Channels and signals
How prepared are we for this invasion?
"EVEN as the Government has thrown open its doors to foreign direct investment in the print medium, albeit with safeguards, it has woken up to the threats posed by foreign TV entities that propose 24-hour news operations in the country." This "news report" is from a recent front page of a national daily. One has to use quotation marks because the report as you can see from the line above contains several value judgments. The most important one is that foreign channels pose some unspecified threat because they are launching television news channels.
The obvious reference is to the Star platform. As everyone with a TV set knows, Star News has so far outsourced its entire content from Prannoy Roy's NDTV. The NDTV-Star contract is due to end in March next year and negotiations to renew it broke down many months ago. Star then decided to run Star News in-house while NDTV announced its plans to run channels of its own.
Changes such as these are not uncommon in business, and everyone takes them in stride. But in the case of Star, the matter suddenly becomes one of national concern. "So far TV news has been in Indian hands," the Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Sushma Swaraj, told the media last week, "for the first time a foreign television network is coming into the picture." She described this as a "qualitative change in the broadcast scenario", one which merited a reference to the Union Cabinet.
Hopefully, it will be a routine reference, the kind that is put down in minutes of meetings as "noted". There really shouldn't be anything more than that, because all that is happening is that one set of newsgatherers and editors (the new in-house Star team) is replacing the current set of newsgatherers and editors (the NDTV team). It's akin to the editorial team of a newspaper changing while everything else remains the same (marketing, distribution, sales and most importantly, ownership). Obviously, there will be a change in editorial style, presentation and even philosophy, but surely making these changes is the newspaper's prerogative.
The question of foreign ownership, however, does crop up again and again, particularly in the field of television news and current affairs. The sub-text seems to be that because a channel has a majority foreign ownership, its loyalties will lie elsewhere and, in times of crises, it might twist the news and become anti-national.
But why go by hypothesis on these things when we have actual examples? The Kargil battle was a time of national crisis, so how did foreign-owned Star respond? It talked of "our side" and "their side"; it referred to "our jawans" and "enemy soldiers" like any Indian channel would and its reporting and analyses were also always from an Indian perspective. Since Star TV is also beamed to Pakistan, it must have been particularly galling to the authorities there, but there was nothing much they could do about it.
And why wouldn't Star's operations in this region be Indian? India is by far the biggest market here, so it makes commercial sense for anyone to take a completely India-centric approach. This would imply asking Indians to manage the show. Once Indians manage the show, the channel will obviously reflect Indian sensibilities and have Indian loyalties. And this cannot change. After all, would it make sense basic commercial sense for a channel to alienate its main audience by taking a hostile attitude at a time of national crisis? All this is so much common sense that you begin to wonder if the Government has a completely different agenda and the foreign ownership issue is only a convenient handle which can be used in our xenophobic times.
Governments and media are intrinsically in adversarial roles in all democracies; in developing democracies the mutual hostility is often heightened because roles and boundaries of institutions haven't been clearly defined and are, therefore, not voluntarily respected. Given the choice, every democratic leader would want a subservient media; even a great democrat like Jawaharlal Nehru kept radio in the hands of the government. (He would have done the same with television, except that there was no television then; he would have done the same with the press; except that the press was already liberated and under private ownership).
All governments since 1947 have wanted to trip up the media as often as they could and this Government is no better. In fact, if we look at the example of Tehelka and the bloody-mindedness with which it has got after it, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government's record is about the worst. This Government also had a chance an unparalleled chance to free radio from its clutches when it issued licences for FM stations. Instead of taking those chances, it took the opposite route; it opened FM only for entertainment, specifically barring private broadcasters from airing any programmes remotely connected to news and current affairs.
Make no mistake about it: the recent reference to the cabinet about the "qualitative change" in news reporting is restricted to Star News only because the Government cannot find a handle to look into the other news channels. But give it time, and soon there will be cabinet deliberations on Aaj Tak, Zee News, the BBC, CNN ... . Anyone, in fact, who reports the inconvenient truth.
Anil Dharker is a noted journalist, media critic and writer.
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