This state of affairs of the I&B Ministry explains why the government has been failing on the propaganda front
Directors in Doordarshan known to be close to different ministers of the Congress-led UPA dispensation and the most visible of the 2009 batch of anchor-correspondents still decide the content of the national broadcaster, sources in the I&B Ministry and the government-run news channel have revealed to me.
The sources said that Raj Kumar, Director–New Media (“New Media” is the department that handles DD News’ Twitter handle and Facebook page) and Special Programme, was once close to NCP chief Sharad Pawar; Mamta Verma, Director–Assignment, was a favourite of Kapil Sibal and Director–Administration, Human Resource and Regional News Unit, K Satish Namboodiripad’s proximity to KV Thomas is well known.
Sibal is a former Telecommunication, Education and Law Minister who represented the Chandni Chowk constituency of Delhi in two consecutive terms of the UPA government. Thomas was the Minister of State in the Ministry of Agriculture and Minister of State in the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, in the second UPA government. He represents the Ernakulam Constituency in the 16th Lok Sabha.
Right after its victory in the 2009 general election, the Congress planted its defenders from the journalistic fraternity in Doordarshan as anchor-correspondents (AC). Staff members of the channel alleged the following:
- Ashwini Mishra (AC) is related to KL Sharma, who is parliamentary representative of Congress president and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s constituency Rae Bareli;
- Jaya Sinha (AC Grade 1) was recommended by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s personal secretary;
- Former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijaya Singh had brought in Mamta Chopra (AC Grade 1), whose husband happens to be the present Congress general secretary’s astrologer;
- Priyanka Aggarwal (AC Grade 2) is the wife of former Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma’s nephew. Under UPA-I, Sharma had been given the I&B portfolio additionally when incumbent Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi fell seriously ill.
Among recruits of the same designation in other batches, Deputy Editorial Consultant Gautam Rai (salary Rs 1,70,000 pm) and Senior Anchor Mummun Bhattacharya (salary Rs 1,15,000 pm) were recommended by former UPA I&B Minister Manish Tiwary. And Bengaluru Correspondent Ayesha Khanam was brought in by former Director General of Doordarshan SM Khan, the sources said. While a DG has the right to recruit someone, according to a rule of Prasar Bharati, any recruit drawing a salary of above Rs 50,000 per month needs sanction of the autonomous body’s chairman. Khan sought no such permission even though Khanam draws a salary of Rs 1,40,000 per month.
The minimum salary per month for AC Grade 1 is Rs 65,000 and that for AC Grade 2 is Rs 45,000. Congress appointees Chopra and Sinha get Rs 87,000 per month each as salary. Aggarwal gets Rs 60,000 per month. Mishra’s salary is much less than the cut-off amount; he is a Congress appointee nevertheless.
Khan’s tenure also saw quite a few news presenters qualified to read Urdu bulletins moved to the Hindi section. Prasar Bharati rules do not allow a presenter to read bulletins in a language for which he/she has not passed the duly held tests (audition and interview).
These recruitments happened around the time when 150 odd consultants affiliated to the Congress or other UPA constituents were appointed by the national broadcaster.
Further, while some anchor-correspondents have finished their respective tenures, they continue to be in service, thanks to their bosses’ generosity. Contracts of Chopra, Sinha, Aggarwal and Mishra ended in February 2014, but they are still on duty!
But no one brazened it out as much as News Editor (Assignment) Prakash Pant. He allegedly participated in the campaign of the Aam Aadmi Party in between his duty hours at Doordarshan. When a staffer photographed him with the AAP cap on inside the DD-News studio, and the matter was sent to Information & Broadcasting Minister Arun Jaitley’s notice, the Congress-appointed officers fudged the attendance records promptly to show Pant was on leave! This information was shared with me by a DD News crew member, and substantiated by another.
The recruitments above are odd not only because of political interference in information dissemination. Some of the appointments also reek of corruption. Candidates Atul Keshav Pateriya and Harikesh Bahadur Singh Gautam alleged to the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) — original application numbers 1473/2009 and 1674/2009 respectively — that the Congress recruits scored less than 10 out of 50 each in the written examination; the score was compensated by giving them almost 50 out of 50 in the interviews, and thus raising the aggregate. As the CAT sought to declare the appointments void, the defendants approached the Delhi High Court and got a stay on their removal from service.
