Media reform begins at home

BY sevanti ninan| IN Law and Policy | 09/04/2013
Prasar Bharati has become an end in itself, though not all good things need to be done by a government-created vehicle.
Meanwhile a vast population’s information needs are not met, says SEVANTI NINAN
Media reform in India has always been high on intention and low on action. When the honourables in our ministry of information and broadcasting speak at public fora they talk tough about regulatory intent. But from 1997 onwards the history of broadcast regulation has been one of the government willing to, wanting to, and waiting to do it  as Alfred Doolittle might have put it, without anything actually happening.   
 
The sole exception of late has been a tough acting chief of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India who is busy issuing edicts that have the broadcast industry frothing at the mouth. The ministry doesn’t think that is a satisfactory state of affairs. Last week the minister said that broadcasting was never supposed to be part of TRAI’s remit. He did not add that an earlier government had made it so because this ministry simply wasn’t getting anywhere with instituting a broadcast regulator.
 
Media reform should begin at home with the government’s own broadcasting service. It is mystifying why the government decided Prasar Bharati needed reinventing a year before elections are due. There have been committees before and their labours have not changed anything. The Sam Pitroda committee that has been set up is a larger exercise than before, with eleven expert groups  with a wide mandate to explore among other things what prasar bharati's relationship with government should be, and therefore how it should be structured.
 
The Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari's speech to the first full meeting of the Pitroda committee and all subcommittees did not clear the mystery. The good minister made so many contradictory noises that it became difficult to gauge what the government's intentions are. He wondered aloud whether a ministry of information and broadcasting or an I and B minister were still needed: “Are we trying to fight battles of the past?” Yet later in the same speech he said that the ministry was spending two-thirds of its budget on Prasar Bharati yet it was expected to maintain an arms length relationship with the broadcaster. (It does not, a much-touted news overhaul ground to a halt a short while ago because the government wants news lists and panel guests vetted beforehand.)
 
He then suggested that Prasar Bharati could be answerable to Parliament but in that case the the government needed a full spectrum communications agency to publicise the government’s development spend.
 
Both Tewari and the ministry’s secretary Uday Verma used a platform meant to talk about reform of Prasar Bharati to talk about media regulation for the private sector and the reform of the television ratings system. Neither engaged directly with the issues raised in the  first speech of the day, that of the chairperson of Prasar Bharati, Mrinal Pande.
 
She referred to the corporation as it is being run today as a zero sum game where bureaucratic interference made possible by the ambiguities and contradictions in the Prasar Bharati Act had made both autonomous and professional functioning impossible. She spelt out how the contradictions in the Act affect day to day functioning.
 
“Section 32 of the Act mandates that the Government shall make the rules and Prasar Bharati shall make the regulations . This unique bifurcation , unknown to any Indian PSU , has led to unnecessary dependency on the government , caused avoidable delays in implementing  even unanimously passed resolutions of the Prasar Bharati Board , and embarrassed us when we realize that decisions like uploading specific content from PB archives on YouTube , changes in transmission systems or allocation of changed frequencies for AIR are announced by the Government and we only learn about them when media contacts us or from next morning’s news papers .”
 
Clearly anyone seeking solutions to the current problems of Prasar Bharati has to go back to the drawing board and tackle first of all a legislation full of contradictions. Such an exercise has to question why there is no transparency in how a chairperson or other board members are selected, and how a Prasar Bharati board  tasked with general supervision , direction and management of affairs of the corporation can have no say in  the selection of the three top members of the executive : the CEO  and the Members Personnel and Finance.
 
The good minister implied caution when he said what was needed was reform which was incremental and could be sustained. Presumably he meant in Prasar Bharati. Sam Pitroda, the chosen man to spearhead this reform exercise speaking after the minister said cheerfully, “I don’t believe in incremental change, I believe in the disruptive approach.”
 
 He said he knew nothing about broadcasting, did not read newspapers, did not watch tv and got all his news from the Internet.”I do have limitations.” But he seemed fairly clear about what he wanted to do:”It is time to restructure everything and clearly articulate the role of Prasar Bharati going forward.”
 
The first reason why Prasar Bharati needs rethinking is because the Ministry, particularly after the notification of the Act, has presided over governance which can only be described as a royal mess. Whether it is because of half baked autonomy or just poor administration by the former bureaucrats appointed as CEOs in the past, today there are 1600 vacancies in the organization, and there have been no promotions in the non-engineering cadres for twenty years or more, so there is a totally demoralized workforce. The vacancies in the programming related service are as high as 83 per cent.
 
Why did an allegedly autonomous broadcaster not fill the vacancies? Because the employees were never fully transferred and recruitment boards for them had to be constituted by the government.
 
The most unforgivable part of the mess is that the affairs of the corporation take away attention from its job—to provide quality non commercial broadcasting to a range of Indian audiences.
 
The Pitroda committee has to look what the funding options should be, where money for programming should come from, whether employment should be an end in itself, and how relevant terrestrial broadcasting is today.
 
This committee’s drawback is that like every committee before it, its chief task is salvaging and repurposing the public broadcaster. Not concerning itself primarily with the provision of top quality non commercial broadcasts which address citizen needs. Prasar Bharati has become an end in itself, though in a country with a burgeoning television industry not all good things need to be done by a government-created vehicle. Media reform and media policy should include incentivising the private sector to serve a public purpose.
 
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