Rural viewers glued to the set: A Gandhi monopolyRule India, rule the air waves. Or so it seemed, judging from the new, all-out propaganda blitz launched by the government-controlled All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan since June, projecting Mrs Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi with a relentless regularity to the electronic,Rural viewers glued to the set: A Gandhi monopolyRule India, rule the air waves. Or so it seemed, judging from the new, all-out propaganda blitz launched by the government-controlled All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan since June, projecting Mrs Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi with a relentless regularity to the electronic media’s 11 crore audience.Compared to the magnitude of the present high-voltage media massage, even “All Indira Radio”, the wry sobriquet of the ’70s, sounded like a polite understatement. Especially hit were the news bulletins, where all professional norms of news selection were cast aside to make room for a brazen personality cult.All conceivable, and inconceivable, ruses were employed to put Rajiv Gandhi’s name on the headlines of nationally transmitted news, though he is just one of the five general secretaries of the party ruling at the Centre.Examples of AIR and Doordarshan favouritism:in June-July this year, of the 930 minutes of air time given to the AIR’s national news broadcasts, more than 200 minutes went to report what Mrs Gandhi had done or said; Rajiv was mentioned nine times in July in the AIR national English broadcasts and four times in the first ten days of August: no other political leader in the country, who is not a member of the Government, has been mentioned as frequently as Rajiv; Doordarshan is now making it a point to “cut in” Rajiv’s still photograph, or to show him on film or video tape recorder (VTR) whenever he is mentioned in news: this rule is not strictly followed even with regard to Mrs Gandhi; since June, each function of Rajiv, ranging from the inauguration of a wrestling contest to a seminar on packaging of fruits, has been covered by AIR and Doordarshan; and AIR’s scheduled late evening programmes have been knocked off with sickening regularity to accommodate unedited broadcasts of Mrs Gandhi’s speeches during the day if she happened to deliver them outside New Delhi.The non-Congress(I) states have never felt as humiliated and wronged by the broadcast media as now. Farooq Abdullah, the chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir, threatened, last fortnight, to set up a state-owned “Kashmir Radio”.advertisementRajiv inaugurating a sports museum in Delhi: Media blitzJyoti Basu, the Marxist chief minister of West Bengal, publicly remonstrated against the “misuse of official media”. N.T. Rama Rao, the Telugu Desam chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, who was denied the use of AIR broadcasting facility during the recent strike of the non-gazetted staff, was so put off that he refused it when it was offered to him again.Recently, 50 non-Congress(I) MPs gave a memorandum to the speaker of the Lok Sabha alleging that AIR had been even using patently sub judice matters to blacken the opposition parties. And, during the current session of Parliament, it is H.K.L. Bhagat, the minister of state in charge of Information & Broadcasting (I&B), who had to face most of the flak for allowing the official broadcast media to approximate an Indian version of 1984.Frequency: Impervious to these charges, AIR, whose news division is manned by officers of the Central Information Service (CIS), and which is the main source of news for Doordarshan too, only stepped up what an opposition MP deridingly described as the “Gandhi content” of its news bulletins. In the month of June alone, AIR led 18 out of 31 of its 9 p.m. national English news bulletins-relayed from all its 86 centres – with Mrs Gandhi; in June 1982, the corresponding figure was half that figure. In July this year, she made the lead news 17 times; in July last year, the evening bulletins began with her on only eight occasions. From July 1 till August 1, broadcasts of her recorded speeches, relayed from all AIR stations barring those located in the far-flung areas which signal off at around 9.30 p.m., filled nearly 200 minutes of air time even though the speeches were hardly of an earth-shaking nature.On July 29, for instance, the scheduled 9.45 p.m. western music programme on the Delhi station of AIR was cancelled to accommodate Mrs Gandhi’s speech at Gangtok in Sikkim, delivered to the jawans. The next day, of went the Hindi programme, Our Guest, to make room for another round of the prime minister’s speeches at Gangtok, without a pause being deleted.On August , it was again the turn of the 