Tewari ki Ferrari

Amid the free-for-all on news television, perils of ‘status quo’ stared Manish Tewari’s ministry of information and broadcasting as its secretary went around sanitising the protest coverage. Morals of the story?

rohit

Rohit Bansal | January 2, 2013



Geography 101 taught us that winter solstice comes when the sun is at its lowest on the horizon.

Around December 22-23, the Indian state dug itself into a similar hole.

As the nation seethed over the gangrape of a 23-year-old medical student, each of us had our favourite Hades. Most blamed an apathetic, semi-literate, lecherous constabulary, and its chiefdom grown on courting VIPs; both corrupt to the core, deities of the hafta, auctioneers of thanas that look and feel like the underworld that Hades presides over in Greek mythology.

Others targeted Sheila Dikshit, though the Delhi chief minister and her loyal son Sandeep attempted to go viral using loyalist networks, blaming her lack of supervisory authority over the Delhi police.

On its part, the media didn’t inform us about hierarchical niceties. So, virtually no one remembered Delhi’s lieutenant governor Tejendra Khanna, the man to whom Neeraj Kumar, the city’s insular police commissioner, recently passed over for the directorship of Central Bureau of Investigation, actually reports to.
As our sadness turned into rage, some of us spewed it on home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde and his dapper deputy RPN Singh. (By the way, in the hoary tradition of Shivraj Patil, an earlier home minister, does Singh too change his ‘bandgalas’ every few hours?)

Fewer still complained why detailed recommendations of the Justice VR Malimath committee on revamping the Criminal Procedure Code have been mothballed by a caucus of lawyers and the ministry of home affairs.

Not one of these interpretations was misplaced in apportioning the blame.

I would merely like to add ‘status quo’ within the regulation regime governing India’s news channels.

Here’s how these channels, with unwitting help from the ministry of information and broadcasting (MIB), added fuel to fire.

An indicative list:
On CNN-IBN, an indignant girl protester used the F word. It didn’t just go through on-air, the channel’s official site posted it on the internet too. (http://ibnlive.in.com/news/delhi-gangrape-home-secretary-patrols-streets-protests-intensify/311776-3-244.html)
Moral: TV news may be licensed by MIB, but the internet site of the same channels are the private handles of their top anchors and are a virtual free for all. An earlier instance of Colors liberally using MTV’s Twitter page to cross-promote porn star Sunny Leone’s product website, and getting away, is case in point.

Then as veteran journalist Minhaz Merchant pointed out on Twitter, an NDTV reporter described the protesters as “a mob, before biting his tongue”. The channel was later pilloried on Twitter for being New Delhi “Doordarshan” Television-NDDTV and the fact that a chunk of its equity has recently been sold to the Oswals, who are relatives of a prominent Congress MP.
Moral: Ownership details of media companies should be periodically and mandatorily disclosed by the government.

Shiv Aroor of Headlines Today bemoaned India TV’s journalism for allegedly taking the real-life name of the rape victim. Mercifully, some thought through the channel’s woes, and named her “Damini”.
Moral: More care on air, more boots to the ground by the self-regulation regime, and those within the channels.

Times Now remained a class of its own, with the mother newspaper, in a signed edit, demanding that no change in the existing self-regulation regime would have the TOI’s support. The paper carried a thinly-veiled attack on Zee for landing the entire media into, potentially, a fresh round of regulatory scanner.
Moral: Zee News, itself, came round to exhorting relatives of protesters to ask their loved ones to return home, as anti-social elements are poised to cause trouble.

One could go on about this free for all. But the cake was taken by desperate SOS calls beginning 23rd afternoon by Uday Kumar Verma, secretary MIB, to all and sundry in the news channel regime, asking them to stop covering the mess India Gate.

Verma, the licensor of all news and entertainment TV channels uplinked from Indian soil, has some right on the subject, though at no time was it more apparent that his ministry’s writ is limited by the licensee’s freedoms enjoyed under the constitution and MIB’s own commitments to self-regulation.

So, what did Verma do? He worked the phone with Justice JS Verma, the chairman of the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA).

Secular accounts of what happened are instructive. The licensor was bluntly told that NBSA will not come to the government’s rescue even though the protesters are nearly at the doors of the president of India. Then the bureaucrat tried to string the judge, asking what he would do if he were the president of India! The retired chief justice of India hit back stating, “…if I were the president of India, I would come out and lead the young boys and girls who your police is beating up!”
Moral: Much as I doubt any governments honest intent about letting the media be, isn’t the case for review of status quo obvious enough?
For the record, NBSA is a good initiative, but society must audit its absence of funding, research depth and arms-length from the News Broadcasters Association (the same person, Annie Joseph, a terse but dedicated and senior hand, doubles as the secretary to both bodies; the counsel for NBA/NBSA, both bodies with hardly any funds at their disposal, Anoop Bhambani, being part of Aaj Tak’s team against external affairs minister Salman Khurshid!). Also, who will man the thousands of cable channels, which are neither NBA members nor fall under NBSA’s regimen but spew unregulated content?

Moral: Time for Tewari to bite the bullet and initiate a deep television reform agenda.

Any takers beyond the ‘status quo’?

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