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Today’s headlines: Cut, cured and cold

Sanjeev Verma | Updated on January 21, 2021

Sound check: The chequered history of DD News includes a few phases when the State monopoly network flirted with freedom   -  R RAGU

With TRP wars and shrill anchors dominating the current scene, one may feel nostalgic enough to think fondly of Doordarshan News, which telecast its first bulletin in 1965. But it’s also true that the sole purveyor of TV news for nearly three decades has been singing hosannas to every regime in power

* DD made its first telecast in 1959; six years later, it started a five-minute news bulletin

* It could be a conference involving heads of States, or a book release, but the PMDarshan never ceased

* The significant difference then was that the official broadcaster was not running sustained slander campaigns against Opposition parties and critics of the government; it just ignored them completely

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Psychologists warn against romanticising the past because it tends to ruin the present. It creates a distortion of the memory of the past and contributes to your misery. That thought keeps coming to me these days as I read about the extraordinary romanticising of Doordarshan news.

Fed up to the gills with biased and chauvinistic news on present-day news channels, we can perhaps be forgiven if we start thinking fondly of Doordarshan news. As Justice Rajiv Shakdher of the Delhi High Court did recently.

He was hearing a suit filed by 38 Hindi film production houses and associations against news channels such as Times Now and Republic for defamatory and fake reportage against the film industry in the wake of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide. Shakdher turned nostalgic about television news and said: “There was a time we used to wait for that news broadcast on Doordarshan; it was clear and factual. Those were lovely days.”

Lovely days they may well have been, but clear and factual?

Fifty-five years years after Doordarshan (DD) started telecasting news, the time has come to look back — and ahead. DD made its first telecast in 1959 and, six years later, it started a five-minute news bulletin. Since then, DD news has been boring and feckless — singing hosannas to the regime in power, while ignoring anything likely to be interpreted as even remotely critical of the government.

DD was the sole purveyor of television news for nearly three decades (until satellite technology brought in private channels) and, except for brief and short-lived periods of glasnost, it broadcast news in the patented manner of State-controlled media with all its connotations of tedium and censorship. Successive governments have kept tight control over DD and All India Radio (AIR), and news bulletins have been either controlled by the information and broadcasting (I&B) ministry, or the Prime Minister’s Office directly, or control has been exercised through carefully hand-picked news heads.

“Doordarshan news was never really news,” says Anil Dharker, veteran writer and columnist whose television columns were widely read in the 1980s and ’90s. In fact, he says, he coined the term ‘PMDarshan’ for Doordarshan news. “Rajiv Gandhi’s advisors decided in the mid-’80s that since it was a captive medium, why not use it fully for prime ministerial propaganda. Every news bulletin began: ‘The Prime Minister, Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, has said...”

It could be a conference involving heads of States, or a book release, but the PMDarshan never ceased. Famously, one of Dharker’s TV columns in a Sunday paper back in the late ’80s, was headlined “PMDarshan, Episode 365’, and went “Rajiv Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi...” for the entire length of the column.

I used to report news for radio in those days, and DD depended significantly on AIR’s news gathering network for its news requirements. The in-joke in the newsroom then was that the lead story every day was a given: “The Prime Minister has called upon the people to remain united and defeat the designs of divisive forces.” Only the context would change: She, or he, would have said this at an international conference, or while inaugurating a project.

The government’s approach towards DD was exemplified by a comment Indira Gandhi made in the early ’70s at a press conference. A reporter asked her why DD news was so partisan. With characteristic candour, Indira Gandhi said the control of DD (and AIR) would always remain with the government, for mass media was the one way it could reach out to the people.

When the first non-Congress government took charge in 1977, a working group under senior journalist BG Verghese was appointed to recommend autonomy for AIR and DD to prevent “the shameless misuse of broadcasting during the emergency”. In 1978, the committee boldly recommended constitutional safeguards for the proposed autonomous broadcaster but the Janata Party government developed cold feet. LK Advani, the then I&B minister, said: “The committee has recommended the creation of an independent, constitutional entity, parallel to the judiciary on which the legislature has no control. No, we cannot accept it.”

In 1979, when the Janata government introduced the Prasar Bharti Bill in Parliament, it was minus the constitutional safeguards recommended by the Verghese committee. Then, as the government itself fell and the Lok Sabha was dissolved, the Bill died with it.

Master’s stroke: Recommendations that Prasar Bharati be answerable to Parliament were swept aside when the broadcasting body was finally set up in 1997   -  VV KRISHNAN

 

No wonder, then, that DD news has always been a snooze fest. The significant difference then was that the official broadcaster was not running sustained slander campaigns against Opposition parties and critics of the government; it just ignored them completely. Sins of omission in plenty. Sins of commission, not quite, although there were occasional rumours of DD News sending camera teams out to take shots of bustling marketplaces a day ahead of a bandh call by the Opposition and using those clips to prove that the bandh had failed. DD news heads strenuously denied this but the insinuations persisted.

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DD News’s chequered history contains a few phases where the State monopoly network flirted with freedom. In particular, the advent of Rajiv Gandhi, and later the short-lived experiment with a non-Congress National Front (NF) coalition government, brought in some big names and gave DD and AIR the shield to operate independently, until the government saw the prospect of a powerful propaganda tool escaping from its clutches and quickly moved in to slam the door on glasnost. A director general of DD News was summarily shifted to the directorate of advertising and visual publicity (DAVP). Another was sent packing to the labour ministry.