10.30 p.m. western classical music programme to be sacrificed for the broadcast of a 30-minute ceremonial speech by Mrs Gandhi at Allahabad, where she inaugurated a new television station.advertisementFrequently, the choice of the lead, or the first item in the 8.45 p.m. (Hindi) or the 9 p.m. (English) news bulletins, relayed from all the 86 stations of AIR, bore no relevance to the significant news events of the day. On July 22, the bulletin began with the prime minister “dedicating” (sic) to the nation the Rs 245-crore Kalpakkam atomic power project near Madras “tomorrow”.Bhagat: Following the policyThus, even an advance information of the prime minister’s Madras visit was found to be worthy of treatment as the lead on the national network. However, it was hardly an uneventful day: the Supreme Court, on that day, had refused a general stay on hanging; Nihangs had on that day clashed with the police in Punjab; the striking non-gazetted employees of Andhra Pradesh had announced their readiness to talk to the state Government unconditionally; and many top bureaucrats of the Union Government were moved up, down and sideways on that day.An endless variety of ruses seem employed to put Rajiv on the screen. Each banal statement made by him was promptly picked up by the radio and TV networks. He said in Lucknow that game hunting should be stopped, and it made news for the AIR regardless of the fact that there is already a ban on game hunting in the country.Similarly, the Doordarshan camera crew followed him to Bhopal where he addressed the local Sikhs and mouthed platitudes; but everything that he uttered was found worthy of mention in the national bulletins. Even his inauguration of a sports museum in Delhi last fortnight was judged as big news: it came right after the lead headlines on Sri Lanka, and was accompanied by VTR shots.Broadcast Policy: The tenor and content of AIR and Doordarshan were increasingly in brazen contradiction to the “news policy of broadcast media” outlined by the Media Advisory Committee, which had been set up by the Centre in 1980. The committee drafted the news policy last year. It stated, in a rather sanctimonious tone, many of the AIR’s laudable aims, such as:”ministerial statements on policy matters, particularly those of the prime minister, are important in as much as they enable the people to understand national policies… the focus should be on information rather than on individuals”; “in reporting on political controversies the broadcast media should be guided by objectivity and fair play”;”political activities should be noticed strictly on the basis of newsworthiness”;”if a political statement has news value, it deserves to be reported: it will have news value only if it contains a point of policy”.While talking to INDIA TODAY, Bhagat repeatedly asserted that the “news policy” was being steadfastly adhered to. He admitted the bias in the AIR and Doordarshan news broadcasts in favour of Mrs Gandhi. “But Mrs Gandhi is quoted so often not because she is the president of a political party but because she is the prime minister.”As a matter of fact, the Media Advisory Committee had examined the point in its recommendation; it said: “Press conferences, addresses and speeches by the prime minister have news value only in as much as they are government policy statements or indicative of new emphases on national issues.”advertisementIn reality, AIR seldom drew a line of distinction between the two identities of Mrs Gandhi as the prime minister and as the Congress(I) president. Thus, on the eve of the current session of Parliament, AIR (and Doordarshan) led the bulletin of July 15 with Mrs Gandhi lashing out at the Opposition at what happened to be a closed door session of the Congress(I) workers in Bangalore.Ostensibly, it was for the benefit of her supporters in Karnataka who had their morale mauled after the party’s electoral defeat in January. Again, on July 21, she visited Garhwal, the constituency of H.N. Bahuguna, where too she mounted a trenchant attack on the Opposition: AIR and Doordarshan faithfully led their bulletins with her lengthy perorations.Fumed Bahuguna: “If I go to Medak (Mrs Gandhi’s constituency) and say that Mrs Gandhi is responsible for delaying a solution to the Punjab crisis, will AIR as much as mention it? Conversely, if Hegde (the Karnataka chief minister) came to Delhi and blamed the Congress(I) in a closed door session of his Janata Party, would Doordarshan have covered it?”Bhagat, however, employed all the sophistry at his command to prove that the opposition leaders too found a mention in the broadcast media. The showpiece example is obviously Chandra Shekhar’s padayatra which was mentioned and shown twice on the national hook-up and seven times in the regional bulletins of