Depending on when you are reading this, the new Information and Broadcasting Minister would’ve assumed office. Although former Minister of State Anand Sharma took oath as a minister on Friday along with others, the I&B portfolio wasn’t allocated among the few announced on Saturday. Sharma is tipped to be our man, but you never know.
India has had some interesting infobroad chiefs. In the 1950s, BV Keskar banned film music on All India Radio, which led to the huge popularity of international services of Radio Ceylon and the countdown show ‘Binaca Geetmala’. Things have improved dramatically since, but there are many areas that require better thinking. For instance, while the news space is open for private television channels, it is taboo on private FM. Similarly, even as international players can run solo with their advertising and media agencies (who in turn control ad spends) and non-news television, there’s no way a Forbes or Financial Times or Fox can enter with wholly-owned India set-ups. Sigh.
However, it would be unfair to say the new minister will maintain a status quo. I am sure he or she will turn things around. In order to help the respected mantri have a fruitful innings, I’ve made a list of 10 things I’d like the ministry to do. Here it goes.
#1: Don’t meddle with the media
Hey, leave the media alone. Regulation doesn’t work. Make it mandatory for all media entities to have an ombudsman (that’ll also give retired judges, bureaucrats and mediapersons some work) and let market forces decide. And of course the legal provisions will exist...
# 02: Let foreign news media in
We saw two big business giants enter the country last week: Wall Street Journal with a facsimile edition and Forbes via a licensing arrangement with Network18. But that’s not enough. We need WSJ, Financial Times and the big boys from the news and current affairs space to come here with full-fledged India editions. Will they mess up with our socio-political fabric? Star hasn’t with any of its channels, Yahoo! hasn’t in the online space all these years, so don’t worry, boss. The foreigners will behave.
#03: Empower Doordarshan
This is your tool against the private players. Even though it’s had the terrestrial advantage, Doordarshan squandered it away. Now’s the time to empower Doordarshan’s news and non-news programming teams. Remember the early 1990s, when DD didn’t let Zee run away with viewers very easily thanks to sound content. C’mon, ministerji, you can surely give leaders like Star Plus and CNN-IBN a good fight.
#04: All India Radio can rule the airwaves
All India Radio reaches nearly 92 per cent of the Indian soil, serving 99 per cent of the population. I still know a fair number of people – especially in the non-metros – who tune in to AIR for the daily dose of news as they do not have quality local channels. The Rainbow FM station, too, has a reasonable listenership. Bottomline: if you can get All India Radio to take a quantum leap in programming, private FM players will be seeing red big time.
#05: Allow news on private FM Radio
It’s bizarre why it hasn’t been allowed yet. And for some inexplicable reason no one’s crying foul. If television channels with minority foreign equity are trusted with news, surely private FM can’t go wrong?
#06: Don’t get bullied by the biggies
My sincere advice to the minister: don’t get bullied by the media owners asking for protection on the issue of allowing foreign publications. Fear not. The rules of the game have changed anyway: the #1 news companies aren’t the printwallahs.
#07: Ease levies on print and up DAVP rates
The print industry in India may not be facing as much of a crunch as it does elsewhere in the world, but the Government must avoid upping taxes on newsprint. As for rates for ads released via the Directorate of Audio and Visual Publicity (DAVP), I guess the minister must continue with the special election formula that’s on till end-June. There’s no reason why the Government must pay so much lesser than what other advertisers pay.
#08: Embrace the mobile and the Internet
You’ve used the Internet and mobile media for election campaigning and are aware of how both are growing and very effective tools of communication. Through DAVP advertising on popular websites and mobile platforms, the Government can give a huge fillip to the sunrise sectors.
#09: Go easy on cross-media ownership
Agreed countries like the US have restrictions on cross-ownership in the media, but we need an Indian model on this and allow for cross-ownership. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has worries about vertical integration – that a broadcaster mustn’t have absolute control in distribution (cable, DTH, HITS, mobile TV) and vice-versa. Not right, I would think. Let there be free play and ownership and anyone going astray – in print, television, radio, online, telecom, advertising and distribution – can be always be got to toe the line.
#10: Reduce Government controls
My Task #1 asked the minister not to meddle with the media. But here my demand is more direct: get the Government out of the media. And the only person who can do it is the minister.
The next few years will need to see strong linkages of the media ministry with the telecom czars. And it’s vital that the new I&B boss is reasonably wired to understand issues. We need someone who appreciates the needs of the old media as well as the Twitter-happy generation. There are several other issues that I would like the minister to look at (such as demands of the cable/DTH and film sectors), but if the new minister wants the information and broadcasting sectors to boom, he or she must back off. ASAP.
(The views expressed here are my own. Any other tasks for the minister? List them in the comments board below.)