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It is incumbent upon us to increase the efficacy of DD News: Smriti Irani

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It is incumbent upon us to increase the efficacy of DD News: Smriti Irani

Union Information and Broadcasting Minister, Smriti Irani in a recent interaction with Shishir Gupta and R Sukumar of the Hindustan Times noted that considerable improvement is needed in terms of the quality of content for Doordarshan to be able to compete with private news networks and general entertainment channels. Irani also added that Prasar Bharti has the infrastructure, as well as reach, which is unmatched by private broadcasters. She also pointed out that now is the perfect time for a state owned news network to launch an India-centric news channel in the global market. However, so far, there has been no decision taken in this regard. Here are some excerpts of the interaction:
What are your big priorities for Information & Broadcasting?
Many regulations have lapsed and while lessened government interference is needed, Information and Broadcasting is such a sensitive area, so it is necessary to review many regulations. Plus, we need improved efficiency, especially now since for the very first time in the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, there are eight zones specifically set up as government communication hubs. Therefore, our communication has to be fortified zone-wise and state-wise. I will also concentrate on communication in local and regional languages.
Most countries have lots of private channels but they also have a good public service broadcaster. What will it take for Doordarshan to grow into that?
There must be an improvement of quality for Doordarshan to be able to compete with private news and general entertainment channels.
The CEO of Prasar Bharti, Shashi Shekhar Vempati wants to improve the quality of content. Doordarshan’s reach is unmatched by any other news channel, and Prasar Bharti has a robust infrastructure which extends to every corner of the country.
Are you happy with the BARC results? It doesn’t really seem to be capturing this reach.
I have always said that data needs to be “democratised” and that data cannot be in the hands of a select few. It is because of this data channels are funded; it is this data that drives what the viewer consumes. Also based on this data programmes are produced and advertising decisions are made. If the data is opaque, there is much more room for doubt. I believe in forming opinions based on the facts. And the fact is, we simply do not have information on many aspects related to BARC (Broadcast Audience Research Council). When we have access to that information, I can make a more informed decision. At the moment, not much is known about BARC in the public sphere. It is because of this I called for more voices from regional media and language based media houses when I initially spoke about BARC as Information and Broadcast Minister. When Doordarshan was the only channel covering the Finance Minister and the Ministry officials on Budget Day, we saw a 582 per cent growth in viewership.
News reports have said that you are thinking of expanding the reach of DD News to over 100 countries but there is talk that you are considering an international, high quality DD news channel.
If we were to pursue something like this, then we would need to also involve the Ministry of External Affairs. Even though the timing is perfect and the market is ready for something like this, there has been no decision on it. 
There’s some amount of oversight on newspapers through the Registrar of Newspapers and on TV. Are you thinking of regulating news websites?
In 2008, there was a Cabinet decision on IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) which might have an effect on the regulation of digital content. Not much has happened since then. However, we are currently in discussion with TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) in relation to this, so I wouldn’t be able to say much more on the subject. Nevertheless, I am aware that there are websites claiming to be news websites which are actually used as political tools. 
Is fake news something you want to address in a macro way?
I think technology is a great leveller and fake news gets called out by social media very well, and it gets called out with evidence.
You have also sought to control how government advertising is spent…
That is a misconception. Government departments and ministries decide how much they spend and where they want to spend it. We are only responsible for the implementation.
Let me explain how I changed this. When I took over, I asked the departments where they gave their compulsory Independence Day and Republic Day ads. This is something the DAVP (Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity) does. I said that only newspapers that are conscientious about how they run their business need to be given those ads. There is an annual statement every newspaper has to file with RNI (Registrar of Newspapers for India). Ads should be given to the newspapers that have been consistently filing with the RNI, and have therefore been transparent and conscientious about their business, their infrastructure and their declarations. After doing this, the number of newspapers receiving these ads came down from around 2,000 to 500. Now, everyone in the media business knows you have to fulfill your obligations to RNI to get these ads.
How have you changed the Press Information Bureau?
There is a limited understanding of what the outreach bureau for the government is. There are many channels through which the government can engage with people around the country. There is a department of field publicity, the DAVP, and RNI. There is also a Song and Drama Division, as well as a Films Division. Previously outreach was restricted mainly to Delhi, but now for the first time in the Ministry, we have created eight zones with an experienced senior officer leading the outreach. Outreach happens in every zone in the country. Ultimately what we wanted were communication hubs in eight parts of the country; every state capital has been covered; apart from that, we are trying to reach out to every citizen platform which we can have a conversation on, and the intent is dialogue and deliberation in every language and across the country.
Some of the changes have not gone down well, especially among the people transferred?
Although most attention has been focused on transfers, I have also promoted eight additional Director Generals and sent requests for the promotion of five more.
There is talk that you are thinking of having TV channels auctioned, the same way we have FM stations auctioned.
Am I? Not until I make a decision.
We are told TRAI is looking at this.
TRAI is not the Ministry.
Would you consider something like this?
I would only tell you when I am ready to make an announcement.
My job is to improve the system. There is some issue over the live coverage fee (Rs 1 lakh per day) for the up-linking of live events, but this fee had not been updated since 2009. After reviewing it and taking into consideration inflation and growth, I think it is a fair increase.
What are your views on freedom of expression?
In a country where we celebrate a free and fair press, to say the press has to present news in a particular format would be the biggest disservice we do to the idea of a free press. There are many news channels, editors, journalists, who report fairly, sensitively.
But there are times when anti-Modi becomes anti-India and people don’t realise they have crossed that line. That’s a matter of concern, but as I&B minister will I muzzle those voices? No. Like I said, technology is a great leveller (when it comes to fact-checking). Citizens are great levellers. That is also why it is incumbent upon us to increase the efficacy of DD News; of news that comes without an agenda.
Do you react to what you see on TV?
No, because my reaction makes news.

Tags DD News Doordarshan Smriti Irani

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