New Delhi: The information and broadcasting (I&B) ministry headed by Ambika Soni is struggling to complete an unfinished agenda that includes action against paid news content, raising the foreign direct investment (FDI) limit in news media and digitization of cable TV distribution, among others. In an interview last week, Soni said a lot of work has already gone into each of these unresolved issues and her ministry hasn’t been responsible for the delays. Edited excerpts:
Why’s the delay in increasing the FDI cap in news? Wasn’t the cabinet note ready last year?
The cabinet note was ready. This is one of the issues we have addressed to Trai (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) and I have a copy of my letter sent last October. There is no reply yet.
But, in the meantime, the DIPP (department of industrial policy and promotion) has sent some press notes which look at investments which does make, to a certain extent, redundant your 26%, 49% or 74% ceiling. Why, if you are a company which has a 49% foreign holding and you invest in my company, that foreign investment will not be counted. You will be treated as an Indian company, even though in addition to that I have another 26% FDI. You realize how much it takes it to?
Doesn’t this clash with the existing policy?
Some people who are against foreign investment have brought this up to me. We addressed it to Trai asking in light of the press note (2-3), what is our final position on this? It is not stuck in my ministry.
The issue of political paid news (advertisements disguised as news in newspapers) remains unresolved. What action is being contemplated to stem the practice?
The Press Council of India (PCI) has been given the responsibility to look into the issue.
We had a long, detailed discussion in the Rajya Sabha on the topic. The PCI report was to be tabled on 31 March. Then justice (G.N.) Ray (chairman of PCI) asked for one month extension. And now we are approaching 30 June and there is no sign of the report. I just asked my secretary to find out when will it come, otherwise I’ll have to go to the media and say, “It’s not coming.”
Clearing the air: I&B minister Ambika Soni says the Press Council of India has been given the responsibility to look into the issue of paid news content, which she says is a matter of great concern. Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Paid news is of great concern. It affects people who are true to their profession of journalism and I feel a great deal of satisfaction that it’s the journalist community which has really highlighted it at personal risk.
There are problems in the Press Council. I had a chat with them on the delay. There are representatives of media houses who are resistant to signing it because it is not just political paid news, it’s also economic paid news. This happens when media houses become business conglomerates—or whatever you call them—and diversify beyond their journalistic interests. It extends to broadcasters too. So, somewhere the judgement between business or marketing and editorial content is compromised.
Doesn’t PCI need more teeth?
I did tell Mr Arun Jaitley (of the Bharatiya Janata Party) when he raised it that you instituted it in 1978, your party was in power. I hate to dig (up) partisan politics, but it’s a fact.
In 2001 and 2003 they asked for more teeth. Why did you not give it?
I have suggestions from the PCI on what kind of powers they want. But the moment I say I’m bringing a Bill, I know the kind of reaction it will have. These are issues which we have to discuss across the floor of Parliament.
But there are suggestions to control paid news by amending The Representation of the People Act, for example.
The Election Commission is also waiting for the report of the Press Council. There are two suggestions that came up. One was the changes in The Representation of the People Act and the other one was to have a media council—that is, to allow a larger body.
Talking of a body, even the regulatory authority for broadcasters is pending…
It’s been pending for last 12 years, since 1997. I have the whole record. Since 1997...all of us have been in office at the Centre.
We should make it a collective effort. A task force has been formed, headed by the ministry of I&B.
The task force comprises…
It has representatives of News Broadcasters Association, the Indian Broadcasting Foundation and the Broadcast Editors Association because these are recognized bodies. In addition, I think there is the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI). So this task force of stakeholders has structured interactions with representatives of civil society.
And its role?
I want to set up a Broadcasting Authority of India. The whole task force is geared to set up what everybody thought was just a regulatory authority. But it will be the broadcasting authority of India, without the word “regulatory”. The name we came up with is National Broadcasting Authority of India, if we can use it. It would have multiple functions. This is my intention only if I can get the government to agree and the cabinet to legislate…It would have transparent and non-partisan appointment procedure. Then, one of the functions can be co-regulation.
What is co-regulation?
I am not for regulation. The industry, press, the broadcasting industry and even the 21st century people are not for regulations.
I want every single channel to regulate on its own according to the Cable Regulatory Act. Then there are recognized bodies such as the Indian Broadcasting Foundation, Broadcast Editors Association and News Broadcasters Association. They are not statutory bodies and if they cannot resolve something, it could come to the broadcasting authority.
That is how we are looking at co-regulation. I will take it to the PM, he in his wisdom may ask other party leaders. What we set up in this domain of media should have wide acceptance.
Why the need to set up a committee (under Amit Mitra) to look into TRPs (television rating points) or audience research?
There are two agencies…of which one hasn’t done so well. The other had, till recently, only 7,000 boxes, now it has increased it to 8,000 plus. That’s not enough. It doesn’t cover Doordarshan, DTH (direct-to-home television) or rural areas. So what does it cover? I constituted a committee under the chairmanship of Mr Amit Mitra—it has representatives from the Indian Statistical Institute, IIM (Indian Institute of Management) Ahmedabad, a retired secretary of the telecom ministry, members of the civil society and public broadcasting. The committee will come up with recommendations on the kind of audience research required, how many boxes we need.
Why should the government be concerned with TRPs?
I know there are murmurs... why is the government interfering in a purely business exercise? I don’t have any desire to interfere unless it affects content. It is my job that viewers should have quality viewing experiences.
Secondly, I did say, which was clever of me, that DAVP (Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity) is the single largest advertiser (in both print and electronic media), so how can you say that the government doesn’t have a role? Be honest about it. And then we are also the single largest broadcaster with Doordarshan.
There’s been criticism for not pushing digital distribution.
I have tried in the last six-eight months to give maximum push towards digitization. We have also got the cabinet to clear Rs1,462 crore for digitalising Doordarshan and Akashvani, that is, their studios, kendras and terrestrial reach… It is going to save spectrum and a minimum 25% power consumption.
For digitization, head-end in the sky (HITS) policy has also been put in place. Through this the cable operators can get access to digital signals from a single satellite and they would have to invest only Rs3 lakh to convert.
We have got only two applications for HITS. So we are looking if DTH can be allowed to have head-end in the sky, which will facilitate this whole exercise. I wrote to Trai because I cannot take these decisions in the absence of a broadcasting authority.
It has not replied. Being the headmistress that I am, I keep calling them.