WHEN a prime minister, even one as supremely phlegmatic as Atal Behari Vajpayee, lashes out at the Opposition for trying to make "issues out of non-issues", it's not quite news. For isn't that precisely what all ruling parties say about all Opposition groups? But when he obliquely charges dowdy Doordarshan with indulging in sustained 'negative' reporting about his government, it is time to sit up and wonder whether the BJP-led coalition at the Centre is caught in a time-warp. Does it still expect the national broadcaster, now an autonomous corporation struggling to find its feet in a fiercely competitive media environment, to serve as the ruling establishment's handmaiden?
Doordarshan's top brass, of course, is quick to point out that whenever its newsroom has dared to be independent and unbiased, the government of the day has found reason to be peeved with its performance. "No specific instance of bias has been cited by anybody this time around," says Harish Awasthi, director-general (news), Prasar Bharati. "We are not even sure whether it is the prime minister himself or only the party spokesperson who has a problem with us." If the prime minister is saying that DD's news coverage is prejudiced, then it would be "worrying", admits Awasthi. "But not worrying enough to compel us to change our line, though it would certainly set us thinking."
Last week, at a meeting of BJP leaders, Vajpayee exhorted his partymen to go all out to counter the "disinformation campaign" of the Opposition parties. According to BJP spokesperson Venkaiah Naidu, the prime minister and other party leaders came down rather heavily on DD for allegedly turning a blind eye to the government's achievements and harping on its failures. "That's not true," asserts Awasthi. "We have no anti-this or anti-that editorial policy, no matter which party is in power. The accusation that our reporting's been negative wouldn't stand any kind of scrutiny. We've been consistent in our newscasts. All we try to do is faithfully reflect the concerns of the people and capture all shades of opinion on issues of importance."
The BJP rank and file, not surprisingly, does not agree with Awasthi's self-assessment. Says Ram Kripal, a BJP old-timer and minister of state for parliamentary affairs and labour in Morarji Desai's government in the late '70s: "DD and AIR have lost their credibility. They've been persistently showing the government and its policies in negative light." But credibility, says K. Muthu Kumar, one of the additional directors in charge of DD's newsroom, is a question of personal perspective. "Take the Akali Dal's opposition to the formation of Uttaranchal for example," he explains. "It is news as far as we are concerned, for it's of national importance. But people in certain quarters may argue that we are playing up a trivial issue." DD is only doing its job, says Congress leader Margaret Alva. "There is no reason why the BJP should be complaining. DD is merely reporting the political developments of the day like any other news organisation," she says. But it's not the newscasts alone. The BJP is unhappy with DD's current affairs shows as well.
"DD's panel discussions are dominated by leftist intellectuals or JNU professors who have always been critical of the BJP," Ram Kripal alleges. "The whole country," the veteran BJP leader claims, "was happy with Pokhran and was celebrating spontaneously, but DD's coverage of the nuclear tests was inexplicably sceptical. "
DD officials have a different story to tell. If not of unbridled euphoria, DD's initial response to Pokhran was one of undisguised enthusiasm. During the first few days after the nuclear tests were conducted, it gave considerable play to defence strategists and political experts who supported the government's move. But as the ramifications of the tests sank in, a much wider range of opinion found space in the news bulletins as well as the current affairs programmes devoted to the pros and cons of going nuclear. "We reflected all viewpoints—favourable and not so favourable," says Awasthi.
BUT no matter how fair and balanced it tries to be, DD's newsroom has often discovered that it can please nobody. While Margaret Alva says that people don't expect much anyway from India's national broadcaster as a vehicle of information, D. Raja of the Communist Party of India (CPI) accuses it of unabashedly favouring the BJP. "Contrary to the BJP's assertion, the party gets the maximum coverage. Its leaders hog much more time on the newscasts than anyone else," says the CPI spokesman. "Vajpayee, Advani, Sushma Swaraj, Pramod Mahajan and Murli Manohar Joshi are always on the idiot box, making speeches and attending inauguration ceremonies."
There is a section of DD's newsroom and reporting unit that is of the view that the organisation can never be fully anti-government, even in the Prasar Bharati era. "That is completely alien to our culture," says a DD newsperson. "Moreover, DD's news setup is dominated by people from the Indian Information Service (IIS) who owe allegiance to the information and broadcasting ministry. They are people who cannot be expected to be independent-minded because, theoretically, their boss is I&B minister Sushma Swaraj, not the Prasar Bharati CEO Surrindar Singh Gill." As things stand, all eight additional directors, all the news editors and a majority of the assistant news editors belong to the IIS cadre. So DD, many feel, is still under the shadow of Shastri Bhavan. But for the BJP's get-Gill brigade, the villain of the piece continues to be the high-profile former bureaucrat who is perceived to be calling the shots from his office in Mandi House. But is he?
Yet Awasthi, who himself belongs to the IIS cadre, is confident that DD's newscasts are looking up. "We are no longer an arm of the government. We have ceased to be a publicity department. We want to reestablish ourselves as India's premier news-gathering organisation," he says. Hence the brief to the newsroom is unambiguous: all news items are to be treated strictly on merit, all developments and issues that are of interest to the people are to be dealt with judiciously and without the slightest trace of prejudice. So, whether it is Jayalalitha's constant needling of the Vajpayee government, the Akali Dal's demand to keep Udham Singh Nagar out of the proposed hill state of Uttaranchal, the growing popular resentment at the skyrocketing prices of essential commodities or the launch of the Laloo Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav's secular Loktantrik Morcha, no news story is regarded as too sensitive. Jayalalitha continues to hit the headlines on DD even though her posturings can only leave the ruling coalition squirming in discomfort.
That is the way it's always been for DD, argues Muthu Kumar. "We have generally been free from political interference. We were free virtually all through Narasimha Rao's tenure as prime minister. We were free under P.A. Sangma as well as under Jaipal Reddy. The trouble is that we've had some really bad phases in the past. They will be difficult to live down," he says.
Difficult, yes. Impossible, no. That's what Awasthi firmly believes. But can any ruling party live in harmony with a resurgent, free-thinking, intransigent Doordarshan? Going by the ominous noises BJP leaders are making, one thing is crystal-clear: the relationship will never be short of frosty.