Has Lok Sabha TV Become a Mouthpiece for the Government?

02 September, 2015

After the Lok Sabha TV (LSTV) channel was launched in 2006, my bureaucrat father would often call home during parliament sessions, ask us to switch the television on, play the channel and leave the telephone receiver next to the television. He would then listen to the proceedings for hours.

LSTV—conceived of by the former Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Somnath Chatterjee as an instrument to acquaint citizens with the functioning of the parliament—was meant for such dedicated viewership. As Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a former consultant for LSTV who was an anchor for the shows Talktime and 1-on-One on the channel from March 2007 to 2015, told me, “The channel was never market-driven. And it was unique in the sense that it was owned by the lower house. It was supposed to be didactic, informative and educative, unlike the screaming on private news channels.”

A senior official at the channel reaffirmed this to me over the phone. “It was set up with a noble mandate: to keep the roots of democracy well informed—to analyse policy changes and their impact on common people.” He further elaborated, “The original vision was of a discussion-based and documentary-driven channel involving policymakers, thinkers, journalists and academics. Public service broadcasting with neutral emphasis, headed by the speaker of Lok Sabha, and so representing the total will of the house.”

In October 2014, Seema Gupta was appointed the editor-in-chief and CEO of LSTV. Earlier this year, I reported on how Gupta had allegedly invoked the name of information and broadcasting minister Arun Jaitley to intimidate her colleagues when they raised questions about her programming decisions. Over the past few months, I found that the government’s murky relationship with the supposedly autonomous channel was far more complex.

In December 2014, an episode of 1-on-One—an LSTV program that showcases interviews and discussions on current affairs, hosted by Guha Thakurta until March this year—was, according to a former LSTV consultant, “yanked off mid-air” during a repeat broadcast in January. The former consultant told me that the episode, dealing with the Bilaspur sterilisation tragedy, was stopped due to a call from Gupta.

When I brought this up with Guha Thakurta, he claimed that he was not aware of the reasons that prompted the cancellation of the repeat broadcast. He did, however, remember the episode. “I had interviewed Poonam Muttreja from Population Foundation of India, which was part of a consortium of non-governmental organisations that had prepared a report on the Bilaspur sterilisation tragedy. She had critiqued the healthcare system in the country, while highlighting the Bilaspur tragedy, and maybe it was construed as a statement against the Chhattisgarh chief minister, Raman Singh [who is from the Bharatiya Janata Party].”

In July, I met Charu Kartikeya, a former anchor at LSTV who worked at the channel from February 2009 to 2015. Kartikeya told me that these patterns of directing the tone of the channel—irrespective of the party at the helm of the nation—have always existed and continue to persist at LSTV. Kartikeya recalled that in July or August last year, he had been asked to “go slow on the government” by the executive director for programming (EDP), Dhiraj Singh. According to the senior LSTV official, Singh was acting on orders issued by K Vijayakrishnan, a current additional secretary to the Lok Sabha secretariat and the “acting CEO of LSTV” at that time. “He said he wanted the anchors to understand what the government was doing and maintain the objectivity of the channel,” the senior official told me. “He [Vijayakrishnan] was not pro-government or anything, but with Gupta, such orders became more stringent and direct.”

The senior LSTV official told me that Gupta’s appointment in late 2014 had raised several eyebrows. He and Rajiv Mishra, who was the CEO of LSTV from 2011 to 2014, both confirmed that before she was hired, the post of the CEO was primarily administrative. However, prior to her appointment,the post was altered to include the title of editor-in-chief. “Her name was already floating around, and even before the interview, people knew she’ll be the one—but of course, on paper it was all routine process,” said the senior official.

The former LSTV consultant believed that her selection was more contentious. “Was she really deserving for the post—compared to Pankaj Saxena who was former EDP at the channel?” he asked. “He [Saxena] was placed second in the final merit list after her.” In such cases, the consultant said, “Lok Sabha Secretariat sets up selection panels, which are supervised by the speaker. But in actuality, whether the decisions are coming from PMO [prime minister’s office] or the speaker…that is up to conjecture.”

Before joining LSTV as the EDP, Saxena had worked with Discovery channel as the vice-president for programming for more than eight years, and as the head of programming for British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Worldwide. Gupta, according to her LinkedIn profile, had served as general manager for Zee network and telefilms, as vice president for TV Asia in New Jersey and finally as vice president for Smartmatic Corporation—an American multi-national corporation that specialises in electronic voting systems, smart urban solutions, and biometric registration—in New Delhi, before she joined LSTV in October 2014 as CEO and editor-in-chief.