A study of the conclusion by the court would make it clear that the defendants — including the Government of India, then of the UPA — could secure the stay order due to (a) CAT’s inability to establish its jurisdiction over the matter, and (b) technical shortcomings of the tribunal’s proceedings. The High Court in no way rubbished the complaint.
In the meantime, 2003-batch anchor-correspondents Amrit Pal Singh and Anil Thomas, along with reporter Anil Punia, were ordered to leave. They somehow managed to stay their termination order by approaching CAT. The management was so insensitive that it instructed Singh to interview and humour Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera for a whole day and, on his return, handed him his termination letter.
Such high-handedness was evident under Anand Sharma and relatively less conspicuous under Ambika Soni, who was the I&B Minister in the duration 22 May 2009 – 27 October 2012, a DD staffer said. “But as the current government is not putting its foot down, the Congress appointees have turned more daring. I feel Anand Sharma’s era has returned,” he said.
|Their recruits still hold sway in DD News|
“Because Jaitley considers the Finance Ministry more important, and also perhaps thinks Doordarshan is beyond repair, and his deputy Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore has got no sense of the wrongs in this department, all these Congress recruits get away with murder,” a compatriot of the television presenters mentioned above said.
“Things were better for the present government when Prakash Javadekar was the (I&B) minister; his OSD was a friendly journalist,” a right-wing scribe said, adding, “But he always knew he was an ad hoc arrangement who would have to relinquish the portfolio in the first Cabinet reshuffle. Besides, his passion lay in the Ministry of Environment & Forests.”
Around the time the ministry moved from Javadekar to Jaitley, Akshay Rout joined as Director General – News and Current Affairs. Several DD staffers and supporters of the BJP who have appeared on DD’s panel as experts for debates on various subjects believe Rout is pro-Congress. Either under his standing instruction or due to the anchor-correspondents mentioned above, or both, panellists invited for debates largely remain what they used to be under the UPA.
Actually, television studios work on familiarity. If the guest coordinator has your mobile number, you are likely to be invited for talk shows again and again. However, since Doordarshan is decidedly pro-government, it is strange that the I&B Ministry is not intervening to change the panels.
Is bureaucratic sluggishness to blame? Jaitley’s OSD is Rajeev Ranjan Singh and Rathore’s is OP Singh. Unlike Javadekar’s officer on special duty, both these officers are from the Indian Information Service (IIS) — as was SM Khan — a typical bureaucratic body that either has little sense of the politics involved in journalism, or are influenced by the Congress’s power brokers in babudom.
And the I&B Ministry has several other IIS officers determining the course. An obvious example of this management’s incompetence is their failure to incorporate the beat system. A reporter is sent to any ministry, department or party office any day and then moved to another the next day. This makes it difficult for him/her to be familiar with a given beat, as a result of which his/her stories often miss the character or soul of the subject concerned.
|Why are they not replacing Congress's appointees from DD and why are their OSDs IIS officers with no sense of journalism?|
Another said that the Saradha chit fund scam would have been a big stick to beat rival Trinamool Congress with, but DD is yet to cover the scandal.
A journalist staffer of the channel lamented that even private channel Zee News handled the prime minister’s address to farmers via his radio programme Mann Ki Baat better. “We merely relayed the speech from All India Radio; Zee made groups of farmers hear it out and then react to it.”
“Such lousy programming has taken DD’s lack of professionalism to absurd levels,” the journalist said, adding with frustration, “Patrakarita babuon ke bas ki baat nahin hai (Bureaucrats are not competent to handle journalistic jobs).”
Why Modi’s old tactic won’t work
Is the media industry as a whole hostile to the BJP? Not quite. The prime minister must share a part of the blame. He has closed the doors even to friendly journalists, barring perhaps India TV head Rajat Sharma who was recently awarded with a Padma Bhushan, which made many other right wing journalists writhe in envy.
Two right wing journalists said to me that felicitating an “acolyte” Sharma with a high-ranking Padma award did not go down well with the section of the media that is favourably disposed towards the BJP — as much as it became a point for leftist journalists to deride the government. “But,” one of them explained the problem, “We hesitate to recommend alternatives to the government, lest we should be seen as lobbyists.”
In that case, Modi should have some other antidote to deal with inimical journalists. While launching a biography of Modi in August 2014, Jaitley had said the prime minister had developed a unique way of communicating his message to the people. Given the hostility of journalists towards him since the 2002 Gujarat riots, it was natural of him to treat the media with contempt. Jaitley was alluding to the support in social media and campaigns by management professionals who are not members of the BJP, which worked wonders during the Lok Sabha campaign. They not only trolled the seasoned journalists but also successfully established often that the veterans were lying.
