In a candid interview with BestMediaInfo.com after taking over as the President of the News Broadcasters’ Association, India TV Founder and Chairman, Rajat Sharma, hinted that government had no business banning news channels on its own over content violation and only the NBSA should be authorised to recommend such action.
"If there was a content violation by NDTV, it should have been brought to NBSA and they would have taken a decision, which nobody would have had a problem with. The problem arises when the government takes a call," he said.
Talking about channels accused of running propaganda, Sharma said that it was for viewers to decide if someone was taking a line. "It is not for the government or NBA to decide. Viewers can decide whether to stop watching the channel."
On NBA members making their disputes public, he said, "I would like to advise Arnab and everyone else to bring their suggestions to the NBA. It is your forum. Releasing it to the media or taking it to the government is not something that I appreciate," he said.
You have returned as the President of NBA after a hiatus of a year. What did you observe as a member during this period?
What I observed was that the members of NBA were speaking different voices. I saw them writing letters to the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting and TRAI against each other. This has been against the norms of NBA and it was never done before. The practice has been that members sort out their differences within the NBA, and not take them out in public.
What was the biggest concern that you would like to single out in an apparently rough year for the association?
I have always believed that the NBA should fight for the issues related to the industry as a whole and not the individual cases. In the past, the NBA has always taken decisions and spoken about the concerns of the industry at large. The NBA has refrained from taking a cause of an individual channel, unless it is in the larger interest of the entire industry.
So, do you think the association was used for individual causes?
Yes. There were a few concerns. All I would say is that NBA should not be used for individual gains. It is a body where we represent the news broadcasting industry.
Usage of dual LCN and landing page by news channels to ensure spike in viewership has been the most talked about issue. Some call it an unethical practice; some argue these are marketing tools. How do you see this?
I believe in level-playing field. Fair means can be used for competition, but it is important to take the larger view. Competition has to be healthy and we have to be prepared that there will be more players and competition will increase. But if there are any differences/ issues, they should be brought to the NBA and we will resolve them.
What if the tactic was used at a large scale and the competition was bound to reciprocate to safeguard its business interest?
I do not want to say anything about any individual channel but if someone has issues with any individual channel, they should first bring it to the NBA board, which can resolve it collectively.
Do you mean the recent LCN issue was not brought up before the board?
I was not there in a few board meetings. I cannot say if the issue was brought then. But this is what I plan to do; there should be mutual trust and understanding and we should be able to take up these issues together.
Were you were upset and hence skipped board meetings?
No. It was because I was travelling.
But your absence from these meetings was NBA’s loss.
But I can assure you that NBA will regain its name, stature and dignity.
Does NBA feel that if this issue is not tackled with self-regulation or constraint, it will give another opportunity to the regulator to interfere in operational issues?
I think we should resolve all such issues at the NBA board level internally.
How would you like to restrain member channels from showing astrology or superstitious content for which advisories are already in place?
Astrology is an ancient science and it is carried as a part of news in all newspapers and magazines across the world. But yes, superstitious content should be refrained from carrying. But this has to be decided by taking the views of the broadcast editors. I have a plan to meet the broadcast editors soon and as NBA president, I will discuss with them and we will do whatever is in the best interest of the society.
There was an instance when NDTV was banned for a day for flouting the advisories and guidelines related to coverage of terrorist attack. Why do channels fail to understand the severity of such guidelines?
If there was a content violation by NDTV, it should have been brought to the News Broadcasters’ Standards Authority (NBSA) and they would have taken a decision, which nobody would have had a problem with. The problem arises when the government takes a call and it is considered as interference. NBSA is not a self-regulation, it is an independent regulation headed by a retired Supreme Court judge. If all these matters are brought to NBSA, they can be resolved amicably.
Can NBSA penalise a channel by banning it?
NBSA can’t ban a channel but it can recommend to the government to ban a channel. In the past, NBSA has asked channels to apologise and they have done that. It has put financial penalties on channels. It has recommended the government to ban certain channels for certain period, which were banned.
BARC has been releasing data on a weekly basis. Do you agree that the data for news channels should be released on the basis of four week roll-over average?
It cannot be an individual decision. It has to be decided by the broadcasters together if the data should be weekly, fortnightly, monthly or quarterly. It should be brought to the board of NBA and there should be consensus on it for it to get finalised.
Republic TV has sought some changes in the NBA charter. Is it time to consider some of their demands?
They have suggested a few things and those were discussed at the board. I want to tell Republic TV to bring in their suggestions to the NBA and we are always open to discuss them but the NBA has been doing a commendable job. Personally I would like to advise Arnab (Goswami) and everyone else to bring their suggestions to the NBA, not make them public. ‘NBA is your forum.’ There is an AGM at NBA where people could speak, but writing a letter to the NBA and releasing it to the media or taking it to the government is not something that I appreciate.
Do you feel the need to expand the scope of work for NBA?
We should certainly do more for the growth of the industry. NBA has a vast area of work but there can be more. We recently added digital broadcasters as NBA members. But there is lot more to do.
NBA has to think of the issues related to carriage, has to think about how the ad rates of the news broadcasters should be increased and a few other matters.
Do you think that someday, everyone will come on the same platform and speak in the same voice?
I hope so. It has happened in the past.
What will be your priorities for the association and news industry?
My priority is to strengthen the body, to ease out tension, to promote healthy competition and to clear the perception about the news broadcasting industry in the minds of the political leaders, judiciary and society at large. It needs to be told that those who are running the news channels – broadcasters and editors – are committed to the national interest and are not chasing TRPs.
Isn’t the chase of TRPs a reality now?
No. I do not agree that this has become reality. There can always be a black sheep or an exception to the rule. But by and large, I believe, those who are working in a newsroom or owning the news channel, are committed to the national interest and public welfare and most of the news content relates to this. The exceptions are not the rules.
Then why people do accuse news channels of running propaganda?
If some channel is running propaganda or taking a definite line, it is for the viewers to decide. It is not for the government or NBA to decide. Viewers can decide whether they want to continue or stop watching such channel. All the broadcasters have to make sure that there is nothing against the national interest or public welfare.
But haven’t the viewers already indicated loss of trust in the news channels?
It is because of news channels today that criminals are not fielded as election candidates by the political parties. It is because of the news channels that people like Ram Rahim are exposed and are behind the bars. The Jessica Lal murder case accused is in jail because of the campaign run by the news channels. So, news channels have played a very important role in the society, in the electoral and social reforms.
In a democratic society, a channel or a person cannot be stopped from taking a certain line. In the US, Fox has a line that they will support Donald Trump and CNN has a line that they will not, but it does not make them criminals, it does not make them bad. It is for the viewer to decide whether to watch it or not. In our country, barring a few exceptions, most of the channels are independent, balanced and unbiased.
There are regional channels run by political leaders and funded by them. We can’t stop them.
If you see the viewership data, the number of people who watch news channels is growing day by day. If you see the influence of news channels on the society, it is growing day by day. So, losing viewers’ trust is a wrong perception that I want to change.
And how do you intend to change that perception?
The broadcast industry has to be responsible by refraining from action, which is against the national interest. All the stakeholders have to ensure security and social norms and curbing sensationalism.
NBA will ensure that the national and social interest as well as women and child welfare are priorities for its members. It will ensure that NBSA guidelines are followed by all the news channels. And once they do this, people will have no complaints.