Edition : January 2015

Prasar Bharati Can't Be Like BBC

From its very inception in 1997 we have been told that Prasar Bharati, the so-called autonomous body that runs All India Radio and Doordarshan, aims to be something like the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)-a byword for professionally competent and extensive coverage of events all over the world even though it is occasionally accused of 'bias' by those who have been put in the dock by the organization. Ordinary people wonder how, in the first place, PB is called 'autonomous' when almost all its funds come from the government. Merely transferring the day to day functioning of an organization from a ministry (Information and Broadcasting) to a government-subsidized organization doesn't make it 'autonomous'. It may, however, be added that the BBC, which arguably commands the largest number of viewers and listeners in the world-is sustained with public and government funds.

The point, however, is not so much about the source of funding, but the professional competence upon which is built a media organization's reputation, credibility and audience. This magazine has exposed how and why professionalism in the news and other programs of DD (and AIR) have actually been at a discount. Most of the money seems to go into paying the salaries of the technical and administrative staff. Many 'non-professionals'-from various government services---have been manning various DD wings, as heads. Many posts in the news and entertainment sections often remain vacant for long periods. One can only sympathize with the lady who anchored for DD the inaugural function of a recently concluded film function at Goa. She has been much reviled in the social media for her many howlers she committed: she introduced the governor of Goa as the 'Governor of India' and asked a bewildered film personality whether he liked films.

The lady is said to be depressed and has shown suicidal tendencies because of the constant shower of rebukes in the social and the mainstream media. But one would like to suggest that more than her the bigger culprit was DD. It is nothing short of a scandal that no heads have rolled in DD. The lady in question was asked to do a program about which she apparently had no clue. She might have worked in the Mumbai entertainment industry but she was asked to do a program that requires some grounding in journalism, which she did not have. It cannot be accepted that DD functions with such an acute shortage of trained and professional staff that it has no choice but to rope in the first person that DD officials can spot. The DD should have a team of 'competent' professional for various programs, journalistic and others, available round the year-even round the clock.

The word 'professional' needs to be spelt out. The person should be familiar with the work assigned to him or her, be it politics, sport, entertainment or anything else. In the field of journalism it would mean a deep knowledge of the arena that is normal in a day's events-politics, economics, sport, entertainment and so on. These professionals should have acquired some expertise in at least one or two fields. An aspect which receives little attention these days is the pronunciation of words by news readers and anchors. It is no exaggeration to say that not a day passes when they have not mispronounced words. The shocking part is that they go on repeating the mistakes. Is there no monitoring mechanism? In its anxiety to establish that it functions under an 'autonomous' body, Doordarshan has copied the private channels in its news presentation format. An essential ingredient of this 'freestyle' TV is calling 'scores' of participants (six is the norm on most days) for a sort of group discussion anchored by the news reader. As in the private channels, it turns out to be cacophonous and off-putting exercise. Many find that the anchors do not airing their bias.

It is a pity that DD has to copy the private channels. Why can't DD prepare a few experts of its own who can come on the air to give their, what one would presume are, independent views on burning and controversial topics. What we get these days is propaganda or the familiar lines from spokespersons of various parties, all speaking simultaneously because none has the patience to hear the others. Haven't DD (and AIR) officials noted that the BBC news programs almost never hold assemble a 'class' of six or eight guests in the studio, all politicians or the same faces from the world of journalism, to discuss a subject? Instead, the opinion comes from an in-house expert or someone who has covered the event. The listener/viewer gets to hear clearly what is being said and, what is more, the impartiality of the view expressed is generally accepted. When you call spokespersons of political parties you cannot expect them to do anything but garrulously defend their party's line. The best forum for verbal jousts is the party HQ, not TV or radio studios.

DD and AIR do have correspondents in Delhi and many state capitals, though nothing more than a token presence in foreign countries. Sadly, one cannot recall any occasion when their contributions earned wide praise or credited them with obtaining a 'scoop' of some note. Given the proximity of DD and AIR to the government, it least some of the major government decisions and announcements could have come via DD and AIR on the days when Parliament is not on. One vividly recalls the pre-TV and pre-DD days when there was only AIR. The report from the AIR correspondent from a foreign station could often be this gem: 'The Prime Minister was warmly greeted on his arrival..' No perspective or analysis of the reasons for the PM's visit and the key but contentious issues that he or she will like to discuss with the host. And, of course, nothing controversial. One had heard that in old days, politics (and religion) was a strict taboo in the Army mess; obviously the diktat extended to AIR!

The prime minister has stopped the practice of travelling abroad with a planeload of journalists. It is a welcome step because it was never clear why should the taxpayer pay for the travel of journalists many of whom took it as an all expense-paid foreign holiday. But the PM does take along the 'official media'. All that this team of 'official media' does is cling on to words from officials; no attempt to look for stories that the officials will never break on record. As any journalist will tell you, some of the best stories come from outside the official briefings.

The Prasar Bharati has recently appointed a new head who is known for his sympathies with the ruling party. There can be no quarrel about it, but it certainly raises doubts if DD and AIR can really expect to work as impartial mediums, the sine qua non of good news channels. If it does not sound cynical, one would say that expect more of the same as far as DD and AIR are concerned. The debate over 'autonomy' or the aspiration to be something like the BBC can go on endlessly.

-BAZH Special Correspondent

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