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 to rubble.

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 A 38,000-employee behemoth now has its 20-plus registered employee unions, all clamouring for the Act to be withdrawn.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?

Changed scenario

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 insufficient powers.

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 removal!

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.

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