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Saffron selections

SEVANTI NINAN

OKAY, so we weren't seriously expecting anyone from Star News to be given a Padma Bhushan or a Padma Shri. The powers that be have left us in no doubt that shrieking about pogroms in Gujarat is not appreciated. Nor did we think that anyone from the English press qualifying as a hyphenated secularist or liberal would make the grade. (Or want to make the grade. Decorated by Narendra Modi's party? That's a no-no for sure, in the people-like-us circuit.) But even so, the awardees from the media in the latest honours list, merit half a raised eyebrow. We know that India Today and Aaj Tak are good sports most of the time where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is concerned, but even the folks there might be a wee bit bashful about eminences from their stable being honoured year after year. (Proprietor honoured last year, editor this year.) So much establishment appreciation is embarrassing for a media brand that prides itself on being fearless and independent.

Then there is the doughty T.V.R. Shenoy who only recently sat on a committee that gifted us a committed chairman for the lacklustre Prasar Bharati. Now it's his turn to be selected. Aamir Khan may merit a mere Padma Shri in the eyes of the selection committee but Mr. Shenoy got a Padma Bhushan, as did danseuse Swapna Sundari, undoubtedly meritorious. The honour was enhanced by the coverage Doordarshan gave her, two days running. She was one of five awardees (out of 92) to be interviewed. It is doubtless a coincidence that she is also the wife of the private secretary to Sushma Swaraj, Minister for Information and Broadcasting until last week.

Three years in power and the BJP is into media appreciation big time. It thinks journalists ought to be in the Rajya Sabha, the Prime Minister's Office, heading government institutions, and on committees. Its faith in my tribe is truly touching. It pops like-minded scribes into committees and they help to spread saffron cheer by selecting others like themselves, or doing what is expected of them. So Tarun Vijay, feisty editor of Panchajanya, an RSS weekly, sits on the Press Accreditation committee and mounts a very vocal opposition to Alex Perry (of Time and the PM's health fame) getting press accreditation. Perry's accreditation for the current year is now held up. T.V.R. Shenoy is on the three-member committee for selection of members of Prasar Bharati along with Vice- President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and they select M.V. Kamath as chairman. Chandan Mitra of Pioneer is on the Padma awards committee, and helps select T.V.R. Shenoy and Prabhu Chawla. Other journalists warmly inclined towards the ruling party sit on the board of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication.

The party's interests are served because none of the BJP's media brigade are shrinking violets. Having dumped the convention of maintaining a distance from the government of the day, they cease to be non-partisan commentators. Put them on TV shows and they leave us in no doubt at all that they are ruling party defenders first, journalists second. Witness a recent "We the People" re-run which had Chandan Mitra and the late Narendra Mohan, proprietor-editor of Dainik Jagran, hotly defending the Government's criticism of the media. Put them on editorial pages and they drip sarcasm over the Government's political opposition, or over the liberal media brigade, as the case may be. Former journalist Balbir Punj appears regularly on Star's "Newshour" and on the editorial pages of the Hindustan Times to give the BJP point of view. Because he had to give up the chairmanship of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication when he became a Rajya Sabha MP, he now heads a national youth reconstruction body with minister of state rank. The occasional exceptions to this high profile assertion of partisanship are the less visible and less vocal beneficiaries in the States. Ajay Maroo, editor of the Ranchi Times, got a Rajya Sabha berth last year, but is less widely known nationally as a BJP MP-editor.

Those who do not get Rajya Sabha nominations or chairmanships or national honours can count on other favours such as magazine publishing contracts for public sector enterprises or allotments of land to prop up their struggling newspapers. The BJP must be credited with better manners than those who have ruled before it. It knows how to say a memorable thank you.

* * *

Though nobody was admitting it on its first anniversary, DD Bharati has proved to be a bit of a non-starter. Most TV channels measure viewers in millions, this one measures its viewership in thousands. Its transmission quality over cable is dreadful. Admittedly inside Doordarshan's headquarters at Mandi House, DD Bharati's transmission is sharp. But that doesn't help. We don't all do our TV watching there. And if the cable guys treat the channel like a step-child it says something about how much demand there is for it.

So what happened to Sushma Swaraj's brainwave? For a start, like a lot of Indians, the new channel lives below the poverty line. Its budget sanction last year was Rs. 14 crores. Even that started coming in after half the year was over. So it launched with old programming. How do you expect people to tune in, with some 70 other channels on offer?

What would a comparable private channel cost to programme? At the very least, Rs. 70 to Rs. 80 crores. Why, just running Prasar Bharati costs Rs. 5 crores plus a day, given its annual budget of Rs. 2,000 crores. If DD Bharati wants to carry high quality programming on the arts, and for children, it needs proper budgets. Not free programming given to it by government institutions. You don't try to run a TV channel on charity.

It makes a virtue of carrying events such as the Tansen Festival, and the Guruvayoor music festival live. Next month it will carry the Khajuraho Dance Festival live. But live transmission of that kind, done without the requisite camera and production skills can be far from rivetting to watch.

This channel needs to shut down, get its act together, revamp its schedules, get the commissioned programming which is in the pipeline ready for telecast, and then relaunch.

E-mail the writer at sevanti_ninan@yahoo.co.in

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