Channel war drives DD to shelve bias

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By OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT in Delhi
  • Published 25.01.04
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New Delhi, Jan. 25: Rajiv Gandhi tried to do it. His children are now seeing it — just that it has taken nearly twenty years to happen.

Need proof? Look no further than the brother and sister, Priyanka and Rahul, in the dusty terrain of Amethi, the government’s old faithful following their every move.

Doordarshan, so long dubbed the mouthpiece of the government of the day, is trying to change its image and what better evidence, experts say, could be there than the prominent coverage to the siblings when they visited their mother’s turf recently.

Even two months ago, this kind of coverage of the Nehru-Gandhi family would have been unthinkable.

If Prasar Bharati, which controls Doordarshan, is treating news without bias, it is also hiring professionals and journalists from other private news channels at salaries unthinkable in the government. The pay package offered to Doordarshan journalists now ranges from Rs 30,000 to Rs 1.10 lakh a month.

This has become possible because Doordarshan seems to have realised that unless top-ranking professionals are brought in, it cannot hope to compete in the cut-throat world of 24-hour news channels.

In 1985, Doordarshan had attempted to break free of its bureaucratic shackles during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as Prime Minister. Bhaskar Ghosh, who then headed Doordarshan, had laid down a blueprint for ensuring fair and impartial news coverage.

Ghosh says he was able to make Doordarshan relatively independent as there was a clear mandate from the Prime Minister to stay away from the government.

But his concept of a professional newsroom was only partially followed as it caused a lot of resentment among information services officers. Ghosh says he was shifted from the job when some Congress MPs began complaining. “Some MPs from Calcutta had started dubbing me anti-Congress since Doordarshan was giving time to other parties as well,” he recalls.

The attempt to distance the public broadcaster from the government could not be sustained. Doordarshan soon slipped into coma again and it has taken nearly two decades to come out of it.

Today, Ghosh says, Doordarshan has made a new beginning. “They appear to be behaving in a professional manner by giving adequate time to the Opposition. This could not have been imagined in the past. This change primarily is due to the fact that DD News now has to compete with other TV news channels.”

But he feels the real test would be during the coming elections. “We should wait and see what happens. The coming Lok Sabha elections would really test how professional DD News is,” he says.

Many senior journalists, managing private news channels, agree that DD News has come of age and, like Ghosh, attribute the change to the stiff competition from private channels like Aaj Tak, NDTV, STAR and Zee.

“The government has now realised that the old style of news presentation by unleashing government propaganda on Doordarshan is not going to sell. Now the viewers have an option to switch over to other private channels to get a credible account of events and happenings,” says a news professional from a private channel.

The director of news, Aaj Tak, Uday Shanker, says: “The government would not want to lose Doordarshan as a vehicle of news. So they brought in changes in terms of content and skills to take on the private channels.”

Doordarshan professionals think along the same lines. “If Doordarshan has to survive, it must ensure that people watch it,” says Sanjeev Dutta, additional director-general (news), Doordarshan.

Dutta says the last few years have seen a lot of change but refuses to acknowledge that Doordarshan was a part of the government’s propaganda machinery. According to him, the government could not be ignored because its large role in society ensured that it was also the largest provider of news.

But Dutta says viewers will get even better news content after the revised programme schedule of DD News comes into force from February 3.

Sanjay Pugalia, director news, STAR News, says: “Prasar Bharati should institutionalise news gathering and news dissemination mechanism and isolate it from those factors which could destabilise it.”

Ghosh, however, feels the only way for Doordarshan to handle political pressure would be to become financially viable.