Vivid: Manish Tewari tuning in to media

Acc to Tewari, there are issues in the industry that will demand his deep study. We should respect his frankness & give him time to settle down, says Annurag Batra of exchange4media

e4m by Annurag Batra
Updated: Nov 5, 2012 8:05 PM
Vivid: Manish Tewari tuning in to media

According to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B), digitisation of cable TV have reached 93 per cent as of October 31, 2012 in its first phase in the cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. This should sound music to the ears of new I&B Minister of State (independent charge) Manish Tewari. But, the instruments, as they say, are far from fine-tuned.

As for Delhi and Kolkata, the digitisation process has already reached 97 per cent and 85 per cent, respectively. On the other hand, the forthcoming Diwali could be an off-air one for nearly 30 per cent Mumbaikars, even as the Mumbai Cable Operators Association (MCOA) gets ready to move the Supreme Court to plead for an extension of the digitisation deadline to December 31. As for Chennai, the cable operators have managed a five-day Madras High-Court stay on the deadline, till the next hearing on November 5.

The national drama over the cable TV digitisation programme still waits to unfold. As for the new I&B minister, it is no less a challenge – in fact, this is among the first few big ones he faces with his elevation to the post of a junior minister.

Although the ministry – under Tewari’s predecessor Ambika Soni – had put in an expansive roadmap to switch over from analogue to digital, and by its own claim, taken painstaking efforts to involve the key stakeholders associated with the initiative, the fact that the aggressive campaign, and its implementation, was kick-started with many hiccups, is not lost. Seamless is a desired word for the digitisation process and its absence could well haunt Tewari. Added to this is that this is only for the first phase, in four metros, a representative of the 148 million TV homes. One would have to wait and watch as to when the Phase I of the digitisation process ends and Phase II begins. And how.

It is understood that the digitisation process is beneficial for India -- an avid TV-viewing population -- not only in terms of enhanced viewing but also high sound quality. Further, digital cable services, as opposed to analogue, have extra features and value-added services. The transition, however, costs. This is where the cracks show. Because the small and medium operators say the costs are nearly unviable for them. They fear being booted out of business by the organised, large-scale and resource-rich cable operators.

Then there was the shortage of set-top boxes that hit the digitising metros – particularly, Delhi and Chennai. went on to report the revival of the Doordarshan days on the eve of the digitisation deadline’s end. Over one lakh households in Delhi failed to install the STBs and had no option but to watch only the government-regulated broadcaster’s channel.

Imagine such a chaos happening at a national level. Imagine the outcry.

But then expect Tewari to ride the digital storm with aplomb, as he has many a controversy – in his earlier position as the national spokesperson of the Congress, the leading party in the ruling coalition – plaguing the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

And he is not letting his studied understanding of representing Congress get the better of him. Immediately after being given the I&B portfolio, Tewari said he would continue on the laid-out path and take the comprehensive policies of the UPA Government in the films, information and broadcasting sectors to their next levels and carry on the good work of her illustrious predecessor.

Once a spokesperson, always a spokesperson. In Tewari’s case, he has always shown an ability to get into depth and without too much noise, making a deep impact whether in a TV studio or as a political leader.

That’s what seems evident from the Congress’ best-known fire-fighter on TV channels. What is also evident from Tewari’s ascent to the junior ministers, though not really junior in the strictest sense as it’s an independent charge position, is the Congress’ desire to let loose among the journalists a face they know well, someone they love to hate or love but can’t ignore, someone well-practiced in their probing and point-blank targeting ways. Particularly at these times, when the media industry is in the throes of self-doubt over ways to regulate the corrupt, crony journalism and tainted money out of its system.

Immediately after his ascension to the Union Cabinet, new I&B Minister Tewari struck a placatory note allaying apprehensions of a government-regulation-sword swinging over the Indian media head. Drawing a line of commonality between his earlier role as a spokesperson and now as a minister, Tewari told CNN: “... as I earlier pointed out, this ministry or given the nature of the medium, we don’t really have a regulatory remit... We have a remit which is essentially to see that the ground rules are properly laid out... to see that the policies and programmes of the UPA government get disseminated.”

What Tewari was actually saying was that regulating the media did not serve the UPA government’s purpose of reaching out to the aam admi and that despite the slew of scams and scandals uncovered by the newspapers and news channels recently, the industry will be allowed to go about its business unmuzzled. 

Even while speaking on electoral reforms at a THiNK session, ‘Half-Ticket: Power and what we make of it’, at Bambolim in Goa, Tewari did not lose the opportunity to say that media has an undeniable role as a custodian of democratic values. At the same time, he was quick to point out that “the judicial process should take over after the issue had been brought to light. The media should avoid a judge, jury, prosecutor stance”.

We’ve had this to-be-or-not-to-be debate on regulating the Indian media almost throughout the year, since the time Rahul Gandhi’s close aide Meenakshi Natarajan proposed a private bill in Parliament. Thereafter, what with the increasing number of members of the media charged with unethical practices, the industry has gone into a huddle of self-introspection.
On what constitutes paid news and what doesn’t, the lens of the media -- in fact, across stakeholders – still remains unclear. I’d say that putting the paid news in the ethical-news basket would be diluting the issue. Both cannot be argued about from the same platform, lest one’s significance is lost in the din over the other. I say, separate the issues to clearly identify and hone in upon them. Here the new I&B minister seems to have taken a lead.

Tewari has admitted he has known the “seriousness of the problem” as he has fought two elections. He is also clear in his thoughts that “this is a kind of problem on which it is important that consensus is build”. So? And then?

Again, the spokesperson takes over. “It has been our (read Congress high command) belief since the beginning that progress on such sensitive issues can only happen if a consensus is build and an agenda is created. The effort will be to reach a conclusion after talking to all,” Tewari has said.

But when, Sir?

Tewari is playing safe, and why not? After becoming a minister, he was categorical in saying there are issues within the industry that will demand his deep study. For now, he is not committing or hyperventilating. He has subtly refused to put the cart before the horse on inherent issues.

I feel we should respect Tewari’s frankness and give him time to settle down.

Solutions, we await.

Just don’t take forever, Sir.

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