“It falls in with the larger pattern of disruption we’re seeing, with organisations such as the FTII [Film and Television Institute of India] and NFDC [National Film Development Corporation of India]” remarked the senior official. “Put your people in—only allegiance matters, not qualifications. The information and broadcasting ministry already has Prasar Bharati [India’s largest public broadcasting agency]; and in Rajya Sabha, they [the government] lack a majority, so now they are trying to take over LSTV. The funny thing is, now while the viewers say LSTV has become a BJP channel, the sanghis—members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—are still unsatisfied, they want more.”

The senior official further claimed that government control was not limited to just staff appointments, but extended to the content of the programming, going so far as to influence the panels on the shows that feature on the channel. Since the Modi government has come into power, he claimed, “majority people [sic], in shows like Know Your MP, are coming from the ruling party now. Sanghis and right-wing intellectuals have become regular panelists…KG Suresh, Sushant Sareen, Nitin Gokhale, RS Chhikara [all associated with Vivekananda International Foundation, a Delhi-based think tank with links to the RSS] and Anirban Ganguly [the director of Dr.Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation—another think tank linked to the BJP and RSS and a former research fellow at VIF].” This is not all. An email written by Gupta on 17 June 2015 to the senior editorial staff at LSTV revealed that the CEO told the channel executives to schedule a live telecast featuring the celebration of International Yoga Day: an initiative dear to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The rudimentary LSTV website offers very little information on the programming of the channel and details of its personnel. However, as I was reporting for the piece in July, I found through other online sources that LSTV was running a documentary on former prime minister and BJP stalwart Atal Bihari Vajpayee, apart from a show called Sansad Mein Atal—that looked at Vajpayee’s role in the parliament. Other documentaries, on Swami Vivekananda, the Ganga, and Yoga, continue to be regular features on the channel

Earlier this year, during the course of my reportage for Vantage, I met Bhaskar Ghose, who was the CEO of LSTV from 2005 to 2008, at his residence in Mayur Vihar. Ghose told me that such content was not routine during his tenure, “especially not as live news.” “We used to cover the national holidays—independence and republic days, Gandhi Jayanti—and that’s it! We never did any news consciously. That wasn’t our business, and the speaker [Chatterjee] agreed,” he added.

The senior LSTV official echoed Ghose’s comments. “We never used to cut live to government functions during the UPA’s [United Progressive Alliance] time. Now, on Yoga day we covered the whole event from 6 am and more. Otherwise—governance day, teacher’s day, digital India, skill India, Hindu Mahasabha, PM’s foreign visits—something or the other is always there.” He further explained that the “orders come through the CEO. It gives them [the government] the excuse to push PMO agenda. Discussion gets limited, and it becomes more of PR [public relations].”

“Earlier, anchors used to make the editorial decisions themselves under the CEO’s [Mishra] guidance. We would mail proposals to him and usually select the guests ourselves.” Kartikeya told me. However, he said that, under Gupta, editorial meetings had been as good as non-existent. “There was no consistency. More often than not, she wouldn’t turn up, and the EDP [Dhiraj Singh] would make the decisions. Later, she would often express unhappiness with the topics suggested, and sometimes she overturned them.”

The former LSTV consultant confirmed that Gupta plays a larger role in programming decisions than Mishra did, and that there is greater centralisation within LSTV. “To be fair, there is still a certain amount of functional autonomy—you can’t take that away. But yes, there is definitely a marked preference for guests with the orientation to speak their [the government’s] kind of language,” he told me.

However, the former consultant also conceded that the “newsification”—an obvious bias in the programming and views of the channel—had actually begun even before Gupta’s appointment. He claimed that the channel first began displaying signs of a bias under Mishra, the channel’s CEO before Gupta. As the general elections of 2014 grew close, Mishra, who was a nephew of Jagannath Mishra—a former chief minister of Bihar—began cosying up to the BJP for an election seat from Jhanjharpur constituency in Bihar. The consultant added that, “LSTV became quite critical of the UPA, and this was the real reason behind Mishra’s expulsion.” Mishra’s contract was valid only until May 2014, and was never renewed. According to the Indian Express, Mishra’s tenure was limited by the then-speaker Meira Kumar after LSTV highlighted Kumar’s loss in the 2014 elections, and because of Janadesh 2014, that Kumar was reportedly unhappy with because the programme often included guests whose opinions were anti-government. When I spoke to Mishra, he refused to comment on the reason for his departure, but confirmed that since his exit, “the so-called right-wing intellectuals are [sic] being invited more often.”

