: media – doordarshan : It’s Lockjaw Time Again : The UPA’s attempt at bringing spunk to Doordarshan’s news channel goes kaput : In hindsight, perhaps it all started with the news of a hanging, that of Afzal Guru, convicted for the 2001 attack on Parliament, on the morning of February 9. All day, it was ‘breaking news’ on TV news channels, including the recently revamped DD News, with new sets and spiffy anchors brought in from rival, private channels to enable the Congress-led UPA to showcase its best face in the run-up to Elections 2014. Coverage of Afzal’s hanging was, in a way, a test of its motto: ‘Television news and analysis with a refreshing perspective: sharp, sensitive, substantive.’
Two months later, Guru’s noose has probably claimed its first victim in the newsroom at Mandi House: Ajai Shukla, one of the hosts of News Night, a two-hour bilingual prime time show, has resigned. The buzz is that the treatment of the Guru hanging in a panel discussion that evening may have been the trigger for a series of incidents that led to the exit, and in a matter of just two months, brought to nought DD News’ much-vaunted attempt at refurbishing its image as more than just a government mouthpiece.
Little is known of what exactly went wrong for Shukla. At least, no one is willing to go on record to say so. And with Doordarshan, where high-flying parachuters from other channels—which Shukla was, having covered defence and internal security at NDTV before joining DD News—don’t always earn automatic applause from old hands, it’s best to keep a pound of salt handy. One version has it that an activist-lawyer from Srinagar was allowed to say on air that Afzal Guru hadn’t been given a fair trial and that Shukla did not do enough to stop or rebut his guest. As the discussion wound down, sources say, frantic calls came in from Doordarshan’s Srinagar centre. DD-ites, some angry, some worried, enquired about the channel’s handling of the hanging. “Was it in line with New Delhi’s position?” was the question one long-time staffer asked cryptically. It all began from here, say sources in Prasar Bharati Corporation, and before long, Shukla, brought to the channel by the autonomous body under the new information and broadcasting minister, Manish Tewari, was packing up to leave.
Jawhar Sircar, the Prasar Bharati CEO, is dismissive of the insinuations. “Why don’t you ask Mr Ajai Shukla why he has quit, instead of asking for my version? Insofar as I am concerned, we are on the best of terms.” But The Indian Express wryly commented in an edit: “The resignation follows recent circulars ordering that the content and guests for each bulletin be first run past Doordarshan officials, as clear a declaration of censorial intent as there can be.”
The second impetus for a shortening of the leash on DD News, sources say, came a fortnight later, on February 21, on which day a series of blasts wracked Hyderabad a little after 7 pm. Breaking news on every channel—except DD News. Sanjeev Srivastava, an old BBC hand brought in as editor of News Night, was in the middle of a discussion on the budget session. Apparently, Srivastava was late in ending that discussion to pan in on the breaking news. When Hyderabad finally made news on DD News—after a call from the director-general (news), it’s said—private channels were way ahead. “Egos at work on both sides had led to a distrustful atmosphere in the newsroom,” according to a source. For his part, Sircar maintains, “There are 34 other DD channels and 320-plus radio stations to be looked after. Micro-management is not possible, and I really cannot be expected to have such intricate details of the working of the news channel.”
And the third blunder—again involving Shukla—came over coverage of the AugustaWestland chopper deal, in which former air force chief S.P. Tyagi and his relatives are embroiled. As a discussion Shukla was anchoring progressed to the alleged bad handling of the case, apparently due to pressure from above, he asked a panelist, “Are you hinting at Congress president Sonia Gandhi?” This was reportedly viewed as a leading question, and did not go down well at Prasar Bharati, not the least at the information and broadcasting ministry. But Sircar says, “I am not aware of any discomfort at the ministry of I&B, though we do not always agree on every issue. Ours is a statutory body that is governed by a board.”
Yet another provocation for the tightening of screws apparently came on the day Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi expressed lukewarmness about prime ministership and made impromptu comments about marriage in a discussion with MPs and journalists in the central hall of Parliament. Surprisingly, DD News ran a programme titled ‘End of a Legacy’, pretty much signalling the end of the Congress.
But the proverbial last nail came when Tarun Vijay, a BJP MP, lambasted the government’s handling of the Italian marines issue on DD News. A memo reportedly went out of the office of Prasar Bharati CEO Sircar stating that “no programme, content will be put on air in the DD(N) 24-hour transmission without the explicit approval of DG (News)/ADG (News). No guest will be invited for any news/current affairs or any programme on DD (News) without the prior approval of DG (News)/ ADG (News).” A hefty stroke of the hammer—which cannot be ignored as an internal matter, for taxpayers’ money is involved. According to sources, more than half the budget of the I&B ministry goes in the upkeep and functioning of DD and air, so accountability is called for.
Media-watchers trace the breakdown of the government’s latest attempt to spruce up DD News to the tussle between new entrants and the old guard. Autonomous in name, DD News, like Doordarshan, is government-owned and -funded, so it’s run by IAS and iis bureaucrats with little experience if any of journalism. The result: profesionalism is in conflict with careerism. Turf wars abound over what constitutes journalism and what does not. Indications of that—as also of red-tapism—come through in what officials say. “How can a news organisation run without editorial meetings? We never had a meeting with the new team!” one source at Prasar Bharati complained, speaking of paratroopers like Shukla and Srivastava. And officials at the I&B ministry are already speaking of “a certain heirarchy” that must be maintained.
Sadly, this is the second time DD News has failed at professionalising. On the eve of the 2004 elections, then I&B minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had set up a team under Deepak Chaurasia of Aaj Tak to present an acceptable face of the government as it went into election mode. Elections over and NDA out, the “outsiders” disappeared, leaving the channel to tried-and-tested information service officers. It seems we just got to watch a replay—without even a rukavat ke liye khed hai.
By Anuradha Raman in Delhi.