A cardinal rule of the media is that it should report the news, not become the news. With its interview of Narendra Modi, Doordarshan seems to have decided to tear up the rulebook. It’s a canny move. All the hullaballoo over what Modi did or didn’t say and conspiracy theories about why the interview was edited and on whose behest, has achieved something significant — people have remembered the public broadcaster’s existence. Given its long, weary descent into decrepitude, after all, no publicity is bad publicity.
Unfortunately for Doordarshan, there is a downside to this rediscovered relevance. The baap-beti-babubhai drama has done its credibility, such as it is, no favours. The BJP’s howls of outrage about censorship are not unjustified. When the national public service broadcaster chooses to edit a prime ministerial candidate’s interview down from 55-odd minutes to a half-an-hour package, certain questions present themselves. In such a fraught political climate and in the midst of the elections, what was the purpose of lopping off a third of the interview? What was the logic of deleting certain parts? Whose call was it? What are these “technical reasons” that Doordarshan director general (news) SM Khan cited as the reason for leaving large chunks of the interview on the cutting room floor?
That these questions can and should be asked points to fundamental flaws in Doordarshan’s nature and functioning. The Pitroda Committee, appointed last year to chart a future for Prasar Bharati (PB), Doordarshan’s parent organisation, has examined those flaws in exhaustive detail in its report, out this January. The core issue is a divergence between PB’s envisioned role as an independent public service broadcaster and its actual role as a government mouthpiece. This dichotomy is written into the Prasar Bharati Act, 1990. On the one hand, it purported to grant PB autonomy in its functioning. On the other, it stripped away every prerequisite for that autonomy by allowing the government to decide pay structures, service rules, recruitment boards, accounts and annual reports. The end result is that PB requires Rs 2,000 crore annually but has disbursal powers for only Rs 300 crore. As the report points out, monitoring PB is officially one of the primary functions of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
This is not the first time these issues have been pointed out. Since 1996, four similar committees have submitted reports that continue to gather dust. The I&B ministry’s utter lack of intent in reforming PB has come in for censure from Parliament as well; last December, a parliamentary standing committee slammed the ministry for failing to take any concrete action. Given the size of its audience and the resources available to it, the PB could have been the South Asian equivalent of the BBC. Instead, the failure to modernise it and give it independent editorial control mean that it has lost national relevance rapidly. For all that it is accessible by 90 per cent of the country’s TV-owning population — a far higher percentage than those that can access private news channels — its viewership figures have declined precipitously since 2000. From being a propaganda tool during the Emergency to censoring of a documentary on Jayaprakash Narayan in 2004 and an editor’s resignation from DD News last year because of government interference, it has established exactly the wrong kind of tradition. The latest brouhaha entrenches it further.