Op-Ed: Magnanimous Govt and Compromised Media

Call it by any other name. But it will, in essence, remain ‘paid news’. There is no other way to interpret the unprecedented decision of the Naveen Patnaik government to empanel six TV channels to “produce and telecast short films/documentaries of 3-minute duration on different flagship programmes, developmental activities and success stories of the government.”

Of course, the government is well within its rights to produce and telecast films/documentaries – and anything else – to highlight its ‘achievements’ in various fields. Such programmes are normally produced by the government itself or through an agency and given to channels for broadcast for a pre-approved fee. But to ask the TV channels themselves to produce such content is unprecedented. The letter written by Hemant Sharma, secretary in the Information and Public Relations (I & PR) department to secretaries of other departments in this regard on August 29 makes no mention of the rationale behind the decision or the basis on which the six channels – Kanak News, New World Odisha, MBC TV, News 18, Zee Kalinga and Kalinga TV – were chosen for the job. Significantly, OTV, the No. 1 news channel in the state and easily the best equipped among all to undertake such work, is not in the list – and no prizes for guessing why.

When the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) announced its decision to boycott all debate and discussion programmes on OTV in April this year, it predictably raised a lot of eyebrows in the state as well as at the national level. Everyone except the diehard BJD supporter was convinced that it set an unhealthy precedent. But since it was a political party taking the decision, the issue never got the traction that it deserved. But can an elected government act with such caprice and arbitrariness? Forget the impropriety of getting TV news channels, which are expected to play the ‘watchdog’ and keep a hawk eye on the acts of omission and Commission of the government, to produce eulogies in AV for the government for a moment. The least the government should have done was to frame certain criteria/guidelines for the job, invite a tender and judge the applications on merit. But then this is nothing new for a government that has assigned publicity work, including audio visual (AV) material, worth crores of rupees to one person – and released the payment even before completion of work – without any tenders in the past. No one knows for sure whether all the material commissioned was actually produced and disseminated as per the contract!

For the cash-starved channels chosen, this is manna from heaven. At Rs 2.2 lakh for a 3-minute AV production, the rates are way higher than what the government pays for other AV productions it commissions, especially considering that much of the material used would have been generated during the course of news coverage by the channels anyway. And this is only towards production cost. Though the I & PR department letter of August 29 makes no mention of it, it is obvious that the channels would get additional fees for broadcasting the programmes produced by them.

For one thing, the reach of a TV channel or its capability of produce such content is irrelevant. For another, there is no limit on the number of such programmes that a channel can produce. (An official of the PR department said it would be an ‘ongoing process’!] For good measure, the channels can also approach the department on their own and propose production of such AV content. As if that is not good enough, the letter by Mr. Sharma also makes it clear that a higher rate could be considered by the government in ‘special cases, taking into account the engagement of celebrities and additional manpower and equipment for the production’ – whatever that means. This is bribe, plain and simple, not just to ensure positive coverage in the channels, but to ensure that nothing negative appears on these channels in the run up to the elections. For it would be a brave media house indeed that would partake of the manna offered by the government and yet dare take a critical look at the functioning of the government.

Coming as it does shortly after the decision to enlist 18 web portals for release of government ad, the decision to assign production of AV publicity material to TV channels certainly smacks of an unapologetic effort to co-opt the media by the Naveen Patnaik government as it seeks a fifth successive term in office. The grapevine has it that a similar bounty is to be showered on the print media next.

The government is clearly determined not to leave any stone unturned in its no-holds-barred effort to get the media on its side ahead of the polls. And the media is shedding all pretensions of independent journalism by playing willing accomplice to the benevolent government.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same).