Days before he demits office, Information & Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari has questioned the relevance of his ministry, saying it belongs to “an era that is past” and has “inherent redundancy”.
He also said the Films Division of the ministry has “outlived its utility”, and the film institutes the government runs in Pune and Kolkata would be better served through a public-private partnership.
With Prasar Bharati CEO Jawhar Sircar openly criticising the ministry for what he called “shadowing” the public broadcaster in the wake of the controversial editing of Narendra Modi’s interview to Doordarshan, Tewari also suggested PB should be directly accountable to Parliament and “not through the ministry to Parliament”.
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“In today’s time and age, you don’t need a ministry of information and broadcasting. It belongs to another time and era, an era that is past. If you look at the ministry, it has the information wing that is serviced by the PIB, the DAVP, Publications Division, Song & Drama Division, et al.
“In today’s age of communications, how efficacious are these structures is not only questionable but I think conclusively there is inherent redundancy,” the minister told The Indian Express.
But Tewari held the opposite view in November 2012, weeks after he was appointed to the ministry.
Asked at the Idea Exchange interaction of The Indian Express if there is a need for a ministry such as information and broadcasting, he had replied: “Look at the alternatives. You have a ministry of I&B, however archaic its structure might be, but which over a period of time, seems to have got the nuances fairly right. It is to a very large extent, hands-off. If you were to abolish the ministry, what would you replace it with? This whole bit of a regulator brings to mind a big brother spectre that I think is not a route we should be going down.
In an indirect rebuttal of Sircar’s allegations – made at the Idea Exchange interaction of this newspaper last week – that the issue of PB’s autonomy is a “polio child”, Tewari said his ministry exercises oversight over Prasar Bharati “essentially because the I&B Ministry is accountable to Parliament and to the cabinet for everything the Prasar Bharati does or doesn’t do. Every second question in Parliament over the past two decades relates to the functioning of Prasar Bharati”.
“First of all, a fundamental decision has to be taken whether India requires a public broadcaster or not. Prasar Bharati had been conceived when only Doordarshan was there. Now there are 1,798 private channels out of which 415 are news and current affair channels. And if you need a public broadcaster, what exactly should its focus be needs to be clearly defined.”
“As for autonomy, I have been advocating that the relationship between Prasar Bharati and the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting should be the same as that between the CAG and the finance ministry. The funding of Prasar Bharati must be directly appropriated from Parliament and not routed through the ministry. The first prerequisite for cutting the umbilical cord between Prasar Bharati and the ministry should be that the PB should be directly accountable to Parliament through a committee of Parliament and not through the ministry to Parliament.
“Because, as long as the ministry remains accountable to Parliament for actions of the PB, there is a very thin line which divides genuine oversight from interference. What the MIB may perceive as oversight, the PB may perceive as interference into their autonomy,” the minister said.
“Coming back to information, what the government requires is not a minister or ministry of information and broadcasting,” he said, adding that there are two models that need to be looked at.
The government should have a full spectrum communications agency, which goes across print, electronic and new media space to disseminate the programmes and policies of the government.
“After all, the government spends Rs 14 lakh crore on flagship development programmes. But then each state government will also have a similar full service communication infrastructure or apparatus, which is going to raise the issue of market dominance and which would impinge on freedom of speech and expression because in TV industry direct control by the a government or political parties of the distribution business gives them the ability to control and filter what the viewer eventually gets to watch,” he said.
Tewari said the other model which is “preferable” is that like any other corporate entity, the government has a professional media interface setup and the media industry, especially the information part, should “absolutely be left in private hands”.
“Like war is too serious a business to be left to generals, policing of freedom of speech and expression is too serious a business to be left to the government or a regulator because there is always a tendency to try to be heavy-handed if not ham-handed,” Tewari said.
As for the broadcasting wing that licences private broadcasters and also exercises oversight over them, he said private broadcasting should really be “completely in the self-regulatory domain as far as content is concerned”.
In an indirect reference to the constant refrain of some of his senior ministerial and party colleagues about the UPA government’s failure to communicate its achievements, Tewari said there is a deep distinction between government communication and political communication.
“While it is the responsibility of ministers to politically communicate on behalf of the government, there is a lakshman rekha that propriety does not allow you to cross. Till that point in time the government communication is not robustly augmented with political communication by the party, you would find that government messaging doesn’t really filter to the ground.
“Till there is no seamless coordination between the government communication apparatus and the political component which the party needs to take forth, you would always have the perception of a disconnect, which, rightly or wrongly, has been one of the criticisms of our communication strategy,” he said.