The story of two key influencers during the five-year Congress regime under Rajiv Gandhi (1984-89) epitomises the predicament of DD news. The first was Bhaskar Ghose, a career bureaucrat, who was brought in from West Bengal to head the national television network in the early days of Rajiv Gandhi’s ascension as prime minister. Ghose set about professionalising DD News, putting in motion a process to hire 50-odd journalists to report for the national television network. Until then DD and AIR correspondents were largely gazetted officers belonging to the Central Information Service, and later the Indian Information Service.

Hear, hear: Ministers complained to then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi about the anti-Congress tenor of DD news   -  FRONTLINE/ D KRISHNAN

 

Ghose promised this new breed of TV correspondents immunity from government interference. Many capable journalists, drawn by the prospect of a genuine career in television reporting, were recruited.

The arrival of this new breed of news hounds, and some other structural changes that Ghose put in place, started changing the tone and tenor of DD news. You even started seeing unfamiliar faces on DD news — among them Vishwanath Pratap Singh, Chandra Shekhar, Advani and Jyoti Basu.

For those familiar with the way the national television network has been used by successive governments as an instrument of propaganda, it would not be hard to divine that it wasn’t long for this experiment with openness and professionalism to come to a grinding halt. Several ministers complained bitterly to the then prime minister about the anti-Congress tenor of DD news.

Ghose himself talked about how he was unceremoniously dismissed as DD boss and posted in the culture ministry.

Writing in his memoirs Doordarshan Days, published by Penguin Books in 2005, Ghose says he was told by Gopi Arora (then I&B secretary and a close aide of Rajiv Gandhi) that he was being removed as the DD chief. “They’re sending you to the department of culture as additional secretary,” Arora said. “There’s not enough work for a secretary but they’ve created a post for you there.”

Ghose was then told that Sarla Grewal, principal secretary to the prime minister, wanted to see him. He writes in his book: “I drove almost mechanically to her house, parked the car and went inside. ‘You see, beta,’ Grewal told me anxiously, ‘the PM is very keen to have a really good officer in culture. He feels it’s being neglected badly, and he wants you to revive it.’ ”

Rajiv Gandhi’s interest in improving things at DD was perhaps genuine, but some believe his hand was forced by party MPs. Dharker recalls being invited for a breakfast meeting with him, along with a few others, to discuss Doordarshan.

“Rajiv listened earnestly and patiently to the slew of suggestions we made, while Mani Shankar Aiyar took copious notes,” he tells BLink.

The next whiff of glasnost visited DD in 1989, when Karan Thapar, who was then with the London-based ITV, was persuaded by his friend Suman Dubey, additional secretary in I&B ministry and close to Rajiv Gandhi, to come to India and set things right with DD News. It worked for a few months and then with the announcing of elections and the eventual defeat of the Congress at the hustings, Thapar resigned his position. The dalliance with freedom was again short-lived.

The incoming National Front government had made autonomy to the official media a poll plank, and while it made attempts to bring in Prasar Bharti by setting up sundry committees to make suggestions, the ‘autonomous’ entity remained long in the throes of birth while the government showed no signs of relaxing its stranglehold on the airwaves.

Just as an example from the early 1990s: DD was told not to show images of the violent stir in the Soviet Azerbaijan, because Moscow Television wasn’t showing scenes of violence in Kashmir. “We should reciprocate,” was the ministry’s advice.

The BBC has always been held up as a model for the ‘autonomous’ Prasar Bharati to keep it free from political interference, and make it answerable to parliament, rather than the I&B ministry. But all these recommendations were swept aside and when Prasar Bharati was finally set up in 1997 it was, as former chairperson Mrinal Pande later described it, “a malnourished creature with a severe bipolar disorder”.

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While the government’s missteps continued, post-liberalisation India saw the entry of private news channels such as NDTV, which presented objective news in an attractive format, putting DD News firmly in the shade. Of course, then, as more private channels mushroomed and chased TRPs, news got shriller, some turning into propaganda machines, which, as Dharker observes, “carry news that is often communal and hypernationalistic, and the anchors act as judge and jury, pronouncing judgements in serious cases of frauds, scams or murder”.

Needless to add, the government is exempt from this nightly scrutiny. Crises are fabricated and stage-managed and the charade is meant to mislead the audience and sustain the illusion that the government is in control. The gross mismanagement of the Covid-19 lockdown, which led to lakhs of migrant workers stranded and defenceless, went unexamined. Instead, television channels conducted daily inquiry into the death by suicide of a Hindi film actor.

This loathing caused by news peddled by private news channels, and the damning spectacle of scowling, shrieking news anchors, does make one long for the sobriety of the old world DD newsreaders. But, extraordinarily, it is also responsible for some wanting to bring back the hegemony of DD, when, as one Twitter warrior put it, “news was news, not jaundiced opinion”.

Jaundiced opinion it may not have been, but news it certainly wasn’t. It still isn’t.

Sanjeev Verma is a writer and broadcaster based in New Delhi

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Published on December 23, 2020
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