What is wrong with Indian television? The day before the India-Pakistan game, one news channel ran a blaring day-long promo with the headline, ‘Lanka mein Ravan vadh’ with Dhoni being depicted as Ram and Shahid Afridi as a ten-headed Pakistani monster. All right, George Orwell once argued that sport is ‘war minus the shooting’ but really, is this kind of mythological imagery acceptable as serious news? In a week when the Foreign Secretary goes to Islamabad for talks and the Home Minister will follow for another meeting, the stereotyping is a reminder of how juvenile some of our television news coverage can be.
The late foreign secretary JN Dixit once argued that the vast gulf between India and Pakistan came home to him one day when at a Pakistani host’s dinner table, the child of the house ran in shouting “Hindustani kutta, kutta, Hindustani kutta’. His hosts were terribly embarrassed but the child was only repeating what he had read in his indoctrinated school textbooks. On this side of the border, maybe we don’t have such textbooks but we do have a television industry with few controls and the propensity to produce all kinds of mindless programming in pursuit of TRP ratings. The Afridi as Ravan imagery can be dismissed as a bad joke but imagine the message it leaves for any children watching.
There is a deeper structural problem here. Part of it is that any discussion of broadcast reform in India gets stuck between two poles: the controlling impulses of a state always looking to turn the clock back and take back lost control and the need to maintain the independence of news television. For all its flaws, the creation of the Indian satellite news industry has been a landmark struggle unparalleled in the history of global news and the fear has always been that any attempt at regulation risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Yet, some kind of a real watchdog there must be. In a different context, the untamed impulses of Wall Street’s bankers that led to the global economic crisis are an example of what unbridled laissez faire can lead to.
Fifteen years after the landmark Supreme Court judgment that freed the airwaves, India remains the most unregulated television market in the world and while this suits the owners and the editors in their no-holds barred quest for revenues, the need for an unbiased oversight body comprising all stakeholders is being felt more than ever. What we have in the form of oversight today in news television is tall promises of self-regulation that are given with seeming sincerity but always fall prey to the weekly tyranny of ratings.
Partly because of the unique manner in which the satellite television industry grew in its initial years as an illegal medium, there is still no overarching regulatory body to oversee broadcasting issues. There is no Indian equivalent of the American Federal Communication Commission and Indian broadcasting remains highly unregulated, stuck within a confusing maze of overlapping controls. For instance, India is one of the few developed TV markets with no cross-media ownership laws.
In a sense, Indian television has continued to operate in a legal framework that is more akin to that utterly untranslatable North Indian word: jugaad. Jaipal Reddy’s Broadcasting Bill of 1997 was based on British law after studying the broadcasting systems of six countries—USA, UK, France, Germany, Italy and Australia – and sought to create a new legal structure for broadcasting but disappeared into oblivion when the Gujral government fell. Priyaranjan Dasmunshi’s draconian version of such a Bill is now on the backburner. Since the 1995 Cable Networks Regulation Act (which has limited uses), Parliament has only managed to pass one major broadcasting-related bill – the 2007 Act on mandatory sharing of sports feeds. And that only passed because of the immense drawing power of cricket.
The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has periodically tried to fill the regulatory vacuum with draft legislation and summary executive directives/notifications, most of these designed to assert its control. It has consistently tried to put the genie of broadcasting back into the bottle, even if the current dispensation in the Ministry appears relatively more benign.
War, they say should never be left to the generals alone. Television, similarly, is perhaps too pervasive an influence to be left entirely to the judgment of the industry alone. Otherwise Afridi will continue to turn into Ravan on television.