the Bombay and Madras centres of AIR and Doordarshan.But then the padayatra was totally divested of its political undertone and was reported, as a Doordarshan official himself admitted, “like a sports event”.AIR reports on opposition leaders can in fact serve as models for news management by governments. Thus, on July 30: “The Congress(I) President, Jagjivan Ram, has expressed concern over the incident in Sri Lanka.In a statement in New Delhi today, he said he was sure that all political parties and the people of India will be solidly with the prime minister in any action the Government takes to protect the Tamilians in that country.” To be sure, all the nine lines given to Ram on that day were put down to the column in a log-book under the heading: “Air time allotted to opposition.”The I&B Ministry often juggled figures to prove that it was indeed more fair-minded than what the Opposition thought of it. Recently, when the Marxist MP’s raised questions about the one-sided coverage of the panchayat elections in West Bengal in May, the Government defended itself with seemingly impeccable statistics.It replied that AIR Calcutta “had included, in all, 56 items consisting of 582 lines in respect of speeches on panchayat elections of the chief minister of West Bengal and Left Front leaders…. correspondingly, 73 items consisting of 733 lines on the speeches of ministers and leaders of the Congress(I) had been included”.Angrily retorted Dipen Ghosh, a Marxist MP: “Which is greater, 56 or 73? 582 or 733? And the whole thing is a jugglery of arithmetic. The 582 lines are mostly official announcements, while the 733 lines are nearly all vituperative attacks on the Left Front.”Blocking News: On one hand, the developments on the non-Congress(I) front were being systematically blocked out of the news bulletins. On the other hand, Mrs Gandhi’s utterances and actions were being reported not “in as much as” they made news but far in excess of it.This was often being done at the expense of hard news. A prime example is the treatment of the news of G.D. Birla’s death on June 11. It was given 13 lines towards the tail-end of the AIR English bulletin at 9 p.m., and even this included three lines of a condolence message from the President of India and another two lines of the message of P.C. Sethi, the home minister. However, the bulletin began with a lengthy report on Mrs Gandhi’s talks with Finnish leaders and her two-hour cruise on an ice-breaker around the Helsinki archipelago.The official media are often so overzealous in playing up Mrs Gandhi that very often the ethics of covering election speeches get a go-by and her campaign oratory gets reverential treatment, as though she were expected to make policy pronouncements in her campaigns.On June 1, AIR led its national evening bulletins with Mrs Gandhi’s speech in Jammu that “India will retaliate with strength if anyone attacks the country” The point is, it was neither a policy statement nor the announcement of some new measure to strengthen the Indian defence. And, it was only expected of a government to “retaliate with strength” if it were attacked from outside.As a matter of fact, it was an election speech by Mrs Gandhi, the Jammu & Kashmir polls having taken place on June 5, delivered before the ex-servicemen-dominated audiences in the Jammu region. The bulletin, however, neither identified it as Mrs Gandhi’s election speech nor balanced it with even a passing mention of the many rallies addressed by the non-Congress(I) leaders in Jammu & Kashmir on that day.Bhagat dismissed out of hand the charge that the Union Government was misusing the broadcast media. “The media is totally free now.” he said, adding pontifically that “it was greatly misused by the Janata government when the AIR reported in great details the proceedings of the Shah Commission even though there was no’ charge-sheet formally lodged against Mrs Gandhi.”But AIR, under the Congress(I) management, pulled out all its stops in reporting legally unsubstantiated charges against elected non-Congress(I) governments. In its broadcasts between July 1 and July 10. virtually every leader of the Congress(I), including Arun Nehru and Rajiv, were extensively quoted alleging massive rigging in the Jammu & Kashmir elections.At one stage, the Srinagar centre of Doordarshan reportedly refused to carry in its regional bulletins everything that the Congress(I) leaders had to say about the ‘rigging’. Albel Singh Garewal, director of the centre, soon paid the price for it. Last fortnight, he was transferred by a telephonic order and was asked to hand over charge within 24 hours. The centre is now without a director.L.K. Advani, general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and former I&B minister, said bitterly: “The downgrading