Saturday, August 14, 2004

Amita Malik Sight & Sound
No independence for the media
Amita Malik

August 15 comes once a year and has done so since Independence. And we are now used to hearing the Prime Ministerís speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort. The older generation associates the fort with the INA trials, where a Hindu, a Sikh and a Muslim army officer were defended by leading Indian lawyers in a charge of treason brought against them by the British government. The present generation associates August 15 with speeches by the PM of the day, with a security screen and little school children standing, sometimes in the rain, to cheer the speech, sing a song and shout Jai Hind three times after the PM.

One sees diplomats, bureaucrats and politicians, including former PMs sitting through the PMís speech which seems to stretch on and on. This year, it seems, our mercifully under-stated PM has asked those supplying him with points for his speech to only list achievements attainable in the coming year.

But for the viewer sitting comfortably at home, there are compensations. Doordarshanís camerapersons usually do a fine job of long shots of historic old Delhi, of Chandni Chowk, Jama Masjid, the places of worship of different religions. Usually DDís and AIRís more experienced commentators do their annual stuff. While the commentators in English stick to whatís actually happening, the commentators in Hindi dole out rehearsed accounts of the struggle for freedom and Indiaís great culture and civilisation while the cameras are showing the PM in full flow, the children below, the rain-soaked bureaucrats and diplomats and the more photogenic old Delhi in the distance. This is DD coverage, it cannot get more exciting than that and we accept it with patience and resignation.

And it brings back the nagging question: how far will Prasar Bharati progress towards that magic word, autonomy? There has been a feeble attempt here and there to control independent channels by threatening censorship and forcing cable operators to show DDís channels on prime bands when viewers are not particularly interested in them. And, DDís viewer statistics are also derived from its captive terrestrial viewership. But DD at least persists with its cultural programmes of music and dance, poetry sammelans, programmes for rural areas and a sports channel which shows past events, some not of direct interest to India. It is always waiting to grab the biggest share of the most popular sports events, but even with its official clout (it is supposed to be outside government control in theory), it has so far been beaten by private sports channels.

What, then, are this columnís favourite programmes that could be remembered on August 15? While Shekhar Guptaís Walk the Talk has been on, we have had some very articulate, different and interesting people in cleverly chosen locations. The present economics-savvy PM Manmohan Singh at the Delhi School of Economics, Amartya Sen at Santiniketan, and so it goes on. Recently, I have found Gupta speaking a little more softly than his interviewees and some of his questions get a little lost. But he certainly allows his interviewees right of way, and does his research, very important for a generalist interviewer (David Frost is said to have 200 researchers and Tim Sebastian about the same.)

In the field of entertainment, I have tremendously enjoyed Jeena Isi Ka Naam Hai on Zee, more so since the return of the stylish but relaxed Farooque Sheikh. I lap up the rare appearances of Jaspal Bhatti in the field of social satire, as he is now lost to the Punjabi channels (I am one of those ignoramuses who are not well versed with that earthy language) and to programmes produced by others. But there has been ample compensation in that other inimitable programme of political satire ó Gustakhi Maaf in Hindi and Double Take in English on NDTV ó of international standards of the type I have seen on English, French and American TV. May it live long.

It has been a year of disasters, sometimes covered with lack of discretion when it came to intruding into the lives of the families of victims. And Indian TVís biggest flaw remains independent coverage of international affairs by its so-called national channel, still dominated by stories from western sources, notably Iraq, Palestine and South Asia. Saeed Naqvi did it for years without adequate publicity or prime time release. Time DD woke up.