Media Matters: Can we afford Prasar Bharati?
How did this country's experiment with an autonomous public broadcaster
come to such a sorry pass, asks media critic Sevanti Ninan.
August and September have been distracting months for the scandal-
chasing media. Else somebody would at least have drawn attention to the
extraordinary developments concerning Prasar Bharati. In August, the
Minister for Information and Broadcasting recommended the dismissal of
its Chief Executive to the Prime Minister. And in the same month, she
introduced an amendment bill in Parliament that seeks in effect to
ensure that all employees of the corporation will remain government
servants on deemed deputation. Three milestones achieved by non-
Congress governments in 1978, 1990 and 1997 have been quietly reduced
Lal Krishna Advani mooted the idea of broadcasting autonomy in 1978, P.
Upendra presided over its becoming an Act in1990, and seven years later
yet another non-Congress government hastily notified the Act just
before the government fell. But for all their pains, what has developed
since represents neither public service broadcasting in its best sense,
nor autonomy. A 38,000-employee behemoth now has its 20-plus registered
employee unions, all clamouring for the Act to be withdrawn. They want
Prasar Bharati to go back to being what they euphemistically call a
national broadcaster so that they can go back to being proper
government servants. With tax payers now footing an annual bill of Rs.
3,000 crore for the privilege of having a public service broadcaster!
Meanwhile, the Central Vigilance Commission has found colourful
examples of autonomous functioning by the CEO and his colleagues,
amounting to questionable financial dealings. And the board set up to
oversee Prasar Bharati finds itself in a quirky position. The decisions
it takes are simply not recorded by the CEO who records the minutes. A
huge democracy that set out to give itself broadcasting autonomy has
ended up giving one man autonomy, through the tenures of three
different chairpersons. Though found guilty of presiding over highly
suspicious decision-making by the CVC, the next step, that of
suspension, so that an enquiry can take place, has not been taken. The
leaders of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, both former
Ministers of Information and Broadcasting, should be asking why.
How did this country's experiment with an autonomous public broadcaster
come to such a sorry pass?
Between 1990, when the Prasar Bharati Act was passed, and 1997, when it
was notified, the broadcasting climate in the country changed.
Satellite TV came in, and the need for a non-government autonomous news
broadcaster became considerably less urgent. About the same time, the
government's willingness to keep footing the bill for Doordarshan's
costs began to weaken and in an increasingly commercial broadcasting
climate, the push for Doordarshan to meet its needs through commercial
revenues also came. One Director General of Doordarshan who came along
in 1994 did such a good job of trying to make Doordarshan commercial
that Rupert Murdoch came along and hired him.
Post 1997, Doordarshan and All India Radio employees found that their
dreams of becoming properly-taken-care-of corporation employees — “We
had dreams of being like ONGC”, says a union leader — were not
materialising. They also found their broadcaster was in no man's land.
You could no longer take your representations to the Ministry of I and
B because they told you Prasar Bharati was no longer under them. And if
you represented to PB you were told that the corporation had
As for in-house talent, they were busy being wooed and hired by the
numerous private channels coming in. Once private news channels came,
successive governments decided quietly that what in fact was needed now
was a government broadcaster to present the government's point of view.
If autonomy is first tested in the newsroom, that domain has never, in
13 years of alleged autonomy, ceased to be run by the Indian
information service. Even as pretty faces are hired on contract to
anchor the programmes.
And at which point did the CEO of Bharati become truly autonomous
himself? There are two versions to explain this. One which holds that
at the time of notifying the rules for the corporation in 1998 there
was a goof-up while defining the powers of CEO which ended up giving
him more powers than the Prasar Bharati Board. Another version says
that in 2001 the Board passed a resolution (when Pramod Mahajan was the
Information and Broadcasting Minister) giving the then CEO more powers
than he had, particularly in financial matters. Subsequently successive
Chairpersons of the corporation have tried unsuccessfully to undo these
powers and make the current CEO, B.S. Lalli, accountable to the Board.
But since he joined PB at the end of 2006, one Chairperson has been
removed by the UPA government, and the second resigned last year after
unsuccessfully battling Lalli.
In theory, if the Board gave the CEO powers, the Board can take them
away as well. But in practice what has actually been happening is quite
amazing. The Board passes resolutions, the CEO gets the minutes of the
meeting prepared, and does not minute the resolutions or decisions
which seek to take back his powers! Board meetings are supposed to
begin with approval of the previous meeting's minutes. But for the last
two years at least, the Board and CEO have not agreed on the minutes,
even as the composition of the Board and its Chairperson have changed!
