RSS chief's speech on DD: The media doth protest too much

RSS chiefs speech on DD: The media doth protest too much

A storm of criticism has broken out over Doordarshan\'s decision to telecast RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat\'s Vijayadashami address to cadres live on 3 October.

Mohan BhagwatA storm of criticism has broken out over Doordarshan's decision to telecast RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat's Vijayadashami address to cadres live on 3 October. The criticisms fall broadly into three categories: one relates to the propriety of using a state broadcaster to give publicity to an organisation linked to the party in power; the second to whether a sectarian organisation like the RSS should be given this privilege at all; and the third is about whether Bhagwat's address merits news treatment at all.

The first question is the most important. It has been nobody's case that Doordarshan is free to make its own decisions -- and especially in a matter that is close to this government's heart. It is reasonable to presume that the powers that be knew about, or even influenced, the state broadcaster's decision to show the address live.

The ideal situation is one where DD and All India Radio have complete editorial autonomy, but despite tall talk of giving the Prasar Bharati board autonomy, no one believes this exists. Every government packs the board with people it trusts, and so autonomy is more cosmetic than real. But if this has been the case all along, and DD tends to kowtow to the party in power, one can hardly complain that it is doing things under pressure only now. It has always done so in matters that directly concern the party in power.

As an aside, one can also point out that even private channels have been too close to past regimes, and they do not quite pass the test of non-partisanship all the time.

This brings us to the second objection: that organisations like the RSS should not be given a platform on DD. This argument is wrong if you believe in freedom of speech. However negatively one views the RSS, it is very much entitled to have its views heard. Of course, this does not mean channels have to give him a platform, but it also does not follow that no channel should give Bhagwat a platform either. When news TV invites all kinds of people to its discussion forums, including Kashmiri separatists, nobody has said this is not their right to do so. Does the mere fact that DD is owned by the government mean that this logic of a channel giving free airtime to Bhagwat is somehow unacceptable?

A related objection is that the taxpayer's money should not be used to air the RSS agenda. But this makes sense only if we can all agree on who or what can be aired on not aired on DD. Since there can be no consensus on this - one man's news is another's propaganda - one can't apply this logic only to Bhagwat. Nobody, for example, made a fuss about giving an extra-constitutional power centre like Sonia Gandhi's National Advisory Council members airtime.

The ultimate test of whether DD did the right thing or not depends on whether Bhagwat makes news or not. If he does, he can be aired. If he doesn't, it was a waste of airtime that could have been given to others.

Most papers today (4 October) frontpaged the controversy. This shows that Bhagwat is news - even if most members of the secular commentariat were critics of the move.

Even without the DD coverage, news channels and newspapers have reported Bhagwat's speeches on Vijayadashami and Guru Purnima days in the past. Past RSS chiefs (K Sudershan, for example) have merited full-page interviews in newspapers who were under no compulsion to seek them out.

What the RSS has to say is news. RSS spokespersons are often quoted on all major developments. So DD was hardly doing anything that other news channels have not done some time or the other.

The short point is this: the real issue is only autonomy for DD. And when this issue has never bothered any government in the past, why should it do so now? On every other count, DD only did what it should do as a new organisation: follow the newsmakers. That's no crime.

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