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Keep the public voice

Last updated: 14 December, 2010
B G Verghese 23:04 IST

Tremors in Prasar Bharati

The public service broadcaster does not have to cater to trivialising news and indulge in programming geared to fetch commercials.

The report that the President, Pratibha Patil has given her consent for proceedings to remove the current CEO of Prasar Bharati on charges of irregularities is overdue. This institution, created after years of pleading to represent the public voice of India in an increasingly information age, was ill-designed, and then, in turn, frustrated by being denied personnel and financial autonomy or a proper board, then relegated and finally hijacked by its chief executive to be reduced to a pathetic caricature of what it was intended to be.

Sadly, and only partly because the experiment was aborted along the way, some of staff are now agitating that Prasar Bharati be scrapped and the body revert to being a government department representing the official voice against all the private radio and TV channels that now abound.

Genuine autonomy is often feared as it entails responsibility and accountability and the loss of the cloak of anonymity that allows laggards to seek more for doing less and pass the buck for failure to perform to the ‘system.’ Not that Prasar Bharati lacks good people. But they are a demoralised lot. Autonomy is seldom given. It has to be grasped.

The rot started ab initio with an Act that placed excessive faith in recruiting the highest functionaries virtually exclusively from within the ranks of the bureaucracy. These functionaries were treated as deputationists and subject to whimsical recall as happened in the case of S Y Quraishi, DG Doordarshan, now Chief Election Commissioner.

Again, when AIR staff went on strike, the board members who sought a resolution were fobbed off by the I&B minister as busybodies with no jurisdiction over government servants.

The independent selection panel also singularly failed when it made no appointment to critical positions such as that of Chairman, CEO and Directors of Personnel and Finance for months on end. It kept waiting for a governmental nod on matters of procedure, salary fixation and so forth.

Recruitment, training, planning and programming faltered. A hardware-led policy dictated by considerations of ‘political reach’ through umpteen relay stations ignored matching programme and software development so that the vast infrastructure created has remained hugely underutilised.

A proposal that the engineering and technical services of Prasar Bharati be hived off as a separate transmission corporation and profit centre was never seriously considered. Programmes were increasingly outsourced and talented Prasar Bharati staff, lacking in-house opportunities took to moonlighting to produce excellent programmes for private channels.

The final blow came more recently with the CEO usurping the board's powers and rendering it impotent. Finally, the supreme court had to intervene and now the CEO faces possible impeachment and removal. The newly appointed chairperson and board find themselves immobilised. Immediate action is called for if Prasar Bharati, long in coma, is not to die.

Rank ignorance

It would seem that few would mourn such an event -- the government, parliament, much of the staff, the private channels, the print media, advertisers, and most of the listening and viewing public. Rank ignorance of what public serviced broadcasting is about and its seminal importance at this time, combined with indifference born of dissatisfaction with its performance, possibly explains why this is so.

The idea that the government needs an exclusive broadcast voice is equally baseless. First, ‘government’ embraces a plurality of regimes, parties and ideologies -- the Central government, 29 state governments, some Union Territories, hundreds of multi-level panchayats and nagar palikas, and autonomous regional councils. Who is ‘the government,’ or should every ‘government’ set up its own broadcast facility and should its policies change with every change in ‘government.’ Such a policy would result in a cacophony of warring and variables sounds, images and messages at considerable cost to little purpose.

However, there is a more important reason to make Prasar Bharati a vibrant institution. Private broadcasters understandably solicit advertising to earn their keep and dumb down programmes to earn better ratings in a highly competitive market. The public service broadcaster is under no such compulsion.

It does not have to cater to the lowest common denominator, trivialise and sensationalise news, manufacture bogus ‘breaking news’ and indulge in programming geared to fetching advertisements. Government need not be its only support.

The great difference is that while the private broadcaster primarily caters to the (well heeled) consumer of advertised goods, the public service broadcaster caters to the citizen. While all Indians are citizens, only half or less are ‘consumers’ of other than basic goods and services. PSB therefore caters to disadvantaged, marginalised, minority (ethnic, linguistic, faith/caste, tribal, remote, isolated) communities that make up the vast plural, disempowered undermass of India.

It constitutes a powerful tool for empowerment, participation, creating awareness, information, education, dialogue and engendering inclusiveness and accountability. It embodies the right to information. Not that private channels are impervious to any of this, but they must first survive.

An upwardly mobile India is seeking rights and entitlements. There is a great churning in progress will mould unity out of diversity and quell a million ongoing mutinies by creating conditions for equal opportunity and equal citizenship. It is to make the Preamble of the Constitution come alive in action and to sustain that ideal that India needs a public service broadcaster. That public voice must never die.

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