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Public service broadcasting?

Print edition : Nov 15, 1997 T+T-

Although Jaipal Reddy's efforts to put Prasar Bharati in place have received wide appreciation, serious apprehensions remain about the amendments to the Act moved by an ordinance on October 29.

PRAVEEN SWAMI

THE seven years that passed between the Prasar Bharati Act receiving presidential assent in 1990 and its coming into force in September 1997 saw its core ideas being shrouded out of sight. When Information and Broadcasting Minister S. Jaipal Reddy announced the notification of the Prasar Bharati Act in September, he was applauded for reviving a forgotten committment to autonomous public broadcasting in India. The decision rebutted claims by the P.V. Narasimha Rao regime's ideologues that public broadcasting was a redundant idea. Jaipal Reddy's efforts to put Prasar Bharati in place and to do so before the Broadcasting Bill is adopted by Parliament have received wide appreciation.

Nevertheless, serious apprehensions remain about the amendments to the Act moved by an ordinance on October 29. At least three of the amendments have aroused deep concern, particularly among the Left parties. Jaipal Reddy's scheme to free the nascent Prasar Bharati Corporation from state intervention, critics fear, could in fact mean that public broadcasting will be shackled instead to the marketplace.

The amendments fall into two broad categories. The first one, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry claims, will augment the autonomy of the Prasar Bharati Board. The ordinance overturns Section 13 of the 1990 Act, which provides for a parliamentary committee to oversee the working of the Board, arguing that the Select Committee that oversees the working of the Ministry would be adequate for the purpose.

Other amendments remove the Government's power to stipulate advertisement airtime and provide for the transfer of the assets of Doordarshan and Akashvani to the corporation on perpetual lease for a token Re. 1 a year.

The second set of amendments broadly seeks to reconcile the Prasar Bharati Act with planned legislation on private broadcasters. It replaces the Broadcasting Council provided for in the Prasar Bharati Act with the Broadcasting Authority of India, which will govern private broadcasters when the pending Broadcasting Bill is enacted.

The need for an autonomous public broadcasting system was first addressed in 1977 when the B.G. Verghese Committee submitted its findings. The Lok Sabha admitted the Prasar Bharati Bill in May 1979, but following the return of the Congress(I) to power, the legislation was shelved. Following an election campaign in which Doordarshan was used for crude propaganda, the V.P. Singh Government passed the Act, which received presidential assent in September 1990. The Act was again consigned to the dustbin by the P.V. Narasimha Rao regime. This time, the Congress(I) regime felt that the arrival of private satellite broadcasting had rendered state broadcasting redundant. The future of Doordarshan, it was suggested, lay in privatisation, not autonomy. Jaipal Reddy's revival of the legislation, therefore, marked a key moment for the emergence in India of a television not addressing middle class consumers, but a real mass audience.

What, then, is problematic about the amendments moved by Jaipal Reddy? Although well-intentioned, the exercise calls for a careful examination in the context of the Prasar Bharati Corporation's original mandate. This is spelt out in detail in Clause 12 of the Act. The corporation's primary duty, it reads, is to "organise and conduct public broadcasting services to inform, educate and entertain the public." Its meaning is explained in Clause 12 (2). Apart from "safeguarding the citizen's right to be informed freely, truthfully and objectively on all matters on public interest," Prasar Bharati would have special commitments as a public service broadcaster. These would include "paying special attention" to fields that commercial broadcasters ignore, such as education, agriculture, rural development, health and family welfare. The corporation will also have to meet the needs of regional audiences, minorities and the people of India's Scheduled Tribes.

The Act gives Prasar Bharati an activist agenda, mandating among other things that it "promote social justice" and combat "evils of untouchability", work for "safeguarding the rights of the working classes" and stimulate "national consciousness on the status and problems of women." Clause 13 (1), now done away with, provided for the creation of a 22-member parliamentary committee to "oversee that the corporation discharges its functions in accordance with... the objectives set out in Section 12." Jaipal Reddy argues that the coming into being of standing committees of Parliament after 1990, including one that watches over his Ministry, means that there would be duplication of work.

This legitimisation of the scrapping of the parliamentary committee appears misleading. The standing committee has no statutory power to oversee the corporation's discharge of its Clause 12 functions. As such, the corporation, running with public funds and with a legal mandate to serve the public, would not be accountable to any public body. There are well-founded fears that the Ministry's notoriously pro-private sector bureaucrats would pay little attention to their obligations. "When the ordinances come before Parliament for approval," says Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Prakash Karat, "we will demand that the standing committee be given the same powers that Section 13 vested in the parliamentary committee." It has, curiously, passed generally unnoticed that while Jaipal Reddy's amendments do away with parliamentary accountability, they paradoxically increase direct government intervention.