Arun Bhatnagar, Sonia Gandhi's handpicked appointee as Chairperson,
took five meetings for which there were 10 sets of minutes — the
Board's version, and the CEO's version, in each case. The CEO did not
accept the Board's version, the Board did not accept his. That is still
happening under the current Chairperson Mrinal Pande. And the CEO
continues to retain his powers. Opposition from the Board to
contractual decisions related to Doordarshan's role as host broadcaster
for the Commonwealth Games were simply not recorded in January 2009,
and therefore not taken into account! If it were not a truly bizarre
state of affairs, it would be comical.
The CVC conducted its inquiry after receiving a reference from the
Prasar Bharati Board. on the directions of the Delhi High Court which
was hearing a case on financial wrongdoing in Prasar Bharati. Now that
its report that upholds most of the charges against the CEO as valid,
the I and B Ministry’s recommendation for the removal of the CEO has to
be referred to the Supreme Court by the Government of India, for that
Court to judge the case and give a final ruling. This is stipulated in
the Prasar Bharati Act.
And as of now, given the unresolved legal dispute over the powers of
the CEO vs the PB Board, even if the Board were to decide to meet and
consider the CVC report , thereafter passing a resolution recommending
the CEO's removal , they will have no choice but to ask the CEO!
Because he has said that he alone according to the notification of 2001
, is authorised to set the meeting , prepare the agenda thereof and
minute the proceedings . The PB Act also stipulates that all Board
resolutions shall be forwarded to the Ministry by the CEO. So he will
need to be asked to forward the proposal, even if it recommends his own
What, meanwhile, has the CVC found the corporation guilty of? Of taking
decisions related to the management of advertising revenues arising
from the telecast of cricket matches on DD without the approval of
either the Empowered Committee on Sports Rights (ECSR) or the Prasar
Bharati Board. The details are quite amazing. The decision on who would
get to manage these revenues were to be decided through a competitive
bidding process involving sealed bids, but when Prasar Bharati's bid
turned out to be the highest in the case of five different cricket
series, it thoughtfully revised its bid each time to enable Nimbus to
bid again and clinch the series! Five times! “Undue advantage to
Nimbus,” says the CVC.
Cases of generosity
Then there was the case of the T-20 Cricket World Cup matches which
Doordarshan did not telecast, despite having the rights to it, through
the Mandatory Sharing Act of 2007. This abdication meant that ESPN
could telecast them exclusively and make a tidy pile. This was after
the ECSR said they should be telecast, and “also after obtaining a
clear legal opinion affirming that T-20 cricket was to be considered a
sporting event of national importance,” says the report.
A third finding confirms more generosity on Prasar Bharati's part. It
procured radio broadcast rights for two cricket series from Nimbus at
rates which were twice that of rates paid earlier for similar rights.
What's more, the rates were twice those fixed by the ECSR, with the CEO
finalising the higher rates. In fact between 2007 and 2009 no ECSR
meeting was convened to discuss the rates on eight occasions. And in
the absence of such meetings, when All India Radio recommended rates,
the rate finally decided in each case was higher than its
recommendation! The beneficiaries of such generosity? Nimbus, ESPN-Star
Sports, ESPN, Ten Sports, MSN/SET Max and ICC/ Big FM. Prasar Bharati
today is the private sports broadcasters' best friend.
Apart from all this the CVC found fault with the generosity with which
Prasar Bharati paid the lawyers engaged. Its policy in the matter of
engaging lawyers was to be approved by the Prasar Bharati Board, but
was never put up to them, the CVC notes. And then there was the small
matter of which lawyers firms were engaged. “The payments made to
external non-empanelled advocates increased by almost five times as
compared to earlier years.”
So what will the UPA government do next in this sticky case of an
overly autonomous CEO? The ball is currently believed to be in the
Prime Minister's court.
And when will some government take a firm call on whether Prasar
Bharati should remain a huge liability on the exchequer, primarily
engaged in creating employment, or whether it can ever play a valuable
public service role in an over-commercialised broadcast space?
Note: Mr. Lalli did not respond to a formal request for an interview
made at least 10 days before this story was written
joseph martin cj