In a scathing and comprehensively argued article, former minister for information and broadcasting, Manish Tewari, has called for abolishing the I&B ministry of and replacing it with an omnibus regulatory framework to take care of its various regulatory functions.
Earlier, too, he had argued that the ministry has outlived its utility and needs to be wound up. Indeed, this ministry has been mired in controversies of various kinds, the latest being the case of fake news guidelines and its withdrawal by the ministry on the instructions of the prime minister.
Image: PTI file photo
Controversy is nothing new for the ministry involved as it is in the sensitive realm of ideas, which are becoming more and more contested these days as old consensus on fundamental issues keep breaking down and get challenged from all sides. However, the arguments made by Manish Tewari seem to betray an unusual haste in writing the epitaph of the ministry. He also ignores many of the facts and existential justifications for the ministry, which he must be aware of having himself been the minister of I&B.
Sketching the history and background in which the I&B ministry took shape right at the time of Independence, he says that India required to push for a progressive, pluralistic and inclusive vision of nationhood. It bears no repetition that the need for such a society is far more poignantly felt today than it ever was.
Even while the practical reality may not quite match the professed values, no government can deny that these are the constitutionally mandated values on which the Indian nationhood is founded. In an atmosphere of crass commercialism that surrounds the media landscape today, if we don’t have a public body specifically devoted to upholding and propagating the progressive, secular and scientific outlook, who else can be expected to take it further?
On this parameter alone, if the I&B Ministry was required in the early days of post-Independence, it is even more so today. Reality of the present can’t obscure the possibility of the future.
The remit of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting essentially covers three areas namely regulatory work, fulfilment of the information and communication needs which includes publicity of the government and creation of an alternative media space catering to good taste promoting essential values enshrined in the Constitution. Examining the three basic functions of the ministry, we try to understand the rationale for the existence of the I&B ministry.
In the regulatory field, Tewari recommends that the activities of the ministry can be slowly given out to various regulatory bodies. He specifically mentions that some of the regulatory activities like film certification are no more needed. This is a valid suggestion.
In fact, the Shyam Benegal Committee appointed by the ministry has made some radical recommendations in this field. It is not much difficult for the government to accept most of its recommendations and start a new chapter of relationship with the film industry.
However, having a number of regulatory bodies working for, say, radio, television, advertising, print and digital new media independently of each other could mean a very truncated outlook on policy issues and could potentially be counter-productive.
With increasing integration of platforms, Radio is not just radio, nor is television only television. Print media has elements of audio visual content built into their very structure. No TV channel can imagine to survive without having a strong presence on the internet. The purity of media is now a thing of the past. What we have today is the simultaneous presence of multiple media closely integrated with each other as a mixed entity of sorts.
It makes no sense today to call a newspaper a purely print media product and so on. A regulatory framework that works in isolation would be as ineffective as it would be inadequate to meet the challenges of modern technologies in the policy arena. There is a need to have an integrating thread that can be provided only by a body like the I&B ministry.
A major area of regulatory challenge which Tewari fails to comment upon is the emerging social media space. The world today is grappling with grave questions raised by the revelations concerning Facebook and its role in the US presidential elections. The Cambridge Analytica case in India is fresh before our eyes and still unfolding in its many dimensions.
The way the giants of the internet media world are growing and controlling vital aspects of not just the individual, but the nation state and its civic and democratic structures raise some critical questions. The government is only slowly waking up to the regulatory challenges emanating out of these developments, especially from the giants of the internet world such as Google and Facebook.
We need to understand the deeper implications of the almost complete monopoly enjoyed by the GAFA quartet (Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple) whose combined market value of over $2.5 trillion surpasses the GDP of India. It has been estimated that worldwide Google commands 88 per cent market share in search advertising, while Facebook together with its subsidiaries Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger owns 77 per cent of mobile social traffic.
In India, the share of Google in online search is above 97 per cent. Such humongous monopoly power in the hands of these companies should wake the policy makers up to engage themselves far more deeply with these internet behemoths than has been the case till now.
In a significant judgment on February 9, the Competition Commission of India (CCI) fined the search engine Google Rs 135 crore for abuse of its dominant position and search bias. Slowly, the world is realising the dangers inherent in agencies like Google and Facebook to influence the political process and mould public opinion.
A little probing could reveal that potential of the Google to twist and manipulate the public opinion could be as powerful as that of Facebook. Clearly, rather than leaving policy matters to some technocratic body like TRAI etc, these should be dealt with by a body like the I&B ministry, which has a deeper engagement with issues linked with democratic institution and their linkage with media.
