A robust public broadcaster can guard against anti-vaccine rumours

Published on Jan 02, 2021 07:02 PM IST
There seems no reason to doubt that a large number of Indians are, to say the least, undiscriminating in the source of news they chose to watch. This will make them liable to fall prey to false information which can undermine the vaccination campaign.
A health worker prepares a syringe to inoculate a volunteer with a Covid-19 vaccine, Lima, December 9, 2020(AFP)
A health worker prepares a syringe to inoculate a volunteer with a Covid-19 vaccine, Lima, December 9, 2020(AFP)
ByMark Tully

The arrival of vaccines will heighten the importance of credible information in the war against Covid-19. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already warned against falling prey to misinformation about vaccinations. Misinformation, rumours and fake news have already hampered the attempt to prevent the spread of the virus. In India, there were the rumours deliberately spread about the Tablighi Markaz, which created panic about the prevalence of the virus in a community. Far more damaging has been the misinformation about wearing face-masks. There are certain to be rumours about the effects of vaccinations, which could reduce the effectiveness of the campaign. Rumours which are not quashed and fake news which is not exposed will reinforce the doubts of the cautious about being vaccinated.

A recent article in The Guardian by the former editor Alan Rusbridger criticising the government for its hostility to the BBC highlighted the importance of public service broadcasting in combating Covid-19. Rusbridger said, “We are drowning in a world of information chaos with many surveys showing a public no longer knowing who to trust. The middle of a pandemic where real lives depend on the supply of widely-available information is an odd time to be playing up the possibility of destroying the very basis of our most used and trusted public service news service”.

Rusbridger pointed out that a survey by Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, showed 90% of the population still used the BBC for news. But the government is threatening to undermine the BBC’s funding by making it no longer a criminal offence to avoid buying a television licence. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was backing a renowned opponent of the BBC for appointment as its chairman until the critic withdrew from the field.

India is drowning even deeper in information chaos than the UK but successive governments here have never pushed for an independent public news service to provide credible information and quash rumours effectively. That means a news service dedicated to providing the public impartial, fair, balanced and objective news, not commercially motivated or controlled editorially by the government. Valiant campaigners like George Verghese, a former editor of this paper, have tried to establish a broadcaster modelled on the BBC but they have always been thwarted by those who disliked the idea of a trusted, independent public service news provider. Another event which led me to consider the danger of misinformation, rumours and fake news affecting the Covid-19 vaccine campaign was Ofcom’s fine of 20,000 pounds imposed on World News Media Network.

It was fined for transmitting in the UK a programme of an Indian channel which contravened a ban on hate speech. I was struck by the fact that this fine was imposed by a British authority, but in India there has been no regulator strong enough to take a stand against the daily antics of channels like this. That means India is battling Covid-19 without a credible public service broadcaster to quash damaging rumours or a regulator strong enough to deter the broadcasting of fake news and misinformation. The impact of various high-decibel news channels is now being questioned because of doubts over the TRP figures. But there seems no reason to doubt that a large number of Indians are, to say the least, undiscriminating in the source of news they chose to watch. This will make them liable to fall prey to false information which can undermine the vaccination campaign.

The views expressed are personal

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Wednesday, August 17, 2022
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