Guest post by ABHISHEK UPADHYAY
Anna Hazare has returned with his protests and fasting. Should the media, particularly news TV, be more circumspect this time?
Is it time for the media to learn from the Ramlila Maidan experience in August, or should news channels stick to their earlier editorial line of broadcasting the Anna movement in great detail? Back in August, news TV broadcasted Anna’s “satyagrah” allegedly at the expense of the government. The stage is set again, the jury is out.
In the wake of deep differences on the Lokpal issue, Anna Hazare has already announced for his next “satyagrah” showdown. He is deeply miffed at the stand taken by the ruling party in the Lokpal Standing Committee where some of his key demands had been contemptibly overruled. Hazare’s message comes with a stern warning of impending action that might escalate in due course of time, with indications of a repeat of his epic fast. With emotions pitching up to extremes, he has declared to undertake another round of fast starting from 27 December to 5 Janurary at Ramlila Maidan. An open gauntlet is being thrown at the government in view of the bitter experience that the establishment had to taste last time. The worst the government can expect is an indefinite fast.
It’s going to be a full-time job to observe or speculate whether Team Anna will soften its stand or if the government finally relent. Equally interesting will be the role of electronic media in this scenario which might again tilt the scales in favour of Team Anna, or may just be tamed under government pressure. The government is furious with what it sees as an extreme stance by news channels, blaming them for inciting internal dissension and inflaming anti-government sentiments. Political managers of the dispensation are peeved at their neglect on air. They object to the clear-cut stand taken by some channels, which virtually declared an on-screen war against the government, suggesting that Anna’s movement was somewhat as pious as the water from Gangotri, and the government the devil incarnate, one who clamps down on voices of truth, honesty, non-violence and wisdom. They gloatingly remind you of Kiran Bedi’s notorious spoof against politicians during the Ramlila Maidan agitation, which the print media had criticised to some extent but news channels had presented it uncritically as a mockery of political class.
The buzz in government circle is that this time, channels should face consequences – tit for tat. If they blatantly take sides, the government should pay back in the same coin, showing the holier than thou media elite their place. The establishment’s power managers are said to share the proverbial view that Government is never weak.
7 October saw a symbolic trailer of what was to come. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting raised the net worth criteria for both news and non-news channels. The new rules for obtaining a news channel license require the net worth of the applicant should be Rupees 20 crores, up from the earlier 3 crores. All TV channels are now required to operationalise within a time frame of one year from the date of permission, for which “news and current affairs” channels in particular will have to give a Performance Bank Guarantee for Rs 2 crores. In the event of the channel not coming on air within a year of the license, the bank guarantee will be forfeited and permission cancelled.
The move does not affect existing news channels, but has been taken to be a symbolic warning. The mild tremor was followed up by a big blow. Tightening its noose around television’s loose wings, the government narrowed down the ‘permission code’ of channels. It ruled that from now on, renewal of permission for TV channels would be considered for a period of 10 years at a time, subject to the condition that the channel should not have been found guilty of violating terms and conditions. The terms and conditions include not violating the programme and advertisement code on more than four occasions. Another stringent provision stated that proposals of merger, de-merger and amalgamation would be allowed under the provisions of the Companies Act, but only after obtaining due permission from the I&B ministry.
The message, tone and timing of these regulations were not lost. Some news channels are part of TV conglomerates running non-news channels too. Most news channels have been found in violation of the Code several times. At the same time, it should be noted that the definition of ‘violation’ is more subjective than objective, which means that the government can interpret the definitions as per its comfort.
Despite these measures, news TV is surprisingly adamant with its August attitude, going by the coverage of Anna Hazare’s protest at Rajghat for the last few days. Anna Hazare’s dire warning for a renewed August-like agitation has been running on the screen tickers and headlines with the same aggression and prominence as in August. The government must no doubt be worried with such defiance; a bouquet of warnings has already been issued to channels in the mild garb of advisories form I&B ministry, including the famous advisory to prohibit channels from telecasting live Anna Hazare’s day-long token fast at Rajghat.
How long will the channels be able to sustain the pressure from the government? The answer to that question will have long-term consequences for press freedom in India. Commercial interests also draw the line in this game of taking sides and taking the bull by the horn. The channels do have a history to bow before pressure from the government, and the pressure is not new for them. Consequently, they have already drawn their “Lakshman rekha” as evident in repeated telecasts of especially those incidents which directly or indirectly pertain to the higher echelons of the political class. Channels are not naïve entities. For example, they clearly avoid speculating on Rahul Gandhi’s marriage, ignore allegations of Subrhamanian Swamy against Robert Vadra, underplays petitions of former Chief of Air Staff S Krishnaswamy against finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, and so on. All reasons given in support of such decisions crumble when they run similar stories about others in politics and society.
With the Anna Hazare Show, what comes in the way are commercial interests. Having tasted a good rising graph of their TRPs, as well as more time spent by viewers on news channels during Anna’s “August Kranti”, they can’t afford to throw away the golden goose.
According to data put out by TAM, or Television Audience Monitoring Agency, the Hazare effect saw a considerable jump in the viewership of both Hindi and English news channels, nearly doubling their TRPs in the week ending August 20, as compared to the previous week. While the share of the Hindi news channels shot up by 87 per cent to 11.02 points upcountry, the all-India figure for their English counterparts combined was 0.54 points, as viewership grew by 74 per cent. In the earlier four weeks, Hindi and English news channels had recorded an average genre share of 5.7 per cent and 0.33 per cent, respectively. It was crystal clear in TAM’s data that the average daily time spent on Hindi news channels increased by 98% to 16.9 minutes from 8.5. Similar results came out in the territory of English channels, where the daily average time spent more than doubled to 0.72 minutes, as against the 0.30 minutes spent earlier on an all-India level.
The government feels that due to the analogue system of cable distribution, it can’t monitor on a running basis a good number of regional channels from the centre. The influence of non-serious players has been increasing enough in the news category, giving the government the excuse to weed out those it sees as irresponsible. In recent years, the industry has witnessed a magnificent increase in the number of licenses. The I&B ministry had granted permission to 745 private satellite TV channels by August 2011, of which 366 are in the news and current affairs genre. It has been reported that over 150 such channels are non-operational despite having a valid license; on the other hand, more than three-dozen channels started their operation but closed down due to financial or other reasons. These figures are deadly ammunition in the hand of the government to deal with irritants. As most of these channels operate in the free-to-air category, subscribers can access them for free without paying any monthly costs, unlike entertainment or movie channels. The easy access and high political impact of news TV result in the government’s compelling need to bell the cat in in a political environment where the ruling dispensation hasn’t been doing to well in public popularity.
Given such pressure, news channels would have succumbed to it by now. But deep commercial interests come in the way. Better ratings mean people spent more time watching the news channel, which means advertisers spend more money buying the ad spots in news channels. News channels will find it difficult to not put their mouth where the money is. Viewers can only be gratetful to for these commercial compulsions for the moment, as in this case they will influence press freedom. Many viewers will of course demand, as they must, that news channels focus on issues and vents that perhaps don’t beget high TRPs.
(Abhishek Upadhyay lives in Delhi, where he is Editor, Special Projects, with the Dainik Bhaskar media group.)