In Other News

What the indolent Prasar Bharati can learn from public broadcasters around the world

01 August 2013
India’s public broadcaster Prasar Bharati has received more than Rs 12,000 crore in government funding between 2007 and 2012.

ON 15 SEPTEMBER 1959, India’s national television station, Doordarshan, made its first experimental telecast out of a makeshift studio in Delhi. It was not until 1982, however—with the Delhi Asian Games looming—that Doordarshan started regular national broadcasts. Both Doordarshan and All India Radio, which had been in operation since 1930, were units of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting until 1997, when the government established a new autonomous body incorporating both services, to be called Prasar Bharati. Though the act to create a putatively independent broadcasting corporation was passed in 1990 (and not implemented for another seven years), the argument for autonomy had been discussed for decades, with the hope that it would foster more professional and unbiased state broadcasters.

But autonomy and professionalism continue to elude Prasar Bharati. India’s public broadcaster is still mired in a web of political interference, bureaucratic lethargy, nepotism and corruption. The result: an embarrassing waste of public funds, year after year, to produce insipid programming that mostly covers government events and retains little credibility among audiences. While Doordarshan and All India Radio once enjoyed a monopoly over India’s airwaves, viewers have largely moved to the hundreds of private television channels and radio stations that have opened up since 1991—and yet India’s public networks still have the widest reach and the most lavish funding of any Indian broadcaster.

For the current financial year, Prasar Bharati has been allocated a whopping Rs 2,180 crore ($363 million) as grant-in-aid from the government; in the five years leading up to 2012, it received more than Rs 12,000 crore ($2 billion). Compare this to NDTV, one of the country’s leading English networks, which had an annual turnover of only Rs 409 crore ($68 million) last year. To put Prasar Bharati’s funding into a global perspective, the royal family of Qatar spent $137 million to launch Al Jazeera in 1997, built its globally influential English-language channel with another $1 billion, and now backs the network with $100 million annually. Given that it has equal or greater finances at its disposal, India’s public broadcasting corporation should be serving up higher quality programming and besting the country’s private channels, if not global juggernauts like Al Jazeera and the BBC.

Earlier this year, the National Innovation Council chairman Sam Pitroda was put in charge of the latest in a long line of committees meant to devise improvements for Prasar Bharati. Three other such committees have come and gone in the last 15 years, each with an exhaustive set of recommendations for restructuring Prasar Bharati—and all of them called for even more distance from the government. To insulate Prasar Bharati from political interference, the earlier committees suggested things like a license fee from television-owning households (along the lines used to fund the BBC) to remove its dependence on government funding, or making Prasar Bharati answerable to Parliament rather than the I&B ministry. But these recommendations were ignored, and many fear the Pitroda committee could end up as just another eyewash, without leading to real structural change that would loosen the government’s grip on Prasar Bharati.

Late in 2012, Sanjeev Srivastava—who had a long and distinguished career at the BBC—was hired to lead a team of journalists charged with revamping Prasar Bharati’s news channel, DD News. “In a bureaucratic set-up,” Srivastava told me, “overnight change is not possible.” But what drew him to Doordarshan, he said, was the opportunity to give the news channel a facelift: a sharper look, a new journalistic edge, and real credibility. The initial results were promising: the channel’s two-hour prime time programme, Newsnight, topped the ratings in March–April with a new mix of balanced and serious analysis from guests across the political spectrum. But before long, the old woes began to creep back: I&B ministry bureaucrats, perhaps fearing the success of Newsnight might further diminish their control, moved to rein in the new team. An internal memo from the Prasar Bharati director-general’s office in mid-March sanctioned bureaucratic vetting of guests before they could appear on Newsnight—an effort to restore DD News to its familiar status as a government mouthpiece.

The episode hit the headlines when Ajai Shukla, a former NDTV journalist and retired army officer, resigned from DD News on 29 March in protest over government meddling. The battle for control between ministry bureaucrats and Doordarshan journalists is not new: a similar script played out under the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in 2003, which made an aggressive and heavily politicised effort to impose more bureaucratic control on the news channel. That effort was led by Deepak Chaurasia, a journalist known for his proximity to then home minister LK Advani. Tussles between media professionals led by Chaurasia and the bureaucrats deputed to Doordarshan were a daily feature in the newsroom, with Chaurasia’s political influence often winning the day. Presentation and ratings improved during that time, but DD News also became decidedly more partisan, especially in the time leading up to the 2004 general election. When the Congress came to power, the bureaucrats had their revenge, and Chaurasia was forced out. By comparison, the current team led by Srivastava is less partisan, but also decidedly less confrontational with bureaucrats. (Disclosure: I was an intern at Doordarshan during Chaurasia’s tenure, and later worked for DD News as a correspondent from 2004–2007.)

“DD News is still a unique platform, one that does not sensationalise news like the private channels,” said Srivastava, who has decided to stay put at the network. “But what we need is a political figure at the top with long-term vision and conviction, who will push through what is best in the national interest, rather than for narrow, short-term political gains.”

