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As DD News flirts with independence,it has many questions to answer

Written by Seema Chishti | New Delhi |
September 22, 2013 10:34:08 pm

As DD News flirts with independence,it has many questions to answer

On February 9,the day Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru was hanged,the government displayed its “boldness” in another way,too. On Newsnight,then a new show on DD News,experts slammed his hanging — a novelty for the state broadcaster. But seven months on,this is now a standard practice. Whether it’s 2G or Coalgate,DD News gives space to differing voices,be they experts or Opposition parties. From news readers like Salma Sultan or Pratima Puri to questioning anchors like Munmun,it has been quite a leap.

But just in case one thinks that DD News is going the way of private news channels,it would be good to recall a scene from The Hour. This 2011 BBC TV series,about a fictional current affairs show,has a reporter snapping,“The bulletin is dead!” For the Indian viewer,the traditional news bulletin — a round-up of important domestic and international events — has long been dead,and replaced by shrill talk shows on private news channels,which endlessly debate (rather,agitate) over just one or two “most important” stories of the day. In the backdrop of this cacophony,DD News has been pushing itself as an alternative and turning its “straight” approach into an opportunity.

On January 28,DD News acquired a distinct look. It went purple and yellow,unlike the red-and-blue look of other channels. It also moved towards a wholesome offer,introducing non-sarkari staple in the form of three shows — Newsnight (Hindi),Newsnight (English) and Charcha (Hindi). Smarter and slicker than the channel’s usual fare,the shows have tried to do the public broadcaster thing — providing news,and views too,in moderation. Former BBC hand Sanjeev Srivastava and senior journalist Ajai Shukla were appointed to spearhead the shows. Says Srivastava,“We do balanced shows. We don’t go overboard on opinion,stay focussed on the news and try to represent the full rainbow of Indian opinion. As a public broadcaster,we think it’s our duty to sometimes focus on things that private stations may scoff at,which are important though not sensational,like the Bhutan elections or events in Syria.”

Over the past two decades,private channels have reinvented news TV. They replaced the sari-clad,staid “newsreader”,with the tough-talking business-suit-clad “anchor”,launched guest shows,and “breaking news” tickers on the screen. But somewhere,feels Mayank Agarwal,additional director-general (news),things tipped in the opposite direction. DD News,smarting under the firepower of the privates,recognised viewer fatigue with anger and bluster,and sold itself as the restrained but bold stater of news. “See the ratings. It’s not only in the terrestrial segment,in which we don’t have competition,but even in the cable and satellite segments,where DD News,especially Newsnight (English),is consistently at number one.”

Egged on by ratings success,DD is thinking bigger. The morning bulletin is being revamped: a tie-up with the Bombay Stock Exchange to boost its business and economy segment is set to kick off by Dussehra. The afternoons are slated to get brighter,with a focus on “homemakers”. There is also a tie-up with the BBC for a Sunday bulletin to make news meaningful for “younger,adolescent audiences”. They even have an alert and savvy Twitter handle.

Says SM Khan,director-general (news),“We have teams in all corners of India with the mandate to relay news as informatively as possible. We just say what has to be said. Look around you,who is interested in doing that? We don’t burden you with opinions,and include everyone in our discussion panels — with views put out calmly,not with predetermined conclusions.” Is DD simply being contrarian? Khan retorts,“Don’t forget that it was DD that incubated all big names and shows. Whether it was NDTV’s live detailed election coverage and analysis or Newstrack or Aaj Tak or Eyewitness,DD gave them the reach,popularity,credibility and the platform.”

But DD News’ makeover is not bereft of challenges. When a team of 13 journalists was hired from private news networks on “competitive salaries” for the new shows,Indian Information Service (IIS) officers were unhappy. There was virtually a war of work cultures every evening. While none admits it on record,if the IIS officers were miffed by the high profile being occupied by “outsiders”,the new team experienced a telecast equivalent of raasta roko,or unspoken non-cooperation,that affected their morale and led to the dramatic departure within months of the initial face of change,Ajai Shukla. His supporters feel he was pushed to the wall by the IIS which is “neither about information nor service”. But his detractors say he threw in the towel too quickly and on an unrealistic expectation of “wanting supreme independence”.

Full autonomy,though,was never a feature of Prasar Bharti,the parent organisation of DD News. No government ever allowed it. So,how does DD reinvent itself in such a framework? There are three meetings a day between those hired recently and the director-general (news) team. A committee headed by Congress favourite Sam Pitroda was set up last year to “examine” what changes should take place. With 10 sub-groups working under it,the report is expected “any day”. Says a member of a sub-group,“Things can’t change dramatically. People hired originally by Prasar Bharti were file pushers,who were expected to function as news-persons. To expect them to suddenly put out a cracking bulletin is unrealistic. The outside push was needed. The old guard did hit back,with an almost public campaign to demoralise the new team. Now,it could mean SMSes to the bosses about spelling mistakes,to continue to damage those newly in charge.” But,says a senior member of the IIS,“ Why should Prasar Bharti compete with private stations? Our job is that of the public broadcaster,not to outdo private stations. We should just fulfil our mandate.”

So,will this power tussle torpedo DD’s reinvention plans? Prasar Bharti CEO Jawhar Sircar thinks not. “There is no creativity minus chaos. We are slowly getting there. Of course,there was some resistance when we started out but things are better now. And change is not just in the content. Eventually,the set and graphics will be shared by the entire news station. We have brought in debate about quality. Just the backdrop of the new shows took four months to freeze on. We have a superb helicopter shot for it.” And what about election pressure on the channel just before 2014? Sircar shrugs,“The government pays us for Bharat Nirman,so it’s like any other ad.”

It is not the first time that attempts have been made to “free” DD. The changes in DD in a year prior to national elections is a throwback to 2003 (which was also prior to the 2004 general polls),when the then NDA government launched DD News as a separate channel. They roped in journalist Deepak Chaurasia to change things. “The crucial difference”,points out an insider,“is that he was asked to almost set up a parallel structure; now the brief is to work within the system.”

But the fundamental questions are not about old-world censorship or a return to the “family planning” or “20-point programme” propaganda of Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi. Eighteen out of 24 hours are live and censorship is not an option. The question that DD must answer as it flirts with independence is if it can differentiate between being a “public” and a “state” broadcaster.

The 21st century saw countries move out of the Voice Of America/Radio Moscow mode and use state broadcasters more subtly,but forcefully,like Al Jazeera or Russia TV (RTV). Aren’t we missing out on a trick or two by not ensuring the raising of a credible Indian voice? Says an insider,“It was at a book release function in 2005 that the PM made an announcement that India must use its broadcaster to showcase how it sees the world and also to project internal developments. But the idea then became one of the department of strategic affairs and lost its sense of urgency.”

But,asserts Devpreet Singh,director (news),even small changes are important. “In our sports bulletin,we don’t just go after cricket or sporting politics and controversies. We are doing shows on new sports introduced internationally where India is competing,like sepaktakraw — it’s a kind of volleyball played with the foot. No one else will show that any time soon. We do.”

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