its future direction need to be examined.

The take-off point for the Ministry is the Supreme Court judgment and assumption that "airwaves are public property and have to be controlled and regulated by public authority in the interests of the public." The proposed bill admits the lapsing of earlier attempts. Spirited individuals may want to use RTI to understand why they lapsed. Legislative action is now sought to streamline many of its existing guidelines. A delegation authority is proposed and what autonomy it will have and the norms of appointment is anybody¿s guess. Sinecure opportunities exist for both bureaucrats and "appropriate" media persons. Chapter 3 paragraph 13 of the proposed bill is indicative of the profile needed to be in the Broadcast Authority.

Enabling provisions for cross media ownership and accumulation of interest are proposed:[i]  "There are three types of restrictions on accumulation of interest in the media. These are restrictions on: (a) Cross media ownership among different segments of media such as print/television/radio. (b) Consolidation including ¿vertical integration¿ within a media segment such as television or radio. (c) Market share in the city/state/country within each media segment. It is proposed to incorporate enabling provisions in the BSR Bill"

If print media history provides any clue maximum dilution can be expected in this important area.  More than anything else it is this aspect that will be extensively lobbied for dilution and changes.  As far as plurality of views is concerned the industry would interpret it as number of channels and niche interests to ensure that they  retain oligopoly in ownership. Their argument would be that technological options exist for reflecting public views through opinions that can be expressed through sms, email and web based formats.  The domestic content is in a way settled issue as  the cultural imperialist theorists in the 1980s were proved wrong when  Bollywood and their clones in other parts of the country successfully made inroads into the channels with diversified media companies entering the serials and soap opera segment. 

The news segment is still  a tricky area and the viewership is perhaps content with the foreign content they are getting from the very same transnational suppliers against whom the Non-Aligned forum in the past  had articulated concerns. Explicit collaboration with western channels is now an accepted industry practice. The uni-polar and globalisation syndrome perhaps overshadows its impact on perspectives. The public service dimension in advertising content is perhaps the easiest to comply with but sharp industry professionals might argue that even Prasar Bharati wants to augment its revenue through its public service programming by promoting channel size and opportunities as USP.  One has to participate in communication strategy meeting of various ministries to understand how Prasar Bharati comes prepared with its strategy and bill for supporting public service programmes in the social sector.

The public spirited function of such consultation is effectively stymied when the consultation document says: "The Ministry of Information & Broadcasting proposes to consult the media and the broadcasting industry organizations to obtain their response to some of the major issues proposed to be covered in the Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill. Accordingly, the draft of the proposed legislation, indicating the current thinking in the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting is put on the Ministry¿s web-site. It is to be appreciated that these are not the final views of the Ministry or the Central Government. These will be further refined after the process of consultation with the media and the broadcasting industry as well as concerned Ministries is over and thereafter the Cabinet will consider the final contours of the proposed legislation."

If civil society groups and other publics who are at the receiving end of industry practices are disappointed that they are not even invited to air their views albeit cursorily on the website we should know better on the eve of our Independence.  The government is the ultimate authority of public interest and the  media industry understands the pulse of the public better than the public themselves and therefore can represent them.

Broadcasting taking cue from technological developments now includes traditional as well as mobile and Internet. A separation is sought between news and current affairs and entertainment. Broadcasting and advertising codes including the AIR codes are sought to be applicable to the industry. A taste of such enforcement is visible in surrogate advertisements. Satisfied that it meets legal scrutiny the Bill  now seeks retroactive validation.  The consultation leans towards "self regulation" a term with many connotations as far as content is concerned. A Broadcast Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) on the lines of TRAI is proposed to take on some functions. It is perhaps academic to point out that in the past certain technological aspects were already abdicated to TRAI.

Further, institutionally, the proposed broadcast bill is the last recourse to retain a mandate for the I&B Ministry. Since the media units are struggling to retain their scope and functions with the ghost of the Geethakrishnan committee still haunting them, the Ministry has stake in this last straw. It might well be that the Communications ministry would have better scope to oversee many of the functions in our technologically determined environment.  Although it may be an uncharitable observation, the present Minister of Communications has substantial stake in the broadcast industry. It is a different matter that such conflict of interest portfolios do not figure in our political and media discourse to the extent they should.

The roll out for CAS in other metros is now legally mandated. The interests of the cable industry and MSOs are a matter of concern to the Ministry as their stakes are high.  How long these interests can be protected cannot be predicted until we understand the inroads the broadcast industry has already made into this area. Universally it is an accepted industry practice that new consumer/public friendly options are staggered or rendered expensive till such time the existing infrastructure burns out. Consider that although satellite technology options were available in the US quite early they were never really exploited in view of the resistance by landline based communication systems.

Spread over five chapters with about fifty explanatory paragraphs the Bill is comprehensive but to some extent addresses concerns after the horse has bolted.  Its stalling and withdrawal from the Union cabinet is reflective of the pressures. The industry¿s kite flying exercise through scrolls and debates portends the shape of things to come.

[1] The proposed bill refers to restrictions on accumulation of interest as follows:…to prevent monopolies across different segments of the media as well as within the broadcast segment, to ensure diversity of news and views.

No content broadcasting service provider and its associated companies shall have more than 20% share of paid up equity or have any other financing or commercial arrangement that may give it management control over the financial, management or editorial policies of any broadcasting network service provider.

No broadcasting network service provider and its associated companies shall have more than 20% share of paid up equity or have any other financing or commercial arrangement that may give it management control over the financial, management or editorial policies of any content broadcasting service provider.

No content broadcasting service provider and its associated companies shall have more than the prescribed share of the total number of channels in a city or a state subject to the overall ceiling of 15% for the whole country.

Contact:

bpssn@uohyd.ernet.in 

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