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Social justice on the airwaves

Public access to the electronic media is imperative for democracy. There is a need to ensure that public broadcasting serves the interests of those that commercial TV does not care about, writes Rajiv Mehrotra.
None | By Rajiv Mehrotra
PUBLISHED ON JUL 28, 2006 12:06 AM IST

There’s been an outrage against the proposed Broadcast Bill. Ironically, the Bill is officially not in the public domain — we were told this when the Public Service Broadcasting Trust, an NGO, requested a copy of the Bill from the I&B Ministry. This means that all those in possession of a copy of the Bill and those writing about it are in violation of the Official Secrets Act. I have not been able to legitimately secure a copy. This is not a defence of the Bill, yet it is disappointing that no alternatives have been suggested by those who have opposed the Bill. The Bill is supposed to address the dangerous implications of the power of monopoly in the media, the impact on the status and rights of women by the way the media represents them, or on the heightened vulnerability of minorities by the manner in which ‘live’ media reports acts of terrorism, for example. None of the protesting voices, and the commercial interests they represent, have taken any visible steps to address these concerns either.

Commercially driven television is obliged to promote and perpetuate values and information that encourage consumption by the audiences who have the purchasing power to interest advertisers. They exclude vast sections of civil society, which may not be in sync with the cultures, messages and agendas of the advertisers. No commercial media, especially expensive electronic media, can articulate significant concerns and issues that might run counter to the interests of large advertisers.

A society that lacks an effective alternative media space or voice diminishes its fundamental democratic freedoms and choices while reinforcing the cultures of the privileged. Public broadcasting (PB) is, therefore, crucial.

The value of public broadcasting (PB) evolves from its credibility and its independence from the imperatives of both commercial broadcasting and the State. This independence needs to be nurtured and protected with at least as much vigour as we apply in the case of the judiciary or institutions such as the Human Rights Commission or the Election Commission.

When successful, PB sets exemplary standards of quality and serves as an example of good taste, of decency and values. It is impartial and balanced, and works to meet the information and entertainment needs of the community, particularly of the disadvantaged and the marginalised. It synchronises with the principles of a good ‘public enterprise’ committed to transparency and accountability.

Public service broadcasting is not merely the supply push of development programmes: of what a centralised bureaucracy or a group of ‘experts’ believes the community must be told. The imperative is to create a culture through airwaves that is plural and equitable in its representation.

The implications of such a process are the emergence of a clear choice between a media culture that is either sophisticated but oblivious to civil society initiatives or is sophisticated while being accessible and responsive to the public it addresses. There is a choice between a television and radio culture that talks down to a billion-strong audience or a billion people who discover themselves through programmes which reflect their realities and respond to their needs and desires. PB represents a vital democratic space for an independent credible voice that informs and articulates the agendas of civil society and the community as they are locally perceived.

This doesn’t mean that PB has to be dull or   pedantic. It can, and must, compete for at least some of the audiences that commercial television reaches out to, but more importantly, to those that commercial television does not care about. Successive governments have paid little heed to the crumbling structures of PB. They have pushed what they believe the public ought to see and hear, with a generous lacing of the governments’ agendas. Audiences with an alternative have simply switched off. Yet, public funds continue to be used to send out futile radio and television images.

Public television fulfils its role and justifies the use of public money only when it delivers quality content that meets the real, felt needs for information and entertainment that is not artificially segregated. Where public money funds public television, as in India, it becomes a greater imperative to create an independent, autonomous structure that reassures audiences of the credibility of their information. We are being overwhelmed by commercial television driven by its ever growing need to attract and hold audiences at any cost. In many cases not only is content globalised but so is the intent to shape local opinion to external agendas. With the ever growing dominance of the electronic media in shaping public perceptions, it is vital that we work simultaneously to democratise access to it.

Public access to the electronic media is imperative for democracy. We must create mechanisms that will enable civil society to access airwaves and bandwidth on the new technologies that will be our future. We must also empower, train and fund these processes so that individual voices can still be heard and those outside the structures of privilege are not further marginalised.

The mandate for PB today is enshrined in the Prasar Bharati Corporation. Few will argue that it has essentially failed to deliver. There is continuing ambiguity about its role. Attention must be drawn to some of the agendas and concerns that might reaffirm the real importance and need for PB.

We need to work to make PB at least a major work in progress — engaging, learning and unfolding its methods and its goals in a new economic, political and technological environment.

(The writer is Managing Trustee, Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT))

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