I asked Guha Thakurta if he could recall any instances of editorial censorship during the UPA regime. He recounted a few examples: a September 2007 episode of Talktime, that was censored after the first broadcast, during which panellist Suresh Pachouri, then the minister of state for personnel, public grievances and pensions, was reportedly displeased at the mention of the failed extradition of Ottavio Quattrocchi, a key figure in the Bofors scandal; a 2007 1-on-One ­interview with Kapil Sibal during which Sibal, then the minister for science and technology, was angered by a controversial question regarding his son and reportedly threatened to stop the episode from being telecast—it was not broadcast  eventually; and another 1-on-One episode from 2009, which featured a discussion on political funding and black money, but was, Guha Thakurta reported, subsequently deemed “inappropriate for LSTV” by Saxena, who was then the EDP.

Guha Thakurta recalled a few instances when Chatterjee had himself opposed the repeat telecast of certain episodes, a rarity for LSTV. These included a 1-on-One interview with the then president of the Janata Party, Subramanian Swamy, recorded in December 2007. Guha Thakurta had told me that, Chatterjee had said, “We won’t show it again.” Two other episodes were declared unfit to be telecast a second time: a 2008 1-on-One with Kishore Chandra Deo, who headed the parliamentary committee on the cash-for-votes scandal, that Chaterjee dismissed as “not dignified for a Lok Sabha institution”; and finally, a Talktime episode from either 2008 or 2009—Guha Thakurta could not recall the exact date—where the then-speaker felt that the panellists were “excessively critical of the government.”

Guha Thakurta concluded however, that “over a period of about 8 years and 700 shows, I faced problems with six shows—means things are not that bad.”

Meanwhile, there have been rumours of Gupta’s clash with the speaker of the Lok Sabha, Sumitra Mahajan. On 1 June 2015, a notice was released that announced walk-in interviews for 16 vacancies at LSTV. Among others, it invited candidates for the posts of executive producer (news), senior editor (news, Hindi) and two editors (news, English). Eleven days later, on 12 June, the advertisement was withdrawn. Recently, on 7 July, an amended notice wasreleased that did not include those four posts. The former LSTV consultant told me that Gupta ordered the initial advertisement without clearing it with Mahajan. This was apparently not the only instance in which Gupta had tried to bypass Mahajan. “She [Gupta] had tried to change the LSTV logo from green to red,” the former consultant added.

The senior LSTV official claimed that Mahajan had, in fact, mailed Gupta, asking her to “follow proper channels.” According to the official, Mahajan’s mail was prompted by the fact that Gupta had been sending files directly to the Lok Sabha secretary general, Anoop Mishra, instead of DK Bhalla, allegedly a close associate of Mahajan’s and the secretary to whom she had assigned LSTV in February this year.

“Like all bureaucratic institutions across the world, LSTV suffers from certain ailments,” Guha Thakurta told me. “In a hierarchical system, accountability tends to get defused—so it’s less transparency and more compartmentalisation… things like top positions being filled through political connections.” Despite his generous outlook, Guha Thakurta’s contract lapsed earlier this year and was not renewed. He told me that he sent a request to Gupta through email, but that it went unanswered.

Guha Thakurta is not the only one who did not consider the interference unusual. Another anchor seemed both unconvinced and unperturbed by my report that Jaitley may have been influencing LSTV programming. “It will be nice if Jaitley or Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore [minister of state for information and broadcasting] took an interest in the channel, maybe we will get better salaries then,” she joked. She told me that as far as she was concerned, she was responsible for most of the content and panel decisions on her shows. “Such things happen everywhere,” she continued, referring to the governmental interference, “and even at LSTV, it is not anything new.”

Everyone I spoke to had stressed that LSTV was supposed to represent the view of the entire parliament—of all its 543 members—and not just the majority. I asked Guha Thakurta if the National Democratic Alliance’s numerical advantage automatically translated into higher representation in the channel. He smiled and said, “You can look at it that way if you want. In any case, at least on paper there is autonomy and independence. It’s sad, but that’s just how it works!”