“We should become more inclusive in the area of knowledge”: Mrinal Pande

Bengaluru: “Those who are mostly tasked with moulding and reshaping Indian media policies – the policy makers at the apex bodies – have seldom experienced the lived reality of media on ground. Maybe more so in case of those who implement the policies. A spurious idea of freedom of expression, and at the ground level oppression and unaccountable censorship are caused by this, despite policies aiming for the contrary”, said Mrinal Pande, well-known journalist, author and television personality, while speaking on ‘Unseen Bipolarity at the Heart of our Media Policies’, during the 4th Foundation Day Lecture of the Centre for Public Policy (CPP) at IIM Bangalore, on July 10 (Sunday), 2022. The event was held online. Her speech covered a wide spectrum of issues including private media vs public media, thought leadership vs the dread of it, legacy media vs new media, policy and law, gender issues, and more.

Mrinal Pande’s lecture consisted of two parts: she spoke about the overabundance of policy in India, that remains mostly on paper and creates snarls later. This, she explained, leads to a lack of true autonomy for the Boards, as in the case of Prasar Bharati (PB). She observed that there have been huge governance issues ever since Prasar Bharati was founded in 1997, that going by reports, even now need redressal. It is to be noted that Mrinal Pande has served as the Chairperson of Prasar Bharati, India’s public broadcaster that runs Doordarshan (DD) and All India Radio (AIR).

Ms Pande started her talk by sharing her experience with India’s public sector media. She said that her tenure at India’s public broadcaster PB was shaped during two time segments – first at the cusp of the old and new century when she worked as Senior Editorial Advisor of Hindi news on DD, then a decade later when she was appointed the Chair of PB between 2010 and 2014. “India’s public broadcasting sector controls both Doordarshan and All India Radio. In 1982, the PC Joshi committee report reiterated that an umbrella corporation needs to be formed, manned by professionals to oversee Indian media. The policy was aimed to divert power from the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry to a Board. The PB Act received Presidential approval in 1990 and became an Act in 1997, with an objective to provide autonomy to broadcasting in India. It was planned that broadcasting would be construed as a public service, and it will gather and disseminate news, not act as propaganda for the government to be consumed by the public.”

“However, PB remained a statutory autonomous body instead of becoming a Corporation under the Companies’ Act. It was expected to generate revenues for itself by commercial advertising and sponsorship. In 2002, due to the lack of a full time Chairman, powers of the Board were taken back by the Ministry and have yet to be redelegated. This has been the source of several clashes and disputes, that have made the case for the Ministry’s intervention stronger, while the well-intentioned policies have fumbled. There have been various disparities between the Ministry and the Board related to manpower, poor HR structure, recruitment, running cost shortage – all of which came in the way of the basic ideals of PB as stated in the original Act. PB as a so-called autonomous body, thus reflects the acute bipolarity in the soul of our media policy makers”.

She added: “Over the years, in the name of restructuring, there has been a plethora of data and countless inputs from top scholars, but no vital inputs were obtained from the PB Board and its functionaries. A near total lack of understanding of the increasing volatility of 24×7 news flow and everchanging new tech has deeply affected PB that often gets snarled in differences of opinion between the Board and the Ministry. Tensions between various ministries to which PB must report for special events, has often caused PB to appear as a hapless body. A Board needs not only to be described as autonomous but be ensured clear functional autonomy as well.”

“Ever since it came up, the dependency level on the Ministry’s approval causes inordinate delays which are avoidable in the news business. Moreover, the broadcast bodies are saddled with a lot of paperwork and near obsolete equipment compared to the private media”, she rued.

There is still promise, she pointed out. “DD and AIR still have the potential to become public service broadcasting assets. In 1980s and 90s they came up with brilliant debates, musical broadcasts, TV serials, all of which were watched by the entire country”.

She also spoke at length about her four-decade long experience with India’s private print media which has produced lots and has changed from print to digital, analogue to digital adroitly, but has today very little left by way of policy guidelines. This, she said, was in part due to its family-centric structure of major media houses, and mostly to its swift corporatization and revenue needs. “They all often push private media into the position of a supplicant before various vested interest groups.”