of the I&B portfolio after the removal of Vasant Sathe was the first step ensuring that the official media policy was directed straight from 1 Safdarjuna Road. This is precisely what happened during the Emergency. I hold that radio and TV have become one of the major irritants in the Centre-state relations too.”Faux Pas: Advani was hinting at the recent imbroglio over N.T. Rama Rao’s speech (INDIA TODAY, August 15). After refusing Rama Rao the right to use AIR for addressing the striking non-gazetted officers, AIR officials spent two days shifting responsibility for the faux pas.Finally it was revealed that S.S. Verma, the director-general of AIR, had himself ordered the Hyderabad centre not to let the chief minister use its broadcasting facility. The ensuring parliamentary debate also revealed two important facts: Arjun Singh, the Congress(I) chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, used AIR broadcasting facility most frequently-eight times in the first seven months of 1983; and Nripen Chakravarty, the Marxist chief minister of Tripura, used it the least-never.If, according to Advani, the removal, of Sathe was a landmark in the history of AIR and Doordarshan’s subjugation, the other landmark was the appointment of Verma as AIR’s director-general in February this year.The rule of director-general’s appointment states that he may be selected from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) provided he has 18 years experience “in a supervisory capacity in some educational, cultural or publicity” organisation and has “knowledge of India’s cultural heritage and of different forms of literary, cultural and artistic expressions in the country”.Verma is an IAS officer of the West Bengal cadre who had served in the small industries directorate before being catapulted into the sensitive post of AIR’s chief. On assumption of office, one of the first notes he had circulated among his staff was that public sector undertakings and their achievements should be given more prominence in AIR programmes.Said M.S. Bedi, president of the 1,200-strong AIR programme staff association: “With AIR headed by career bureaucrats, and the news service led by officials of the Central Information Service, who think hand-outs make news, professional broadcasting has nearly ended in this country.” Besides Verma, who has no broadcasting background, there are two other deputy director-generals in AIR recruited from the Indian Police Service (IPS), who look after security and administration.Hardware Expansion: It is on this ramshackle foundation of software that Doordarshan is launching a Rs 68-crore hardware expansion programme, “to be completed by the end of 1984”. thus shrewdly synchronising it with the 1985 elections. Of this, Rs 28 crore came from the non-lapsable funds of the AIR, earned largely from its advertisement revenue.The entire pian was formulated, and even orders were placed for transmission towers, in a record time of five months. At its completion, 70 per cent of the country will be brought under television transmission as against 25 per cent now. Bhagat said reverentially: “It is Mrs Gandhi who. as I&B minister, introduced regular television to this country. It is again under her that most of the country will be covered by television.”The question is, what will Doordarshan show? As Iqbal Malik, columnist in the Indian Express and a keen watcher of the broadcast media, pointed out: “The majority of the transmitters will be low-power, thus allowing for district-level programming. But the Centre has no plans for generating programmes at that level. It will therefore merrily go on imposing on the states, and districts, canned stuff imported from abroad, interspersed with publicity of the ruling party.”Even the chairman of the Government’s own committee on broadcasting software. P.C. Joshi, expressed virtually the same fear when he wrote in Mainstream (July 9, 1983): “India seems to have entered the era of modern communication technology without a full awareness of its far-reaching implications for Indian society.”So, chances are that a new generation of television watchers at Ranchi, or Jabalpur, or Vijayawada, will be exposed to hours and hours of Here’s Lucy (Columbia Broadcasting System 1951 programme), Star Trek (1969) or Transtel’s Telematch.If they cannot fully perceive the Anglo-Saxon humour of Yes Minister (BBC-1979), they can still be regaled by miles of “entertainment” from the Bombay film industry, including third-rate soap operas whose producers don’t mind putting their stuff out on TV because there is no return value left. And, like a sliver of meat wedged between two pieces of sandwich bread, there will be unabashed publicity for the ruling party and its leaders. The choice is between pulp and propaganda.