‘It is difficult for a single body to monitor 550 channels’

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11,000 vacancies, corruption charges — Prasar Bharati has become a white elephant. Ambika Soni, minister of information and broadcasting, talks to Neha Dixit about the issues that plague the broadcasting sector. Excerpts:

Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Prasar Bharati is under severe criticism. Corruption charges in Doordarshan and All India Radio are doing the rounds. You have acknowledged a problem exists. What is it?
I didn’t say that there is corruption. When I joined, there were a lot of cases and PILs in the court. The matter was being heard by the High Court. There were charges, counter-charges, denial of charges. Prasar Bharati is an autonomous body by an Act of Parliament. I cannot directly intervene. There is a Supreme Court directive to have a CVC inquiry, which is being conducted. There was also a court directive to get an internal audit by the ministry — which was done. However, some papers are missing, so it’s taking time.

India has equipment and transmission towers in border areas. Still, people do not get DD or Akashvani, and watch Pakistani TV instead. Why?
When I joined the ministry, the PM was extremely keen that the special provisions made by the UPA-1 for Jammu and Kashmir, DD Kashmir and the Northeast be implemented. He asked me to focus on the border areas where neighbouring countries beam feed to our side, while even our high density transmitters get jammed. A Rs 100-odd crore vision was created to upgrade them, but they ran short of staff and there is a ban on hiring.

Prasar Bharati has 11,000 vacancies.
I have thought of a way out. Since funds are not a constraint, we can outsource. For instance, if you need engineers, and government is not permitting any recruitment; or if there isn’t anyone suitable — we take retired defence personnel [who are engineers] on contract. You will get people with credibility, confidence and integrity. A manual was created, but they haven’t yet done anything about it.

How does the ministry fill up vacancies and tackle losses in Prasar Bharati?
Shortlisting 2,700 vacancies is not enough. The Prasar Bharati staff feel stagnant in reality — who wouldn’t feel frustrated if one’s avenues for promotions are blocked or one is not given enough opportunities to progress? It won’t suffice if the Prasar Bharati and the ministry keep passing the blame. If 40,000 employees are not happy, their output can never be optimum.

The blame game goes on.
In the Prasar Bharati, there was a blockage between the board members, the Chairperson, the CEO — somehow, their public squabbling became very ugly. I feel a public broadcasting system should be the personification of ethics and harmonious functioning. The Vice-President, who chairs the recruitment panel, selected four eminent persons — Mrinal Pande [chairperson], Muzaffar Ali, Suman Dubey and Shyam Benegal. Benegal, incidentally, is yet to be cleared by the office of profit committee, scheduled to meet on the 15th. Again, the file needs to go back and forth. Frankly, I don’t know why they function like this. Either he is in, or he is not — why waste two months?

Do you desire a change in how the TRP ratings system is assessed?
TRP is not really my concern. It’s industry driven and goes by needs of the broadcasters and those who get the advertisements and the people in between. I represent the concerns of Parliament, civil society and women’s groups. Very young children are exposed to TV in the absence of parental locks. Also, the majority of our country’s viewers still live in one or two rooms and are single-TV owners. I represent those people. Meanwhile, broadcasters say that TRPs affect content production.

You have also expressed your displeasure over reality shows like Emotional Atyachaar and Sach ka Saamna. The SC had to intervene in the reporting on the Arushi Talwar case. Content, then, is directly related to TRPs.
As a broadcaster, if you notice that in a week, programmes on superstitions have caught the eyeballs, you immediately try to emulate it. TRP ratings through the 7,000-8,000 boxes are not representative of the length and breadth of popular feelings. A couple of years ago, the Broadcasting Audience Research Council (BARC) was formed, which we want to revive. We also want to ensure that TRPs are more representative of the rural and the urban population. With 30-odd channels, the government is also in it as a broadcaster.

You said most broadcast issues can be resolved if media houses follow the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, stringently. But that is not happening. What should be done?
Debate is exactly the way forward and I am committed to that. My aim is to make it a participatory process. Three months ago, we constituted a task force headed by the secretary, the ministry and stakeholders of the broadcasters. They are, in a very structured manner, meeting representatives of stakeholders, including civil society. They have been studying reports of the standing committee of Parliament. They do feel the need for co-regulation.

Paid news needs to be eliminated — it undermines the freedom of the press

But self-regulation by the channels is not being practiced.
Broadcasters are affected by two things — one, TRPs driving content, and two, the high carriage fee for the analogue system of the 60,000 cable operators, yielding only 30-35 channels. We want to accelerate digitisation of the broadcast system. We are discussing it with Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI); and also trying to give tariff incentives to those who go digital. Broadcasters have assured us that if the government sorts out these aspects, the content will be regulated. Also, it’s difficult for a single body to monitor 550 channels. There are local channels too, in smaller towns, which do not follow any norms or have licences. But if there is no restraint, complaints will be dealt with harshly under the Cable Regulation Act.

How can ‘paid news’ be controlled? What can your Ministry’s role be in it?
I have taken a position against paid news; ever since attention was drawn to it in the Rajya Sabha. The Press Council of India has been empowered to interact, find out, meet the stakeholders and give a report by next month. I think paid news needs to be eliminated because it undermines the freedom of the press. And if the common man is affected, the Ministry will step in to take harsh measures.

The Indian broadcasting sector has seen fantastic growth while it has nosedived across the globe. Name five things on your wishlist in this tenure.
I am glad you brought it up, because some people question the relevance of the ministry. But today it’s interacting [with industry] to regularise the broadcasting sector. First, India has great archival wealth in terms of films, photographs and documentaries. We have upgraded our storage facilities, and have a proposal of almost Rs 660 crore to digitise and restore our archival wealth in a national archive, which would be accessible to government, NGOS and private parties. Second, a national museum of Indian films — we have lost a lot of old films, not knowing how to preserve them — is coming up in Mumbai. Third, I wish to generate employment, so we are trying to make the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) go national. We are opening four new chapters of the IIMC in Jammu Kashmir, Vidarbha, Mizoram and Kerala. In the future, it can also act as the nodal agency to certify diplomas, to be given by various private bodies. Fourth, I would like to see FTII, Pune and SRFTI, Kolkata, to achieve global standing. We are also opening an animation centre for visual effects and games. Last, I’d like to help the film fraternity address piracy concerns and produce films of international standards.

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