In the information world, the country with the better story wins. One of the big weaknesses of India’s foreign policy today is that we do not tell our own story to the world – we leave that job to foreign media outlets with a global presence. India has the world’s largest free media, but none with a truly global reach and influence like BBC, CNN, New York Times or even new entrants like Al-Jazeera, CCTV or Russia Today. This anomaly needs to change quickly: if India wants to be a serious global player, it needs a credible global voice, one that goes beyond Bollywood.
National Innovation Council Chairman Sam Pitroda is heading the latest committee set up to suggest changes in the functioning of Prasar Bharati, which oversees Doordarshan and All India Radio. Already, plans are afoot to launch Doordarshan television in Africa for the first time, a continent where Indian business has substantial and growing stakes, and where the Chinese media is already making waves, even moving ahead of established players there like the BBC.
All of India watches Doordarshan, but it has severe limitations, most acute of which is that funding comes from the government, making it vulnerable to political interference. To top that, the administration is run by bureaucrats, not journalists. So while on paper Prasar Bharati is an autonomous body, in its funding and administration it still functions very much like a government organization, which has killed its credibility as an independent media outlet.
The government should look at options like the license fee model of funding, where if each of India’s 150 million TV households paid Rs 5 (10 cents) a month, it would generate $168 million (Rs. 840 crore) in revenue annually. This is eminently do-able. Last year, BBC News and BBC Parliament put together had an operating expenditure of only $105 million (Rs. 525 crore). In 1996, Al-Jazeera started with an initial grant of $137 million (Rs. 685 crore).
Apart from generating globally competitive revenues through a small license fee, this funding model can release Doordarshan from government control, allowing it to build credibility as an independent news organization. A board of trustees made up of eminent journalists, business and civil society leaders can be established to ring-fence and monitor the use of the funds.
By hiring top Indian and global media talent, a restructured Doordarshan can give India a high-quality, global public service broadcaster it so richly deserves. The current wastee of public money in a government-directed and restrained Doordarshan does not help either India’s people or the government.
A restructured and globalized Doordarshan has the potential to play a prominent role in the world today, an essential soft power tool that will bring tangible benefits for India’s foreign policy, business and development goals. At this time, the major news distribution channels are dominated by BBC, CNN and lately, Al-Jazeera, making their points of view and biases the dominant global discourse available to citizens, students and leaders around the world. There is a need to balance this with a credible voice from the developing world, one which reflects its needs and increasingly relevant views that contrary to those of the West.
The time is right, internationally. “We are losing that war,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March 2010. She was not talking about Afghanistan or Iraq. According to Clinton, the US is “engaged in an information war”, where the field is getting crowded and the dominant Anglo-American media outlets are struggling. Since 2006 China, Russia, France, Iran and Japan and have launched English-language TV news channels – China has thrown in $8.7 billion to internationalize its state-owned media – even as the old warhorses face shrinking budgets and downsizing brought about by the financial crisis and digitization.
The new entrants on the global airwaves are capturing audiences and staff shed by the Western organizations. It is exactly this churning in the industry that India must take advantage of to launch its own global broadcaster.
At home, there is now a growing demand for global stories with an Indian context. Indian companies are investing abroad – in African oil, British steel and American software companies. The large middle-class is traveling, studying and working abroad, hungry for more knowledge of the world. India is increasingly adopting new business and development models that have worked in other developing countries – for example, the much-discussed cash transfer for the poor scheme has been adapted from Brazil’s hugely successful Bolsa Familia program. The potential cash recipient in Mumbai has the right to know how the recipient in Sao Paulo has benefited from the scheme, and television is the perfect medium to carry this knowledge.
And there is a growing curiosity about India across the world, directly correlated to the country’s gradual rise as an economic power. An expanding number of multinationals have Indian operations, and therefore, a stake in the country. Global decision-makers want to know Indian leaders’ stand on important political, trade, environmental issues which have global impact. A large and successful Indian diaspora, though connected through some Indian cable channels to the soap operas at home, are eager to learn India’s view point on various global developmental issues. A globalized Doordarshan can satiate this two way demand for information – by taking India to the world and bringing the world to India.
On the supply side, India has a free and feisty private media. There is a large pool of experienced and talented journalists who can be globally competitive. Bringing in overseas expertise, technology and new journalistic standards will be useful. The cost of filming and transmitting TV stories from across the world has fallen drastically in the last few years, thanks to evolving technology. Going the web TV way and cutting out satellite transmission costs, can be one option for India to explore, if it starts with a small budget.
A 2011 Communist Party communiqué declared, “to some degree, whoever owns the commanding heights of cultural development, and soft power, will enjoy a competitive edge internationally”. While Bollywood is perhaps India’s biggest soft power export, it urgently needs to do more.
“The medium is the message, so if presented well global news reflects a country’s values and creates a certain affection for that society,” says foreign policy analyst Kanti Bajpai. “Now when I watch Chinese CCTV, I see a secular, rational country, a cosmopolitan society where things are orderly.
When I see Doordarshan I see a chaotic country, where things don’t always work.”
Throwing more money at a network itself will not work; quality and strategy must be the top priority. If we are smart, we can globalize Doordarshan for a fraction of the Chinese cost. As a democracy with a free media and a ready pool of English-speaking journalists, media is one field where India actually has a competitive advantage over its more dominant and successful neighbor China. This is the time for the Sam Pitroda Committee to take a serious look at how Doordarshan can leverage India’s democratic and demographic dividends across the world.
Sambuddha Mitra Mustafi is a Fellow at Swaniti Initiative.
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