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Question time for STAR

New Delhi, July 26: The information and broadcasting ministry’s volley of questions to STAR TV on its news channel is putting daylight between the Murdoch media conglomerate and a government that was alleged to have favoured it to start with. But it has taken a host of media policy issues into a twilight zone.

The government last night fired another volley of questions to STAR — this time on editorial control — and an official claimed the issue of granting a long-term licence to the news channel for uplinking is “open ended”. Industry sources do not seriously believe that there will be steps to hit the channel too hard.

The question-and-answer exchanges between the ministry and STAR now make up a voluminous 600-plus pages. The last letter questions STAR’s right to appoint and make changes in the editorial personnel manning its shell company that is seeking the uplinking licence, Media Content and Communication Services (MCCS).

The ministry is also understood to have sent a set of questions to Prannoy Roy’s New Delhi Television (NDTV). Earlier this month, it was announced that Standard Chartered Bank is investing $11 million in NDTV, taking the total foreign holding in the outfit to marginally less than the cap of 26 per cent.

The sources acknowledged that the issues raised by the question of granting a long-term licence had widened the ambit of discussions on media policy. Privately, few bureaucrats believe that MCCS will be effectively denied uplinking facility that allows live transmission of news footage. It will probably take another month, for STAR News to be given a long-term (possibly 10 year) licence.

The successive grilling of STAR has achieved something for Prasad that he will be comfortable with. Even in the last session of Parliament there were insinuations from the Opposition that he was too close to STAR and there was a conflict of interest because in his job as I&B minister he was the media policy maker.

Some of the Opposition charges like every television company bringing in foreign investment needs to be investigated are uninformed. When the policy on uplinking was announced, it was known that FDI has been capped at 26 per cent.

Yet, it is STAR’s application that prompts a rejig of government policy.

That is the “Murdoch” touch and India cannot be exceptional in his global media empire. In the US, the Federal Communications Commission — the regulatory body for broadcast and telecommunications — enabled Murdoch’s business to run unhindered by inserting a special provision in the rules. Such an influence on government policy on media has been felt in the UK, too, and also in China.

In exchange, Murdoch’s media firms have worked closely with governments, often aggressively reflecting the official standpoint on controversial issues, be it Fox News during the Iraq war in the US or The Times of London in Tony Blair’s battle with the BBC.

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