Regulators

For Reddy, where he left off last time round good place to start

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Jaipal Reddy's second inning at the information and broadcasting ministry has one similarity --- nothing much has changed since the time he was last here in 1997 when the United Front was in power at the Centre for a brief period.

Some basic issues --- like bringing about true autonomy in Prasar Bharati and a regulatory framework for the chaotic broadcast and cable sector --- still linger on having made little progress under successive ministers. In that sense, Reddy could begin from where he left off in the last decade.

However, it is easier said than done for Reddy. As was the case during his last stint at Shastri Bhawan, which houses the I&B ministry in the Capital, he was a minister in a coalition government and this time round too the allies of the Congress are unlikely to make life easy for any minister. Having to deal with the Left parties and regional satraps the likes of Laloo Prasad Yadav is not going to be easy street for Reddy.

What should be the priorities for Reddy this time round? If we at indiantelevision.com know a little about Reddy, then two thing could be taken for granted: he is unlikely to be an overzealous moral policeman (the likes of FTV and Trendz can heave a sigh of relief) and is not susceptible to corporate pressure for policy formulation.

Having said that, one would also like the new minister to take a definite stand on issues like the payment of license fee by private radio FM players, most of whom have been trying to put pressure on the government to waive the annual fee, which became payable on 30 April. Since most private FM radio stations are operated by big media organisations, the I&B ministry and its bureaucrats have been under intense pressure to rule in the former's favour.

Talks of persistent phone calls from senior editors of organisations to bureaucrats in the I&B ministry on the issue were an oft-heard allegation. Though the sector regulator had suggested to the previous government to keep the license fee in abeyance till related issues are settled formally, Reddy needs to send out immediate signals that the government cannot be taken for granted and his ministry put under pressure to do something that may take quite some time. His immediate message to private FM radio players ought to be: withdraw the court cases, pay up the license fee now and the government would look into their grievances and suggestions from an expert panel on FM radio on priority.

Media houses may just be warned that Reddy is not a wimp because beneath the soft exterior, he hides a tough will. Remember the banning of reception of KU-band signals for DTH services way back in 1997 even when the then top honchos of Star TV were busy convincing Reddy the pitfalls of such a ban. At that time, the government and Reddy were convinced that Star TV was trying to cock a snook at the government on the DTH issue by holding a press conference and giving out ads to newspapers, even as the government said it was contemplating a legislation relating to DTH.

After having taken care of the FM radio (license) issue, Reddy also needs to look at the controversial CAS. Considering that his own party, the Congress, and one of its key allies, the Left parties, were against hasty implementation of addressability, it is expected that the new minister would tread cautiously, unlike his immediate predecessor Ravi Shankar Prasad, who despite the best of efforts could not shake off the (bad?) legacy that he inherited from an authoritarian Sushma Swaraj.

Again, treading cautiously is something easier said than done for this government. First, though the I&B ministry bureaucrats are likely to advise against implementation of CAS through a legislation, totally ignoring it would be difficult for Reddy. Simply because CAS has been mandated through a legislation okayed by Parliament. That it was Swaraj who steam-rolled it through both the Houses of Parliament like a woman possessed is another story.

Second, the cable fraternity is not going to take very kindly to Reddy's dithering on CAS. At the end of the day, it was on a government's insistence that the cable industry made investments in infrastructure for CAS rollout.

How would Reddy explain away such investments is something that needs to be seen. What is more important, is the way Reddy handles the cable fraternity and the broadcasters. There is a feeling that Prasad failed to 'manage' the broadcasters properly on the CAS issue.

Since it could be termed Reddy's baby, he could well work towards making Prasar Bharati, India's pubcaster, truly autonomous. He could begin by dusting the cobwebs off an expert panel's (headed by the late Shunu Sen) recommendation on improving the functioning of Doordarshan and All India Radio, which he had himself commissioned during his last stint.

Moreover, Reddy needs to get out of the "filmi chakkar" as I&B minister because the media and entertainment industry is not just restricted to films only.

Considering Reddy also has the additional charge of the department of culture, originally under the human resources department, he could sit down with organisational heads of the likes of the Censor Board to chalk out a broad plan on Indian culture, its portrayal on various sectors of the media, including TV, and preferably bring in a more liberal cultural outlook.

Even with the seeming whittling down of power of the I&B ministry, the fact remains that this organization is of utmost importance to a government even if Prasar Bharati is given full autonomy. Because there are several others units of the ministry that can be easily and effectively used for propaganda.

What is heartening with Reddy at the helm of the I&B ministry is that we would see less of grand standing and more of serious work. Even if that means less colourful copy for the media from a man who is very academic in his approach.

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