Mixed Media: Madam Minister is making the right moves… so far!

The first 40-odd days of Ambika Soni as Minister of Information and Broadcasting have been excellent, writes Pradyuman Maheshwari. She’s made no tall promises and has been making the right statements… like her views on regulation of news channels and the use of child artistes on television shows.

e4m by Pradyuman Maheshwari
Published: Jul 13, 2009 8:40 AM  | 5 min read
Mixed Media: Madam Minister is making the right moves… so far!

Journalists in general, and media commentators specifically, enjoy bashing governments, and the Information and Broadcasting Minister. To an extent, the actions of ministers in the past have ensured that their intent and understanding of the business are always looked at with suspect.

Right from the days when Jawaharlal Nehru was Prime Minister, infobroad mantris have done bizarre stuff. The then minister – BV Keskar – banned film music on All India Radio, leading to the rise of Radio Ceylon’s international services. The Emergency – 1975-77 – had a VC Shukla trying to damn anyone who raised a stink against the Indira Gandhi regime and ministers in future have tried to make a song and dance about everything – ads, TV shows, news, film censorship, etc. – and achieved precious little.

A case in point is Doordarshan and the reason for the state in which it exists today is the lack of any smart thinking by I&B ministers.

I must confess I wasn’t too excited with the naming of Ambika Soni as I&B Minister. She’s close to the powers that be (hence stable) and is media savvy, but beyond that, one didn’t expect her to inspire people around. Mercifully, she isn’t as shrill as a Jayanthi Natarajan, but that’s about it. I don’t know too much about her Ministers of State – Mohan Jatua and S Jagathrakshakan – to make a comment. And the fact that she pulled Culture Secretary Jawahar Sircar to take temporary charge from a retiring secretary showed that the lady likes to live in the comfort zone. Soni was tourism and culture minister in the last UPA Cabinet.

It’s been a little over a month since Soni and her deputies took charge. A ministry release on June 1 (the day she assumed office) said that the Commonwealth Games coverage, a consensus on content code for news broadcasters, a look into the demands of the print and electronic media will be her priorities. She would partner with the media and reps of all stakeholders to handle issues in as sensitive a manner as possible, the communiqué added, quoting her with the statement: “We will try to bring a harmonious working relationship to the benefit and advantage of all”.

The reason why I’m so happy with her performance is two-fold. One, she hasn’t made any tall promises in this period. And, two, she has made the right noise. I’m not too happy about last weeks’ Budget extending DAVP ad rates as a sop or hiking duties on set-top boxes, but, to my mind, Soni scores a good 8.5 on 10 for her first 40 days.

Her response to the issue of the media coverage post the November 26 Mumbai terror siege was sensible. While she toed the line pushed by her predecessor, she avoided the word ‘irresponsible’. The Ministry, she said, would set up a nodal agency to disseminate ‘authoritative news’ in such cases. Tough to achieve, but it’s the right thing to say under the circumstances.

Soni’s statement last Saturday that she was cool with kids on television is a welcome relief for serials like ‘Balika Vadhu’ and reality shows that are centred around children. “Parents should be the best judge of what their children should do and if they have no problems and their studies are not interfered, I don’t see what other problem could have come up,” she told CNN-IBN. Let’s hope the Maharashtra Government now goes easy on the notices it sent to production houses employing child artistes.

Her views on the need to make Doordarshan competitive, a hike in foreign direct investment in the print media, the need to restructure the Films Division and to enhance coverage in border areas are in the right direction.

The Ministry now has a full-time Secretary in Raghu Menon, until recently CMD of Air India and a bureaucrat familiar with I&B, having spent time as Joint Secretary and Additional Secretary in the past. Interestingly, Menon has had some experience as a journalist, having spent some time with Hitavada, Nagpur’s leading English daily.

There is a lot that the I&B Ministry has to achieve, but it’s heartening to see Soni saying the right things. Now, if only she achieves all that she has set out to (and what this column had listed in its set of demands: Ten tasks for the new I&B Minister (exchange4media.com, May 25, 2009)

It’s easy for information and broadcasting ministers to get influenced by weird requests from Members of Parliament, fellow ministers and ruling party members. If Soni wishes to go beyond being a politician handling a key portfolio and contribute her bit to the Indian media, she’ll need to take her own decisions and move fast while doing the right things. That way, she could even score the Perfect 10.

(The views here are my own. Now, you can also tweet me your comments @pmahesh and catch random jottings through the week at MixedMedia at http://www.twitter.com/pmahesh.)

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