Prasar Bharati chairman and senior journalist A Surya Prakash comes from the stables of the Vivekanand International Foundation, a public policy think tank with close links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. In an interview to The Hindu this month, he spoke candidly of his “ideological affinity” with the Bharatiya Janata Party government. Information and Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani also isn’t just any other minister. She symbolises the brute power of the current government. Yet the two are at loggerheads, demolishing the notion of the Sangh Parivar’s monolithic character. Such is the subject of autonomy of the public broadcaster in India. It is so fiercely resisted by political parties in power that it can render any ideological affinity irrelevant.

The current stand-off centres around Prasar Bharati – which runs Doordarshan and All India Radio – blocking the ministry’s moves to appoint an Indian Administrative Service officer to its board and fill two key editorial posts with journalists on high salaries, and rejecting its demand that Doordarshan pay a private firm Rs 2.9 crore for an assignment the broadcaster says was unnecessarily outsourced. Last week, Prakash accused Irani of holding back salary funds in retaliation, forcing the broadcaster to pay its staff salaries for January and February from a contingency fund. However, the minister said the funds had been withheld because the broadcaster had not signed a memorandum of understanding with it as required by autonomous bodies receiving grants-in-aid from the government. Signalling differences within Prasar Bharati, its chief executive officer SS Vempati said the ministry had released Rs 208 crore towards salaries on February 28 – though he did not specify what months these were for. He also said the Prasar Bharati board’s resolutions cautioned against speaking to the press on “internal issues”.

But the stalemate is not just limited to the present context. The Prasar Bharati (Broadcasting Corporation of India) Act came into force in 1997 but its implementation remains incomplete. Almost every major party that has ruled India since then is guilty of this neglect. The Prasar Bharati chairman is correct to note that no Act of Parliament has ever been so weak in implementation.

Such is the apathy of the political class that in my 10 years managing Rajya Sabha Television, there was not a single demand to constitute a 22-member parliamentary committee to supervise Prasar Bharati, as mandated by Section 13 of the Act. This despite the fact that membership of parliamentary committees is among the most sought after privileges of being an MP.

In fact, far from demanding autonomy, the political class and a section of the public question the relevance of a public broadcaster in an age of private news channels. So, it is important to understand the need for a public broadcaster, for only then can one be sensitised to the need to defend its autonomy.

Duties of a public broadcaster

The role of a public broadcaster is not limited to covering the leading news of the day. If the media is considered the fourth pillar of democracy, it is because it is a platform for debate and deliberation to hold the government accountable. It enables citizens to participate in democracy beyond the ritual of voting.

In the Indian experience, private broadcasters are limited to certain topics dictated by TRP and profitability concerns. A section of this media is also all too willingly part of political propaganda. Self-regulation is a mirage. A strong, autonomous public broadcaster, supervised by multi-party representatives in Parliament, can be an effective counter. That is how the Prasar Bharti was envisaged. Rajya Sabha Television’s small journey is worth recounting here. It was regulated by a multi-party committee in the Rajya Sabha, which kept it free of government pressure.

News is a minuscule part of the public broadcasting charter. The private media leaves out more subjects than it covers. The duty of taking up these unglamorous subjects that may be of critical importance to the powerless stakeholders in our democracy falls upon the public broadcaster. Then there are the subjects of classical art, literature, culture and science that the private media, because of its constraints, may not cover. The public broadcaster, with state support, has a duty to promote and nurture these.

Prasar Bharati chairman A Surya Prakash has accused the Information and Broadcasting Ministry of holding back the public broadcaster's salary funds. (Credit: @prasarbharati / Twitter)

Resistance to autonomy

What explains the resistance to an autonomous public broadcaster? Today, contrarian views are considered criticism of the government and criticism is often misinterpreted as a campaign against the government. In a country with “mai-baap” and “namak halal” traditions, criticism by a public broadcaster against its financial sponsors is considered treachery by those in power. If you take money from us, speak for us – seems to be the mantra. It is not a new phenomenon, but is more aggressively expressed now.

Also, a public broadcaster is often confused with a state broadcaster. The former cannot be run by government officials whose futures are linked to the government through a system of promotions, transfers and annual confidential reports. Public broadcasting is a journalistic venture, to be handled by journalists. Doordarshan has essentially been reduced to a state broadcaster in character and in structure.

A decision on a proposal to turn the Prasar Bharati into a corporate entity – which would reportedly cut its dependence on public funds and have a bearing on its employees – is still pending. Contrast this with the experience in the state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited where employees were given the option of serving a corporate entity and only those who quit their government jobs remained with the corporation. As a result, there was no dual loyalty. On the other hand, Prasar Bharti’s management structure comprises bureaucrats loyal to and controlled by the government – the biggest impediment in its autonomous functioning.

British democracy institutionalised the role of the public broadcaster in the form of the British Broadcasting Corporation or BBC, on which the Prasar Bharati was to be modelled. No government has ever been able to shackle the BBC and it remains a fiercely independent media organisation. It runs on budgetary support but this support is not considered a government favour or a drain on the exchequer. Public expenditure on a public broadcaster is akin to spending on the three other pillars of democracy – the legislature, judiciary and executive. None of these earn the government direct revenue, but are sustained as part of the basic democratic structure. Certainly, the fourth pillar cannot be left solely at the mercy of market forces.

Any functional, vibrant democracy has conflicts, competing views, non-conformist positions and a divergence of opinions. It also invariably has minority stakeholders, marginalised subjects, victims of systems, and the disadvantaged. And in a democracy, they need a voice. As BR Ambedkar aptly noted in his final address to the Constituent Assembly, if these voices are not heard and addressed, and social democracy not ushered in, “those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this [Constituent] Assembly has so laboriously built up”.

The way ahead

The stand-off between Prakash and Irani underlines all that is wrong with public broadcasting in India. Instead of rejoicing at the discomfort of the government, Parliament and the Opposition parties must seize this opportunity to introduce parliamentary supervision of Prasar Bharati, force effective implementation of the Prasar Bharati Act, and make public broadcasting more effective and neutral.

Both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha have a Committee on Subordinate Legislation, whose mandate is to scrutinise legislation passed by Parliament and ensure it is implemented in the same spirit as its intent. The committee in the Rajya Sabha is headed by the Opposition Congress and it can effectively examine the reasons for the proposal to turn Prasar Bharati into a corporate entity being kept pending for two decades. It can also examine why the Broadcasting Council, mandated by the Prasar Bharati Act, has never been constituted. The council was envisaged to ensure political neutrality. Naturally, successive governments did not want such an oversight body. The Opposition parties are in fact at greater fault for having allowed such an important provision to become defunct.

Setting up a parliamentary committee and a Broadcasting Council and making the Prasar Bharati board directly accountable to Parliament can be a big step towards real autonomy. The Act has it all. Parliament just needs to force its implementation. After all, in this era of a compromised private media, a public broadcaster, though government aided, may well be the last hope of many.

Gurdeep Singh Sappal is editor-in-chief of and former CEO and editor-in-chief of Rajya Sabha Television.