On page 2 of the Press Information Bureau's background note on the ordinances is a reference to the fact that two additional posts on the Prasar Bharati Board, those of Finance and Personnel, will now be held by bureaucrats rather than by non-official nominees. The 1990 Act provided the board with greater autonomy, mandating that both members be full-time paid members of the body chosen by a committee consisting of the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, the Chairman of the Press Council, and a nominee of the President. After the ordinance, only the Chairman of the Board, one executive member and six part-time members will be truly independent of the government. Apart from four ex-officio members, a representative of the Ministry and two elected employee representatives make up the rest of the Board.

None of the voices supporting the end of accountability has by the same reasoning attacked the increased government presence in Prasar Bharati. The Ministry's decision to do away with the Broadcasting Council created in the Act is similarly mysterious. The 1990 legislation specifically provided for a body consisting of 11 presidential appointees, four MPs and members of the Prasar Bharati Board. This has now been done away with on the grounds that since its mandate was to hear complaints about Prasar Bharati's functioning, the task could be easily given to the Press Council. Leaving aside the question of the Press Council's powers to enforce its decisions, and the general lack of effectiveness that it has exhibited in the past, this move opens up other issues.

One of the principal objections of the Left to the 1990 Act was that it did not truly decentralise broadcasting and gave State legislatures no participatory role in regional broadcasting. In response, a minimal concession was made enabling the Council to create State-level bodies that would address regional complaints. The Press Council has no such powers. In seeking to remove "superfluous" supervision, the ordinances end up centralising authority with New Delhi bureaucrats.

Perhaps the most disturbing amendment is the following. Key sections of the Act have been amended to bring the entire conceptual and regulatory structures of Prasar Bharati within the disciplinary framework of private sector, commercial television. The Broadcasting Authority of India, which will oversee the grant of licences to private broadcasters and their functioning if the Bill introduced in Parliament is passed, will regulate Prasar Bharati itself. The Broadcasting Bill makes references to a public service broadcaster, but it is principally concerned with private sector television.

The Prasar Bharati Act, on the other hand, vests the public service broadcaster with special responsibilities and purpose. The amendment thus relegates public broadcasting to simply another service, on a par with those that commercial broadcasters provide. In this context, the decision to remove government supervision of advertisement volumes is particularly disturbing. "There is a very real danger," says Prakash Karat, "that these changes will reduce Prasar Bharati to being just another market-driven, profit-oriented channel, subverting its purpose altogether." Since the early 1980s, with the coming of private sponsorship and the medium of the soap opera, that is precisely what Doordarshan has in fact tended to become. In part, these shifts might be seen as driven by changing political and economic circumstances.

Yet Jaipal Reddy is no ruthlessfree marketeer. The malaise in the Ministry goes deep. The growth of satellite television in the first years of this decade generated an infatuation with the technologies of broadcasting, creating an extraordinary aura of consensus that commercial, 'popular' television had decisively displaced television as a medium for social change. All technologies of broadcasting, particularly if they came from Rupert Murdoch, were assumed a priori to be of interest and relevance. Under Jaipal Reddy's Congress(I) predecessor K.P. Singh Deo, these propositions were elevated to the level of a liturgical credo, solemnly intoned in the portals of the Ministry. The loss of critical distance from the new technologies has led to the institutionalisation of the fallacy that they are creating a new post-ideological television.

Jaipal Reddy's problems lie in trying to reconcile fundamentally divergent perceptions of what public broadcasting constitutes and what purposes it might serve. As Armand and Michele Matellart pointed out in their book, Rethinking Media Theory (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1992), the processes of privatisation and deregulation of television are situated in the "construction of a system of 'world communication' in the context of a 'world economy'." Technologies of communication are "at the very heart of the strategies of reorganisation of the relations between the state and citizens, local and central powers, producers and consumers, workers and managers."

In a society like India, where there is widespread illiteracy, television is a key medium in shaping consensus around ideas and in driving the processes that constitute civil society. If Indian television is to play a meaningful role in building an egalitarian, democratic society, public broadcasting that addresses the needs of audiences who do not buy washing machines and the latest cars is vital. The amendments have done nothing to advance that cause. The next test will be the choice of members on the Prasar Bharati Board, and their commitment to Clause 12.