More than technical issues, these policy imperatives are linked with fundamental civic concerns and future of India as a thriving democracy.
Despite the controversy surrounding the fake news-related circular of the ministry, there is no denying the fact that a robust mechanism needs to be worked out for fighting the menace of fake news and misuse of social media to fan and spread hate crime in the country. It is true that an atmosphere of trust and understanding has to be built with the media organisations in the country before the government's move in this direction can acquire a degree of moral legitimacy and broad-based consensus.
Beyond the binary of government imposed regulation and self-regulation, there could be other models to curb fake news. There may not be any ready-made answer as to how this could be dealt with, but the ministry has a crucial role to play in setting the rules of the game in the media sector, which must be transparent and acceptable to both the parties.
The Prasar Bharati which commands the AIR and the DD has always been in the eye of the storm. It has been accused of bias and mediocrity. These charges may have substance, but it is wrong to hold these organisations responsible for all the ills they may be plagued with.
Tewari with his experience in the ministry would probably vouch for the fact that individually both these organisations have outstanding personnel at various levels both at the technical and creative fields of activity. But collectively as an organisation, it has many questions to answer.
Who is to blame for this?
Doordarshan not so long back was credited with some of the most remarkable programmes that one could think of. It had world-class soap operas, which excelled both in technical finesse as well as the social messages they conveyed being a part of the public service broadcasting.
Radio is credited with having some of the top artists and literary personalities working for it in both the pre-Prasar Bharati days and now - think Ustad Bismillah Khan, Harivansh Rai Bachchan etc.
The work of radio programming in preserving and promoting Indian classical music, folk artists and many such areas of India’s cultural heritage is unquestionable. But for the AIR, many of these art forms, instrumental music, folk stories and crucial elements of subaltern culture would have been lost and dead by now.
In the field of news too, it is not correct to say that control of the financial purse-strings by the ministry is the sole reason that the AIR and the DD have not been able to fulfil their promises of being a truly public service broadcaster.
We have numerous universities, courts, regulatory bodies run by civil servants and other autonomous bodies which are fully funded by the government. Yet, these institutions have functioned independently in an exemplary manner. In the educational sector, universities funded by the government have produced outstanding results whether it is in the field of liberal arts or technical fields.
However, if the understanding of the public service broadcasting is allowed to become narrow and partisan, the organisation has no way to fight it out. It is not the existence within the I&B ministry which is to be faulted, but the unwillingness of the political class in general to allow for a truly public service broadcaster as distinct from a government service broadcaster to take root in the country.
This, however, does not in any way diminish the need to have a robust, independent and impartial public sector broadcasting agency like the Prasar Bharati in India. It is a bad idea to throw the baby with the bathwater.
The basic problem lies in visualising the ministry as only a publicity machine. Over the last many decades, the I&B ministry has slowly lost its identity as a regulator or creator of good taste. We have forgotten many of the stellar works done by its non-publicity oriented units. Take for example, the Publications Division which brought out the 100 volume series of writings and speeches of Mahatma Gandhi in the form of Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi and whose journals like Yojana still sell close of 1.4 lakh copies per month with serious articles on issues of economy and society.
The NFDC has helped in the production of some of the outstanding films. The NFAI has done a yeoman’s job in preserving the film heritage of India. In his analysis, Tewari has overlooked the significant contribution these organisations made in the past which they continue to do in varying degrees even now. There is no doubt they are required in future too.
It is though true that over a period of time, the non-publicity organisations of the ministry slowly got displaced in the priority. Slowly, the ministry started being seen solely as a publicity organisation for which it neither had sufficient financial resources nor the manpower. Spreading its resources thin, the I&B ministry has been fighting a difficult battle to accomplish its task of being the publicity arm of the government.
The government publicity is no doubt important. It helps in creating legitimacy for plans and policies of the government while at the same time creating awareness and providing feedback to the government. But the changing contours of government-public interface may require a different model to visualise the role the ministry.
We need a new imagination for the I&B ministry to reinvent it afresh to meet the new challenges and fulfil its great promises, which it set before itself about seven decades ago.
Perhaps it is too early to write the epitaph for the ministry.
It may be said, on the lines of what Mark Twain once said, that the reports of its death are grossly exaggerated.
(The author has worked as an Indian Information Service officer with more than two decades of experience in the I&B ministry.)