Guest ColumnRetrofit: India needs an independent broadcast authority

There is need a broadcast regulator to create a system of checks and balances for what is still a nascent industry. Self regulation will not work. But let us do this systematically and in a cogent manner. The onus is on Ambika Soni to bring about this transformation. Delink broadcasting from TRAI and create a separate authority, a sensible authority aware of the industry’s needs and moves, says veteran journalist Sandeep Bamzai.

e4m by Sandeep Bamzai
Updated: Sep 2, 2009 8:37 AM
Guest Column<br>Retrofit: India needs an independent broadcast authority

Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni is a pragmatic lady, she did a fine job with her previous portfolio – tourism and culture – which saw a furious mélange of the two leading to an incredibly successful Incredible India campaign. Now, as the I&B czarina, she is saying that she will not impose any laws on the broadcasting community. I think she is being fair, for she understands that there is a weakest link in the system.

I have said this before and I am saying it again. India needs an independent broadcast authority. We cannot continue with a system where the telecom authority doubles up as the broadcast authority, simply because they don’t have the necessary wherewithal or expertise to deal with an evolving and dynamic sector. Some ground rules are needed, according to Soni. She doesn’t want to impose draconian laws and is clear that any regulatory mechanism will need to bring all the stakeholders of the electronic media on board.

With content regulation such a hot button idea, it is an uncluttered and refreshing approach to a genuine problem. Hinting at the larger dialogue currently on with representatives of the electronic media, she reckons that the regulatory authority will be formed through consensus. The news coverage of the 26/11 terror attacks or the swine flu epidemic are cases in point where the Government thinks some restraint should have been exercised by the TV wallahs. Hysterical gangbuster style is definitely out as far as TV audiences are concerned.

But how does one approach a ‘Sach Ka Saamna’ type of programme is the moot point? Here is a programme where the contestants are sitting on the hot seat on their own free will. There is no pressure being brought to bear on these people, they are getting what they see. At the same time, Star Plus was sensible enough to pitch the programme at 10.30 pm, when most kids go to bed since they have school the next day. One can argue that the risqué content is for mature audiences, so I am surprised to find that Star Plus has pushed it back further to 11 pm and increased the time band to one hour. I am sure they have lost viewers. I, for one, have stopped switching on, because that is the time I write, so yes, they have lost a viewer. Not that it matters.

How then do you deal with this kind of content? The regulatory body on the anvil needs to get a handle on something like this. These are unexplored and uncharted waters for the I&B Ministry. They need specialists and, most importantly, need to ensure that it doesn’t turn into a quasi government body like the Censor Board, which at most times is out of sync with modern and rapidly changing realities. The Indian telly business is getting bigger and stronger with each passing day, its societal impact is serious. This impact is across the board. The need for a body to oversee India’s burgeoning broadcast media is debated every now and then, with discussions usually triggered off by a controversial show or an official announcement, including draft legislation pertaining to the broadcast sector. Someone like Ambika Soni needs to take this task by the scruff of the neck and get the show on the road. There are enough media and entertainment professionals of standing who can assist her in this endeavour.

I like the Star Plus self regulation model. Realising that the heat was unsustainable, they pushed back the time band for ‘Sach Ka Saamna’. Another day, I saw a news anchor on NDTV saying that they don’t want to spread panic on swine flu while discussing the subject with my son’s doctor – Arvind Taneja. But that, my dear madam, is after the horse had already bolted. They had simply gone beserk on swine flu, running hysterical programming non-stop. These are exceptions rather than the rule. The first step towards media regulation in the public interest in a democratic society must necessarily be the setting up of a properly constituted, independent public authority empowered with a clear mandate and guaranteed autonomy, as envisioned by the Supreme Court of India. A broadcast authority is a must at this stage in the evolution of our television business – both on the entertainment and news side. This authority has to be an independent quasi government regulator with the right kind of personnel. That it is imperative is critical.

The setting up of such an authority has to be viewed against the ecosystem that it operates in. After talking to some friends in the electronic media, this is a smattering of what I picked up. Some of these concerns are interesting, so we need to view them against the backdrop given below. Here is a flavour of what I heard and received in terms of representation:

* The Constitution of India guarantees to all its citizens, the right to free speech, which right has been liberally construed by our Supreme Court as encompassing not just the freedom of press, but also the right of the citizen to be informed of matters of public concern. It is a fundamental paradigm of freedom of speech that media must be free from governmental control in the matter of “content” – censorship and free speech are sworn enemies.

* Considering we live in a democratic society, an individual himself can censor what he and his family should see. He has the remote and can make the right decision for his family. An individual can go and watch whatever he/she feels like. And, it is a fact that demand creates supply. Broadcasters feel the pulse of their customers and give them what they want.

* It is also interesting to note that though there exists a ban on advertising tobacco or alcohol on television, but surrogate advertising goes on without so much as a by your leave. The events organised by these manufacturers are widely telecast, with prominent shots of their hoardings very much in evidence. Thus, we see that there are enough loopholes and lacunae to overcome such so-called censorship. It becomes clear that one cannot define morality as the essence of morality and what is ‘'good'’ will vary according to the various variables such as geographical location (rural or urban), culture, economic strata, etc.

* If an adult individual has the right to access mature content over the Internet, he/she must be allowed access to mature programming of a ‘controlled variety’ over TV as well. Otherwise our TV wallahs will go berserk and put God knows what on the telly. Put control in the hands of the parents themselves. We need to have faith in the parenting system and the institution of the family to “self-regulate” what the children of the house watch. Another important fact that although we may protect our children from seeing the seamier side of life on TV, they have enough opportunities to come to terms with the world around them in the form of 3G enabled mobile, the Internet, cinema, print, and the like. While this is an argument put forth by broadcasters, it needs to be tempered to a great extent, because India is still not ready to view a free for all on telly.

* The rollout of CAS can be hastened and adults can “password protect” certain inappropriate channels, and thereby stop their children from accessing certain channels that they deem inappropriate.

* The broadcasting community believes that it is quite conscious of its obligations and responsibilities towards society at large and is fully committed to preserve the moral, social and cultural fabric of society. However, I reckon that they need to introspect a little more and be more realistic about the kind of content they generate.

‘We don’t need no thought control’ sang Pink Floyd. We also don’t need moral policing? And certainly not from politicos. Yes, if you don’t want to watch a particular programme, you can switch channels is easier said than done, but a fluid industry like broadcasting needs a regulator. I am not saying that he should be a content regulator, but you need a body to oversee this business. I remember my friend Pradip Baijal, who as Chairman of TRAI, with parallel charge of broadcasting, issued a key order on inter operability to DTH operators when the Star Group was not willing to play ball with Subhash Chandra’s DishTV. It wasn’t kosher when the Star bouquet refused to provide their channels to the Dish platform. It was a dramatic order, which set the tone and tenor for growth in the sector. Star was baulking development of a nascent technology and Subhash’s brother Jawahar was riled. I remember writing this story in HT and it created consternation in the industry. This was a proactive and forward looking piece of regulation that Baijal ran with and it worked.

The short point is that you need a broadcast regulator to create a system of checks and balances for what is still a nascent industry. Self regulation will not work. But let us do this systematically and in a cogent manner. The onus is on Ms Ambika Soni to bring about this transformation. Delink broadcasting from TRAI and create a separate authority, a sensible authority aware of the industry’s needs and moves.

(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist, who started his career as a stringer with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi. In late 2008, he joined three old friends to launch a start-up – Sportzpower Network – which combines his two passions of business and sport. Familiar with all four media – print, television, Internet and radio, Bamzai is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir.

The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not those of the editors and publisher of

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