“Digital India is globally a very important market today. However, the new media ecology is facing various challenges with ever changing new technology, new devices, emergence of new platforms, etc. Yet all of these must coexist with the socio-political structure of an ancient hierarchical society and bureaucracy. There are also issues with various institutions of state and their relationship with India’s legacy media, controlled, promoted and funded by few cash-rich families, political parties, and major corporate houses. This often makes a large chunk of media a vehicle for shaping its news less objectively and promoting specific interests. While multiple business and political interests are being nursed through various large media empires, most media houses have skewed policies against women, Dalits and vernaculars”.

She also highlighted the element of intermediary liability, a legal concept which governs responsibility of all online platforms for user-generated content. “There is the phenomena of paid news, threat posed by fake news and videos, pervasive campaigning via the social media apps, etc. As consumption of digital news jumped, print’s share into total media revenue started declining, which gave an uptick to online media. Their credibility and trust are becoming big issues”.

In this context, she referred to a recent issue of a Silicon Valley giant which challenged a big rise in Centre’s takedown orders to them. “The draft report circulated by the government last year flagged issues of misuse of free expression by individuals and vested interest groups that affects the future of all digital media in India.”

Listing the new challenges, she continued: “Media and government are both waking up to the fact that web is a very complex series of paths for raw data. The business models are advertisement driven. Plus, the largest driver of a news item is gossip. But removal of massive amounts of content requires specialized handling and sufficient time given to the intermediary for verifying the allegations made. This gives the issue of intermediary liability a different colour and importance. Globally, a huge fragmentation of media is happening, challenging news as we have known it. As big newspapers cannibalize smaller ones, and big media giants buy smaller platforms, the model for legacy media becomes more complex as also more cash driven. This often hides the fact that there are invisible fault lines within the mediascape in India that, coupled with the somewhat colonial mindset of our bureaucracy, often create instability in our media scene. If the State seems happy to slam down on the media when it questions policies and begins to see dissenters and whistle blowers as a threat, media is badly shaken both from the inside and outside.”

“The proposed regulations for the intermediaries on ground may spell entry ban for smaller players, create infeasible multiple demands for expunging huge amounts of matter deemed objectionable, and a fear of legal reprisal hangs overhead, thus the challenges appear insurmountable. One major reason for this fear and mistrust is that the Government is yet to put in place implementable SOPs for media and enforcement agencies”, she pointed out.

She recommended that we above all need to protect integrity of our platforms and news industry. “Social media certainly needs to be controlled with new policies but given the nature of the beast, there can be no quick fixes nor will it be easy. News needs to be collected, curated and verified before being uploaded and consumed by general public. So, accountability is vital. But let us acknowledge that the social media today is a social and political institution, that has major legal rights issues. We must recognize this and a few others, including relative freedom of speech and expression for the vernacular media and out groups, skewed gender issues, etc.”

“Media policies cannot and should not be framed or used to settle political scores. While making policies, India must be democratic and inclusive especially in the area of knowledge. At this point apart from the media giants, it is also for the legal community and the executive to do a soul search and to protect the priceless freedom of expression. Strong arm tactics cannot work here. The issues need to be seen not just as legal or political, but as socio-political-human rights issues.”

“Will we ever see a digital Geneva Convention for world media, I wonder”, she observed stating that she wished to see a healthier media in our country.

Earlier in the evening, Prof. M S Sriram, Chairperson and faculty, Centre for Public Policy, in his welcome address, introduced the speaker and set the context of the talk. He also moderated the Q&A session, which followed Mrinal Pande’s talk.

The past CPP Foundation Day lectures have been delivered by Steven Wilkinson, Nilekani Professor of India and South Asian Studies, and Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Yale University; Tridip Suhrud, writer, translator and noted Gandhian scholar, and KK Shailaja, former Minister for Health, Social Justice, and Woman and Child Development, Government of Kerala.