To any media observer, this is a situation that was long coming. Now that the Information & Broadcasting Ministry has finally pushed the envelope, the broadcast media, read news channels, is suddenly, but rightfully, seized of the impending threat to their freedom. So much so, last week the setting up of the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) was quickly announced. The aim is to confront the I&B Ministry mandarins and their boss Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi over the proposed Broadcast Bill, and more importantly, the Content Code.
The proposal is not new. Just a year ago, in July 2006, Dasmunshi’s officials had raised the spectre of legislating a Broadcast Bill at the height of the sting operations on news channels. In the course of a private chat, India’s most respected news broadcaster categorically told me that “sooner or later” the Government would push for a Broadcast Bill simply because the news channels had failed to set up on their own a regulatory council and mechanism. When asked why they had not, he explained that everybody wanted to “make the most of an unregulated situation to garner TRPs”!
As a journalist it is very difficult for me to accept any form of state control of the media. As one of the four pillars of a functioning democracy, a free media should not be tampered with in any form in order not to destabilise or weaken the democratic process. The Emergency taught us that. India has for long enjoyed a free press and the broadcast media needs to understand its responsibility which goes far beyond TRPs and channel shares.
The moot question is: have news channels lived up to their role as news channels? In the June issue of our sister publication Pitch, my colleague and paymaster Anurag Batra had written in his column: “These days news TV is no longer news TV...it’s very difficult to distinguish while surfing whether you are on an entertainment channel or a 24-hour news channel...The ‘entertainisation’ or shall I say bastardisation of Indian news domain is complete.” His column headline said it all: “Entertainment, tamasha, sex, crime and, of course, some news; Is News becoming a four-letter word?” And last Sunday, July 29, in his column Counterpoint, Vir Sanghvi had strongly raised the question: “When does a news channel lose the right to be regarded as a news channel? Anybody who has watched the staggering decline in quality of on the Hindi news channels will know what I am talking about.” The headline to Vir’s column also said it all: “No News is Bad News”.
This is where the problem really lies. Should news channels be allowed to forget their primary role and turn themselves into entertainment channels? They must not forget that they enjoy certain freedoms as news media that the GEC channels don’t. A clear case of wanting the cake and eating it too! Earlier this week, I was surfing, late evening, across news channels trying to find one that had a decent ticker that was giving updated scores of the Trent Bridge cricket Test. (CNN-IBN had the best cricket scores ticker.)
But I was stumped when I saw that one Mumbai-headquartered Hindi news channel, which claims a lot of pedigree and TRP success, was airing for at least half an hour what I had fleetingly seen two days before on Star Plus – the Voice of India contest as well as a similar show that was simultaneously aired on Zee TV! Is that the new definition of news, I wondered, whereby a news channel can actually turn itself into a general entertainment channel? Let me ask: would the news channels take it kindly if the GEC channels also encroached into their sacrosanct territory and dabbled with news?
Last Sunday, in the afternoon, my surfing – I am an inveterate surfer – provided another experience. At least two leading Hindi news channels went on and on about some guy from Hyderabad or somewhere, whom many may not have heard of, being arrested for sending threatening SMS-es to Bollywood celebrities! Who the hell cares? Is this what news is all about? One can understand a one-minute clip on this, but viewers were subjected for most of the afternoon to this bizarre show which can’t even be categorised as genuine news-reality show.
Want to sample some more? Here are some special ‘bulletins’ and promos: Mandir mein nanga naach, Saanp bana hero, Mandir mein sex, Beti ka Aashiq...the list is endless. Of course, one cannot resist the temptation of mentioning Rakhee Sawant grand, endless debut on the Hindi channel format: does it matter to the country at large if her boyfriend or colleague kissed her without her consent?
Rajdeep Sardesai has lately been mentioning a lot about the “energy” of Hindi journalism. Perhaps he is right, but only when the Hindi news channels do not become completely subservient to the TRP god! The fact is that the English news channels like NDTV and IBN have stuck to their role as news channels. But can one say the same about the rest? Is the energy being misused or wrongly utilised? Is Sex, Crime, Cinema the only model for news on a channel? Things have got so sansani that one shudders at times.
In this backdrop, it is difficult to fault the Government if it now wants to step in to bring order into the broadcast news media. The news channels have for long left the door open for the state to step in. News is far more serious a domain to be left unregulated – a free media has to be responsible, correct, and accountable too. Hence, the need to have a regulator. The only issue is that the regulator ought not to be a Government appointed nominee. That would be the worst scenario to befall the fledgling broadcast news media in India. The good news is that belatedly the news channels have realised the danger and come together under the NBA banner. They are even ready to set up a Broadcast Council on the lines of the independent Press Council of India for the print industry.
It will be a sign of mature governance if Mr Dasmunshi takes an unbiased view of the situation, and takes into consideration the news channels’ willingness now to have an independent regulator and also set up a Broadcast Council. And please, Mr Dasmunshi, do not push the proposal for a Content Auditor in each news channel! It’s blasphemous. A free media is always to your and any Government’s advantage. We do not want a plethora of DD News kind of channels. Let good news prevail.