Some had thought that Manish Tewari, the recently appointed information and broadcasting minister, could be that figure: he made promising noises when he took over the ministry, saying that the new rebranding exercise would not be politically driven like the one in 2003, and promised that the ministry would keep an “arm’s length separation” from the new DD News. But a few months later, he seems to have changed his tone—thanks in part to pressure from an insecure bureaucracy, but more likely with an eye on the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, for which some in the government believe DD News can still be an effective propaganda tool for the party in power. “Two-thirds of Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s budget goes to Prasar Bharati,” Tewari said on 5 April, at the inaugural hearing of the Pitroda committee. “I am the recruiting authority, the disciplinary authority, the sanctioning authority. Yet, I am supposed to keep an arm’s length. I am not God.”

With this government entering its last year, Tewari can leave behind one of two legacies at the I&B ministry. Like his many predecessors, he could opt for the status quo, keep Prasar Bharati under government control, and leave India’s richest broadcaster in the hands of bureaucrats trained to write dour government press releases. Or he could be remembered as a bold reformer who utilised the energy of India’s free press and new technology to bring Prasar Bharati into the 21st century. With the domestic TV news market completely oversaturated—India has more than 800 TV channels—his biggest contribution would be to use the broadcasting corporation’s ample funding to give India its first world-class news channel.

The benefits of doing so would not be limited to domestic audiences: for all its energy, the Indian media has been singularly indifferent to any global ambitions. The “India story” is told to the world by foreign journalists and broadcasters—a fact that reflects poorly on both the stature of Indian journalism and the strategic vision of the Indian government. Smarter countries have scaled up their capacity to narrate their own fortunes on the world stage. Since 2007, China, Russia, Japan, Qatar and Iran have all launched global English-language networks. Al Jazeera has obviously been the most successful of the lot, launching tiny Qatar to a position of disproportionate influence in Middle East politics. China, which has no shortage of hard power, invested $9 billion in 2009–2010 to expand the reach of its state-owned media: in a 2011 communique, the ruling Communist Party declared that “to some degree, whoever owns the commanding heights of cultural development, and soft power, will enjoy a competitive edge internationally.” China Radio International already broadcasts in more languages than the BBC, and their media machine now has enormous influence in Africa, a strategic continent for both India and China.

For a country whose elites believe it to be a rising global power, India’s “soft power” depends almost entirely on the worldwide popularity of Bollywood stars. The benefits of soft power may or may not be overrated, but nothing reflects India’s weakness on this front more than its complete absence as a player in the global media landscape. Foreigners who want to know about India—and that number is growing by the year—turn to Western outlets like the BBC, CNN, the New York Times or The Economist. No private Indian media organisation is positioned to compete on this terrain, but a restructured Prasar Bharati would be well-placed to represent India (and Indian interests) in the global media—if it can get its act together. “We are still struggling to tell the story in India properly,” Srivastava told me. “So going global will take time.” But the moment is ripe for Prasar Bharati to embrace international ambitions: there is a growing curiosity about India abroad, directly correlated to our gradual rise as an economic and political force, while a large and successful Indian diaspora is eager to stay in touch. The global demand for Indian news, in other words, is only going to increase in the years to come.

The other benefit of a globally oriented Prasar Bharati would be to bring international stories to Indian audiences. While foreign broadcasters cover the world, they do so with the interests of their home audiences in mind: CNN looks for the American angle, and the BBC (if less so) the British one. Prasar Bharati needs to be telling global stories that resonate with, and affect, an Indian audience—which wants to know more about the rest of the world than ever before. Indians are building roads and mobile towers in Afghanistan; Indian women peacekeepers in Liberia are saving lives and inspiring local women. These stories deserve to be told, and right now, the Indian media is barely telling them. Back home, India is adopting development ideas that have been tested in other countries: the direct cash transfer scheme for below poverty line families, for example, has been adapted directly from Brazil’s Bolsa Familia program. The potential cash recipient in Mumbai has the right to know how the recipient in Sao Paulo has benefited from the scheme, and Prasar Bharati is the perfect medium to carry that knowledge.

“If presented well, global news reflects a country’s values and creates a certain affection for that society,” the foreign policy analyst Kanti Bajpai said. At the moment, the sorry state of India’s public broadcasters—if anyone abroad happened to be paying attention—would reflect a country that’s still reticent to engage with the world, and a place where public institutions don’t function properly. More importantly, its original mandate has been perverted: the public service broadcaster has become a government service broadcaster, whose work benefits the establishment rather than the citizen. It’s time for Prasar Bharati to fulfill its intended mission, and start working for the people of India, at home and abroad.

Sambuddha Mitra Mustafi is a Fulbright scholar, media entrepreneur and freelance journalist.

Keywords: media broadcasting television ratings BBC Doordarshan Prasar Bharati