The Sam Pitroda committee report offers a starting point.
India is in dire need of broadcast autonomy, especially in the form of a truly autonomous, even if state-assisted, public service broadcaster. This was a promise made by Nehru to Parliament in 1948. But it is yet to be redeemed. The post-Emergency 1977-78 broadcast autonomy committee, in its report “Akash Bharati”, presented a blueprint for autonomy. That was dumbed down by the Janata government and a Prasar Bharati bill was finally enacted in 1990, brought into force in 1997 and emasculated almost ab initio.
What the government wanted, with cross-party political support, was some kind of official trumpet. Despite brave efforts to make something of it, Prasar Bharati (PB) has not lived up to its charter that few, if any, have even read. PB’s biodata makes for dismal reading.
It is probably the largest public broadcaster in the world, with a staff of 31,621 full-time and 7,269 part-time (mostly government) employees. DD operates 21 channels and AIR has a network of 326 broadcast stations. The engineering and technical services are numerically dominant and no more than 15 per cent of the budget is devoted to programme content, as against 60-80 per cent by other major international broadcasters. Radio has been downgraded and AIR reduced to a poor relative.
The country has over 800 TV channels and 500 FM channels that are only permitted limited news coverage. Community broadcasting, long discouraged, is only now coming into its own. It was, therefore, with much hope and expectation that the appointment of a new expert committee was announced, under Sam Pitroda and seven domain experts, a year ago. That report is now in, but has been virtually ignored in public discussion.
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The main recommendation is that PB “needs to be adequately empowered and enabled” with independent professionals and financial self-reliance to “unleash its creative forces” beyond the market as a true voice of India, its ethos, culture and aspirations in order to become a genuine public broadcaster rather than remain a “government broadcaster”.
Stress is rightly laid on appropriate mechanisms to confer financial and personnel autonomy on PB. There is gross overstaffing and staff must become employees and not allowed to remain government servants, a pernicious legacy of official control. The board should be professionally managed; there must be a complete transfer of ownership and management of all assets and human resources to PB to make it independent; funding should come from the government, internal resource mobilisation, including monetising the tremendous archival assets of AIR and DD; private investment in production; and by “co-opting industry through CSR budgets.
There is need to digitise radio and TV; create a world-class broadcast service with a global outreach; and set up an autonomous third arm, ‘PB Connect’, to manage social media.” Many of these recommendations are well taken, but there will be reservations on others. Constituting a parliamentary oversight committee “to ensure that PB discharges its duty in accordance with the provisions of the act and government-defined duties” is a recipe for political interference. PB is accountable to Parliament through its annual report and budget via the ministry of information and broadcasting and, where needed, through questions. A Regulatory (Complaints) body as a sub-committee of PB is also not a good idea. This should be an independent body and should also cover private broadcasters so as to avoid different rulings by parallel authorities.
The plea to “encourage outsourcing of content creation to external producers” needs to be treated with caution. PB must develop in-house talent while not baulking at hiring producers from the market.
This was the position earlier, but has been subverted by overly embracing the market. Likewise, the report does not go far enough in urging PB to share its huge infrastructure with the market. One committee had, years ago, suggested hiving off the engineering, technical and R&D wing of PB into a transmission corporation as an independent profit centre, since its land, buildings, transmitters, studio facilities, relay stations and towers have considerable idle capacity that could service private and especially local and community broadcasting. This proposal should not be discarded without deeper study. The broadcast receiver licence fee, paid once at the purchase point, has most unwisely been relegated as an unsavoury tax. This calls for review.
Another recommendation that must be queried is that, since the state has to communicate messages, there should be a separate “state broadcasting set-up that should use the existing public and private broadcasting infrastructure”. This appears to be creating avoidable redundancy and encouraging a propaganda machine. PB can and should do the job as a public service above all. The expert report does not make as strong a case for public service broadcasting as merited. Current media trends in India in the wake of the continuing communications revolution and market deregulation are a matter for concern.
Cross-media holdings, the corporatisation and politicisation of the media, advertising pressures, the managerial takeover of editorial responsibilities, paid news and similar dubious dealings like private treaties have all combined to undermine media integrity. Allegations masquerade as charges and subvert public discourse and result in media trials.
The failure to regulate the media — the Press Council is a broken reed — and the fragility of self-regulation have deeply undermined media credibility. It is in this milieu that a true public service broadcaster has a duty to, and can, set standards. It is not commercially driven, as are private channels.
All consumers are citizens but not all citizens are consumers. As India is in transition from rural to urban, agriculture to industry, feudal submission to protest, local to global, little identities to fraternity, information is the key to empowerment, equality, gender justice and social awareness. Who more than PB can afford to speak to and for all the people in their myriad languages and dialects?
Nevertheless, the expert committee report does constitute a good basis for debate and reform. This Parliament is done and legislation must await the new government after the general elections. This gives time for a national debate. Let us use that time purposefully.
The writer is fellow, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi