- 450 screenings at Festivals around the world
- 150 Awards in India and abroad
- 37 National Film Awards
» Aruna Vasudev
» Fali Nariman
» Kiran Karnik
» Mrinal Sen
» Rajiv Mehrotra
» Shyam Benegal
» Sharmila Tagore
» Sunita Narain
» Jawhar Sircar
Managing Trustee, PSBT
There has been outrage and concern in sections of the media on the proposed Broadcast Bill that we are told will be introduced in the Parliament. Ironically, the bill is officially not in the public domain. When an NGO, the Public Service Broadcasting Trust, that I serve I requested a copy of the bill from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, we were told this was not in the public domain. This means that all those in possession of a copy of the bill and those writing about it are in violation of the Official Secrets Act. his is not a defence of the bill. This writer has not been able to legitimately secure a copy of it.
It is disappointing that those screaming themselves hoarse in opposition to the bill have neither any alternatives to offer to the issues the bill seeks to address such as the dangerous implications of the power of monopolies in the media, the impact on the status and rights of women by the way the media represents them or on the heightened vulnerability of minorities by the manner in which ‘live’ media reports acts of terrorism, for example. Nor have any of the protesting voices, and the commercial interests they represent, taken any visible steps to address concerns such as these, obsessed are they with their financial bottom lines.
It is inevitable that in a market economy profits will drive the media and the interests of advertisers who fund the media will dictate content. Given its realities we are obliged (even as we despair about its implications) to accept that without advertising we could not make choices between competing goods and services or discover needs we do not really have.
Commercially driven television delivers audiences to its advertisers of goods and services. In its programmes, it is obliged to promote and perpetuate values and information that encourage their consumption. This applies not only to 'entertainment' channels but to 'news and current affairs' channels as well. The primary concern of both is with audiences who have the purchasing power to interest advertisers. They exclude vast sections of the civil society, which may not be in synch with the cultures, messages and agendas of the advertisers.
Of course for the synchronicity between the channel and the advertiser to work there must be an illusion of credibility and an apparent commitment to the public good. This happens to the extent that it does not run counter to the advertisers’ interests and sub texts. It is the only real reality check apart from the law. No commercially driven media, especially expensive electronic media, can articulate significant concerns and issues that might run counter to the interests of large advertisers, ranging from the very culture of consumerism they must promote to specific issues such as the role of junk fund to the problem of increasing obesity or that of pesticides in Coke.
Advertising is an essential driver of the market economy and thus, so is commercial television. However, just as numerous social services from education and health to public transportation cannot be left exclusively to their own processes and priorities, driven purely by the demands of the market, support through public funds and institutions of public broadcasting is crucial A society that lacks an effective alternative media space or voice diminishes its fundamental democratic freedoms and choices while reinforcing the cultures of the privileged.
The value of Public Broadcasting evolves from its credibility and its independence from the imperatives of both commercial broadcasting and those of the government or the state. This independence needs to be nurtured and protected with at least as much vigour as we apply in the case of the judiciary or institutions such as the National Human Rights Commission, the Election Commission, etc.
Public Broadcasting when successful sets exemplary standards of quality and serves as an example of good taste, of decency and values; it is impartial, balanced and works to meet the information and entertainment needs of the community, particularly of the disadvantaged and the marginalised; it synchronises with the principles of a good ‘public enterprise’ committed to transparency and accountability.
It needs to be the contemporary repository of its heritage and the best of its culture, while using its platform to preserve, promote and perpetuate them. It must set standards of excellence, of experimentation and innovation in the broadcast media. Public Broadcasting, in order to survive and to grow, must remain on the cutting edge of the convergence technologies.
Public Service Broadcasting is not merely the supply push of Development Support programmes: of what a centralised bureaucracy or a group of ‘experts’ believe the community must be told. The imperative is to create a public culture through the airwaves that is plural and equitable in its representation. Even as the broadcast media have become more powerful and influential, public entitlement to the creation and shaping of content has not grown in proportion to its growth.
The implications of this process on a social, cultural and political level are – the emergence of a clear choice between a media culture that is advanced and sophisticated but oblivious to the initiatives in civil society OR a media culture that is just as sophisticated while being accessible and responsive to the public it serves and addresses. There is a choice between a television and radio culture that talks down to a billion strong audience OR a billion people who discover themselves through television and radio programmes which reflect their realities and respond to their needs and desires. Public Broadcasting represents a vital democratic space for an independent credible voice that informs and articulates the agendas, concerns and needs of the civil society and the community as they are locally perceived.
This does not mean that Public Broadcasting has to be dull, pedantic and boring. It can and must compete for at least some of the audiences that commercial television reaches out to, but more importantly, to those that commercial television does not care about. It has to do this by reaching out effectively to the demand pull from both kinds of audiences for their information and entertainment needs that commercial television is unwilling or unable to meet. Even as successive governments have paid little heed to the crumbling structures of Public Broadcasting in India (paid for by public money), they have been obsessed with a supply push of what they believe the public ought to see and hear, inevitably with a generous lacing of the governments’ political agendas. Audiences with an alternative have simply switched off. Yet, public funds continue to be used to send out futile radio and television images into thin air. Public Television fulfils its role and justifies the use of public money only when it delivers quality content that meets the real, felt needs for information and entertainment (not to be artificially segregated). Where public money funds Public Television, as in India, it becomes a greater imperative to create an independent, autonomous structure that reassures audiences of the credibility of their information.
In the new climate of globalisation and disinvestments by governments in the less critically important elements of the social sector, in particular those that are not apparently sensitive to their vote banks, there will be diminishing funds for Public Broadcasting from the state. If there are exceptions it is largely because governments in less educated and under-developed societies are reluctant to relinquish control over a powerful media that they perceive can ostensibly help promote them through the next elections. Even if this has been a disproven hypothesis, it offers numerous opportunities for patronage and self promotion. It feels good to see yourself on television, to keep out your rivals and to promote your particular ideology. The formal justification for funds and control (and some do believe in this) remains the government’s professed commitment to promoting a social agenda. Unfortunately, both these agendas ignore the basic tenet of all communication – that the audience must both receive and assimilate the communication. To be obsessed only with what you want to send out, the supply push, regardless of its quality or the merit of the subject matter, is a waste of public resources and deserves to be punished at the ballot box. In a society where even issues as seemingly fundamental as health care and education are not critical, governments get away with their neglect and abuse of Public Broadcasting.
We are being overwhelmed by commercial television ever driven by its ever growing need to attract and hold audiences at any cost. There is an ever growing nexus between big business and the media, with the dangerous power to control our access to information and opinion being exercised by large monopolies. In many cases not only is content globalised but so is the intent to shape local opinion to external agendas. With the ever growing presence and dominance of the electronic media in shaping public discourse and perceptions, it is vital that we work simultaneously to democratise access to it.
Public access to the electronic media is imperative to our democracy. It offers a similar opportunity to revitalise it as the printing press and newspaper offered more than a century ago. We must create mechanisms that will enable civil society and community groups to access airwaves and bandwidth on the new technologies that will be our future. Beyond that, we must also empower, train and fund these processes so that individual voices can still be heard and those outside the structures of privilege and opportunity are not further marginalised and distanced from cocooned realities.
The mandate for Public Service Broadcasting in India today is enshrined in the Prasar Bharati Corporation. Few will argue that it has essentially failed to deliver. There is continuing confusion and ambiguity about its role and hence inevitably, the structures that will make it truly effective and successful. It is not the intention of this brief essay to dissect Doordarshan but to draw attention to some of the agendas and concerns that might reaffirm the real importance and need for Public Service Broadcasting in India. It is also to suggest why it is crucial that public money, in whatever form – via license fee, grants under parliamentary supervision, from the community and through corporate sponsorships/ donations – is crucial not just for the broadcasting sector per se but for the more fundamental values of democracy, equity and plurality that we celebrate and need to constantly strive to nurture and protect.
We need to work to make Public Broadcasting at least a major work in progress, engaging, learning and unfolding its methods and its goals in a new economic, political and technological environment. The next piece will suggest and explore some measures and initiatives that will facilitate this.