This mechanism has its fair share of shortcomings. First, non-journalists have no first-hand information about the government. They can at best react to media commentary (second- or third-hand information). This means, it is journalists who are setting the agenda and the government’s apologists are forever on the defensive.
Second, a social media operator even with a huge following is no match for the mainstream media whose reach is much wider. Two major factors influencing the lag are poor reach of the Internet and pro-English bias of the medium. One may note that hostility towards the BJP exists in regional mainstream media as well, which Internet champions cannot counter. There is no Twitter handle or Facebook page of a pro-Modi, regional language user that has lakhs of followers.
Third, TV has an instant appeal and impact, and it is illiteracy-proof. Reading social media commentary demands a certain level of education, interest and taste, making the population that can be targeted by it much smaller than what television can target.
High-profile journalists who have turned into hate figures for the right wing must be enjoying this advantage and exploiting it to the hilt. On Sunday, senior journalist and commentator — also an editorial adviser of Swarajya — Swapan Dasgupta rightly reacted to the India Today-Cicero “Mood of the Nation” opinion poll, rubbishing the exercise as hallucination. The botched-up interpretation of the survey on Headlines Today, Aaj Tak and India Today website indeed projects the habitually antagonistic section of the media in poor light.
How does this propaganda work? Grassroot surveyors are not journalists; they are young boys and girls from colleges freelancing for survey agencies. After a few questionnaires are filled under the hot sun, the rest are filled with guesswork or arbitrary permutations under a shade. Such “banyan tree surveys”, as they are dismissively called, can be wilder than speculations by a cub reporter. And when the neophytes do it sincerely, there are instructions from the media house to tilt the results in favour of a group and against its rival.
New Delhi-based Cicero Associates and Consultants Private Limited, registered on 5 November 2012, has a good reason for spin doctoring. The agency has two directors, Sunit Kumar Madhur and Dhananjai Joshi. While Madhur is a secretary in the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee (DPCC), as per information available on the party’s website, Joshi is a property dealer. Madhur contested the municipal elections from Pul Pahlad constituency in 2007.
It is not the first time they did it. In 2013, it said the AAP was winning in Delhi and this ‘survey’ was tom-tommed by the beneficiary party all over the place.
One who argues that all surveys got the trend right in case of the 2015 Delhi elections misses the point that constant bombardment of an idea on the minds of the people will eventually have an effect that the surveyor desired. That this large section of the media is indeed “anti-Modi” could be observed in the surveys for Lok Sabha election of 2014, where no channel gave the NDA, let alone BJP, an absolute majority. Delhi election surveys merely continued betraying the hostility.
In April-May 2014, people fed up with the UPA government overcame the media bias. In February 2015, lack of instant results from Modi’s initiatives and a negative campaign by the BJP that turned the contest bipolar — while making opponent Arvind Kejriwal an object of sympathy — aided the perception the media had been building up for months.
What about critiques of Modi not based on frivolous exercises like opinion polls? This is how it goes: Journalism is a 24x7 job where you must tell a story or more every day. The editor wouldn’t excuse you if you tell him day after day that you could not penetrate a ministry and extract news from it. Television is worse. Reporters panting for breath, rushing from one location to another in search of news, can’t get into the depth of any unfolding story, let alone read an intriguing political personality. In this scenario, if the government shuts its doors on a journalist, he has no option but to speculate. Even the journalist who has neither an axe to grind nor a favour to seek can only guess what is going on. If a seasoned scribe, he speculates plausibly. If a rookie, he goes wild.
There are several media houses that are eager to relay to the people information of positive developments, which are left equally clueless about what has been happening on the governance front. When negative headlines hog our television screens, friendly journalists clench their fists, helpless in penetrating the wall that separates them from government information.
Picking stories from the Press Information Bureau and working further on them does not help either. Consider last Sunday’s headlines on the PIB site and then study what activities of different ministries the publicity department missed.
Ten headlines of the PIB on Sunday, 5 April:
- India to host 5th meeting of SAARC Health Ministers.
- PM advocates “Sashakt” and “Samarth” judiciary to play “divine role” of delivering justice.
- PM gives the Easter greetings to everyone.
- Dr Jitendra Singh addresses overseas space researchers at Bengaluru.
