An autonomous public broadcaster is relevant

The concept of an autonomous public broadcasting corporation was born after the excesses of the Indira Gandhi-led government during the Emergency of 1975-77 when DD and AIR were used as blatant vehicl

Published: 24th March 2018 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 24th March 2018 06:05 PM   |  A+A-

Information and Broadcasting minister Smriti Irani

The concept of an autonomous public broadcasting corporation was born after the excesses of the Indira Gandhi-led government during the Emergency of 1975-77 when DD and AIR were used as blatant vehicles of government propaganda. The Janata Party that came into power in 1977 constituted a committee under the chairmanship of veteran journalist B G Verghese to work out how this could be done. The BBC was considered a model. On the Verghese Committee’s recommendations, the Prasar Bharati (Broadcasting Corporation of India) Act was formulated and passed in 1990. It took another seven years ­before it was set up.

The recent not-so-friendly spat between the Prasar Bharati board chaired by A Surya Prakash and Information and Broadcasting minister Smriti Irani has once again underlined that no government, irrespective of its political hue, is really interested in giving the public broadcaster genuine autonomy.

The trouble started when the board opposed the ministry’s move to a serving IAS officer as Member (Personnel) of Prasar Bharati, against the specific provisions of the Prasar Bharati Act, 1990. Since then the ministry issued several directives interfering with the working of the autonomous body contrary to the provision of the law and even went to the length of not releasing funds for the salaries of the staff.

There have been bickerings over jurisdiction between the ministry and the Prasar Bharati ever since its creation. In the current dispensation, though both are headed by persons known for their proximity with the RSS, the spat has reached the lowest level. While Prasar Bharati itself is rife with mediocrity, intrigues and petty corruption, the solution is to strengthen, not dilute its autonomy.

The ministry’s attempts to tighten its stranglehold over a statutory body like Prasar Bharati shows its obsessive urge to control, not improve. It is a prime example of how politicians and bureaucrats in post-liberalisation India can compensate for the loss of powers they enjoyed under the previous permit control raj.

As Surya Prakash has courageously pointed out, no other parliamentary legislation has been as blatantly violated by successive governments as the Prasar Bharati Act. Till today, no government has considered it essential to implement crucial elements in the law. For instance, in order to protect Prasar Bharati from interference by the government of the day, the act envisaged a 22-member parliamentary committee to oversee its functioning. This committee does not ­exist and no political party has demanded its creation.

The law also provides for the setting up of a Broadcasting Council comprising 11 “persons of eminence in public life” to be appointed by the President of India and four members of Parliament from both Houses. It was expected to address complaints by any member of the public about the content broadcast by Prasar Bharati. This has not yet been created. Again, the law envisaged the creation of a corporate entity, the Broadcasting Corporation of India. Yet this too has failed to materialise.

Creating a public broadcaster that is autonomous is relevant. Such an institution could cover the many issues that the privately owned media choose to neglect. It could also be the space for considered dialogue and debate that has been drowned out in the cacophony that constitutes current affairs and news on private channels.

Yogesh Vajpeyi

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