Information and broadcasting minister Smriti Irani has let off a fusillade against Prasar Bharati, the public broadcaster that’s meant to autonomously run Doordarshan, All India Radio and Prasar Bharati News Service, for reasons that seem self-serving. Her intervention doesn’t even pretend to throw light on the basic issues that inform the subject of the government’s control over mass media at the taxpayer’s expense, and — more fundamentally — whether there’s any need at all for an I&B ministry. Ms Irani gives the impression that she was piqued by the recent disregard of her ministry’s directives over appointments to the Prasar Bharati Board and in respect of senior editorial positions, and has chosen to shoot poisoned arrows, a game at which she has shown herself to be pretty adept. Prasar Bharati chairman A. Surya Prakash had responded by expressing the view that the ministry’s orders constituted a “contempt of the Prasar Bharati Act”.
In her counter-blast, delivered at a broadcasters’ meet on Monday, the minister questioned the quality of DD’s content and wondered why it was worth the Rs 2,500 crores the public broadcaster received from “honest taxpayers”. Typically, these are not the kind of issues the government initiates a discussion on. But now that the minister has lashed out, the time may have come for the country to join the debate on DD and Prasar Bharati, and also Ms Irani’s fiefdom, the I&B ministry. Ms Irani is right about the quality of DD’s output, but she doesn’t question it over the autonomy of its content. (It can be no one’s case that PB even tries to walk the same path as the BBC, the original public broadcaster that gets budgetary support from the British government). In all likelihood, she might be happier if PB followed her instructions unquestioningly and became a slick propaganda instrument of the government instead of being a shabby one.
The I&B ministry had been set up after Independence to publicise the government’s development activities — the efforts of a newly-independent India with deep illiteracy levels to carry its message to the farthest corners (with the help of All India Radio primarily) of the steps being taken to promote agriculture, industry, the handicrafts, health, education, and the fundamental notions about the scientific temper and secular values in a complex and diverse society. Perhaps some of these expectations may have been met in the early years. But over time, DD has unabashedly dished out governmental propaganda, coupled with low-grade entertainment. Along with the Publications Division and Press Information Bureau, it was run by the I&B ministry — until the PB Act came along — at considerable expense. In the age of the Internet, all this paraphernalia is pretty meaningless. Why not wind it all up and save the taxpayers’ money?