- Text of speech of the President of India at the inaugural ceremony of the mid-term meet 2015 of the National Interventional Council of Cardiological Society of India.
- Significant rise in health expenditure urgently required, says the President.
- President’s greetings on the eve of Easter.
- President of India to present National Geoscience Awards, 2013.
- President of India expresses shock and sadness over terrorist attack on University in Kenya.
- Vice-President greets citizens on Easter.
Ten randomly chosen headlines from private media that are about government ministries and departments on the same date:
- “NDA government in action” is a social media campaign. It could well have been done through the PIB as well.
- The commerce department is working on a five-year plan towards regional integration — a typical PIB-like story the department missed.
- The prime minister on Saturday directed the Health Ministry to increase the size of the pictorial warning on tobacco packs to 65 per cent and not to take into account the views of people with conflict of interest.
- The government had announced construction of two crore houses annually to meet the target, but Modi, who is monitoring the scheme, has instructed the Urban Development and the Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation Ministries to verify if more houses should be built. This happened in February, but the interaction never surfaced on the PIB site; it appeared in The Hindu in March-end.
- The Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas on Saturday urged liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) consumers to give up their LPG subsidy and join the ‘Give It UP’ movement. The ambitious programme announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has seen 290,000 consumers give up their subsidy till now.
- The BJP-led NDA government’s pet project Global Initiative of Academic Networks (GIAN) will be launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Canada’s capital Ottawa on April 16. The programme seeks to invite distinguished academicians, entrepreneurs, scientists, experts from premier institutions from across the world, to teach in the higher educational institutions in India.
- Having opened over 12 crore Jan Dhan bank accounts under its flagship financial inclusion programme, the government is now mulling over ways to step up the utilisation of these accounts, including through POS transactions and the Business Correspondents. A meeting has been called by the Finance Ministry on Tuesday, 7 April, of representatives from public sector banks and the business correspondents (BCs) of the banks, who can help in last-mile implementation of the inclusion efforts.
- Dr Mahesh Sharma, Minister of State with Independent Charge for Culture and Tourism and Minister of State for Civil Aviation, Government of India, said that the nation is keen to take forward its relationship with China and it is in this background that they are keenly exploring the possibility of extending the facility of Tourist Visa on Arrival (TVoA) to China.
- A workshop was organised in Kolkata by the I&B ministry, in collaboration with OneWorld Foundation India, to address various issues related to community radio stations. Jaitley announced in New Delhi last month that the application process for opening a CR station would now go online, a move aimed at simplifying the entire process. The PIB never played it up even as the floodgates of community radio stations opened up.
- Most glaringly, the splendid rescue operations of Indians held up in Yemen, supervised by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and her deputy Gen VK Singh, is not screaming through the headlines of the government’s information outlet.
If Jaitley or a pro-government journalist brushes this off with a refrain that nobody takes the Soviet TASS*-like PIB seriously, no one can argue the proletariat is as disinterested about Doordarshan. Even today, it occupies the mind space of people from the hinterland where cable and DTH are luxuries. For that section of the audience, did the national broadcaster counter the campaign against the Land Acquisition Bill/Ordinance? When the Association for Democratic Reforms revealed that the AAP was as “corrupt” as its competition, did DD play it up?
On being asked if Modi and Jaitley were working at cross-purposes, a right wing journalist said it was an old theory that not many political observers are banking on anymore. However, it is surprising, he said, why the prime minister has entrusted the minister from Rajya Sabha with such important portfolios, sidelining all senior leaders including those with a mass base.
“The result of reliance on Jaitley is for all to see in the form of Delhi election results,” he said, adding, “Bringing Kiran Bedi in as the party’s chief ministerial candidate was essentially his idea.”
The observation that baffles is the fact that the analysis above has been completed in the BJP office, and has reached Modi as well as party president Amit Shah. The conclusion that the government and ruling party’s public contact programmes are going awry is near-unanimous. But there is no sign of their intervention yet.
A section of the RSS-flavoured journalists, however, are looking up to electronic media journalist KG Suresh, who is joining DD as a consultant, with hope. The pro-BJP staff members of the state media house are not sure of the ideology of Vibhakar (brother of Times of India reporter Diwakar), who is another consultant joining shortly.
Sanghis meanwhile are disappointed with A Surya Prakash who, as Chairman of Prasar Bharati — he once headed The Pioneer School of Journalism — is too reserved or aristocratic a person to inspire the journalistic fraternity’s confidence, they say.