The blurred lines

Controlled media

The Congress has set a bad precedent. The party has combined two positions: one is that of party official spokesman and the other that of minister for information and broadcasting. Both have different roles. The official spokesman defends the stand the party takes, right or wrong.  Minister for information and broadcasting is India’s spokesman, not that of one party. The first is nominated while the other is elected by the people.

To mix the two is unfair to the occupant, who happens to be Manish Tiwari at present. He had been doing a fairly good job as the spokesman. Given a chance, he would have probably done even better. Broadcasting in India has not been able to shatter the fetters of officialdom for decades. Still worse is the telephone calls by a minister or a senior bureaucrat which changes the news bulletin even at the last minute.

In the sixties, several activists agitated for autonomy of official media. Subsequently, the government relented and brought the Prashar Bharti Bill. It was diluted from the beginning. But when implemented, the Prashar Bharti became another department of the broadcasting ministry. Once I asked one I&B minister why the Prashar Bharti was not on the pattern of BBC, the original idea, to eschew subjectivity or slant. The minister was frank enough to say that the government has to have its own set-up to disseminate its viewpoint when newspapers and television channels were privately owned. He did admit the criterion should be the objectivity, not where it comes from.

The Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha channels, although run by public funds, appear to have less of government’s propaganda. Yet both of them have no news bulletins and avoid such topic that may embarrass the government. The channels also see to it that as far as possible they do not have critics in the news and views programmes. The two channels do not spoil the mould which they have developed, not too critical and not too distant from the government’s point of view.

In a democratic polity, perception is most important for credibility. The impression is that the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha channels do not go beyond the red line drawn for their guidance. It is no use rulers claiming that the government media is autonomous when they themselves do not allow it to be so.

Two recent examples show how the ministry was out of depth. The death of 23 school children in Bihar following the mid-day meals was a tragedy which the private channels reported from every possible angle. In comparison, Akashvani and Doordarshan registered the event only. The official media was handicapped because Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar may become the Congress ally in the 2014 elections.

New charges

Take another example. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has exonerated Pawan Kumar Bansal, former railway minister. Some new incriminating information has come out since. Yet, Manish Tiwari says on behalf of the Congress that the court is open to those who level charges. Both Akashwani and Doordarshan do not tell what the new charges are which the people want to know.

In the recent past, corruption has penetrated the government media as well. Just as the privately-owned media has ‘paid news,’ both Akashvani and Doordarshan too carry motivated stories affecting its credibility. Yetl it is beginning to be preferred by many because views and news are so mixed that it is difficult to separate fact from fiction.

In-depth reporting is very limited in government media because even if a news editor feels like probing further, the fear of going wrong from the official point of view deters him from doing so. Somehow, those who occupy high positions in the government labour under the belief that they -- and they alone -- know what the nation should be told and when. And they get annoyed if any news which they do not like appears in print. Their first attempt is to contradict it and dub it mischievous. Later, when it is realised that a mere denial will not convince even the most gullible, a lame explanation is offered that things have not been put ‘in proper perspective.’ Probably, at that time, the government gets away with its version of the story.

But what is not realised is that such methods only decrease the credibility of official assertions. Even honest claims of the government begin to be questioned. In a democracy, where faith stirs the people’s response, the government cannot afford to have even an iota of doubt raised about what it says or does. Somehow New Delhi is not conscious of this fact.

In a free society, the press has a duty to inform the public without fear or favour. At times it is an unpleasant job, but it has to be performed because a free society is founded on free information. If the press were to publish only government handouts or official statements, there would be nothing to pin-point lapses, deficiencies or mistakes. In fact, the truth is that the press is already too nice, altogether too refined and too ready to leave out. The government should not ask for more.

The combination of being the party’s spokesman and the minister of information and broadcasting is beyond me. Government may believe that it has got away with it because the act is many weeks old. The government does not realise that its credibility has come down several pegs than before. I really feel sorry for poor Manish Tiwari.

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