Prasar Bharati CEO Jawhar Sircar’s timing, in the middle of an election campaign, to pitch for meaningful autonomy for the public broadcaster is unexpected. It could be the perfect political storm created by Narendra Modi’s team, who were first miffed that an interview with Doordarshan had not been telecast; and when Sircar himself stepped in to have it telecast, never mind the absence of a balancing interview with a Congress leader. When the interview hit the airwaves, Modi’s team, armed with their own recording, protested it had been edited to suit the party in power. Sircar dashed off a letter to the Prasar Bharati board alleging that the Information and Broadcasting Ministry had blocked “more operational autonomy” for DD’s news division. This was denied by I&B Minister Manish Tewari, but Sircar, whose relations with Tewari have long taken the appearance of a feud, has successfully highlighted the issue at stake.
Autonomy for public broadcasters is a pledge political parties happily make but honour only in the breach when they come to power. While the Prasar Bharati Act does, in concept, grant operational autonomy, Section 33 of the Act undercuts this intention by insisting on the government’s prior approval on critical issues. Sircar has drawn greater public attention to the issue, and it is to be hoped that the board will not lose this opportunity to generate a real debate. They have a helpful guide in the form of the report of an expert committee headed by Sam Pitroda, submitted earlier this year. Recommendations for making the board professionally run and enabling autonomy are underpinned by a plan to monetise the broadcaster’s assets — spectrum, land, etc. They need to be debated before politics settles down to retaining the public broadcaster as a tool for propaganda and patronage for the next party in government.
It is crucial to work out an effective way of having parliamentary oversight without furthering partisan agendas. Balance is important but it is not all. A public broadcaster must also be guided by a heightened understanding of the national interest in putting out news and views. Having got the debate rolling, Sircar should crowdsource suggestions on how this is to be enabled.