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The recent documentary by the BBC on the 2002 Gujarat riots has brought into sharp focus the role of public broadcasting and its future. Pertinent questions have been raised on whether the BBC, which is funded through licence fees and grants from the British government, was complying with its mandate and charter of fairness and public service. The issue gains significance in the context of an intense debate within the UK and across Europe on how and why public broadcasting should be funded. Specifically in the UK, the BBC has seen substantial cuts in its public funding, resulting in its dropping of several services amid allegations of political bias in its editorial approach. In 2020, when its reportage on violence in Delhi in the wake of an anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) agitation had provoked strong reactions, I had written a protest letter to its then director general; I had highlighted the principle that as vehicles of public diplomacy, it is important that public broadcasters respect the sovereignty of the nations they serve while collaborating beyond borders for the greater global good. The BBC’s documentary and its reporting from India on both the pandemic and 2020 Delhi riots was violative of this principle and tantamount to a foreign policy pursuit to the detriment of mutual relations between the two countries.

Its regression to click-bait journalism and polemical reporting on the domestic politics of other nations needs to be seen from the perspective of its funding model. While the BBC is the UK’s public service broadcaster, its global operations are through a commercial entity. With public funding squeezed, it seems keen to expand its international commercial revenues by injecting itself into controversial subjects in other nations. Given the well-documented history of its collaboration with agencies of the British state, the line is fast blurring between its public broadcasting and commercial interests, raising questions on its motives and editorial agenda.

Its editorial drift is being directed by a larger technological undercurrent. With recent funding cuts and a contentious debate in the UK over the future of the BBC, its chief has gone on record mulling a streaming future for the BBC that could potentially move it away from broadcasting altogether.

The contrasting path being charted for the world’s oldest public broadcaster in comparison with India’s counterpart, Prasar Bharati, which recently received government approval for several thousand crores of funding to expand its broadcasting footprint, merits deeper examination. A BBC minus broadcasting would perhaps just be yet another British corporation. Yet, new demands of the digital era, with audiences shifting to digital feeds, are compelling broadcasters such as the BBC to review their place in the media landscape as also their ability to compete with exclusively online platforms such as Netflix and Amazon on entertainment and YouTube and Tik-Tok, among others, for news and user-generated content.

This shift to interactive on-demand consumption away from passive linear viewing raises an important question on the continued relevance of broadcasting as a public or even private service. We cannot deny the strategic importance of an ‘ability to broadcast’ as a counter to disinformation on the internet as well as insurance against an offensive strike on a nation’s communication infrastructure. With the fragmentation of audiences across apps and platforms and shrinking attention spans, it is also imperative to be able to directly reach audiences on their smart devices in case of emergencies, disasters and crises of significant public interest, as was evident during the recent pandemic. Given the risk to sovereign democracies from the geopolitics of techno-nationalism, where online platforms acting outside their jurisdictions can shut off access or algorithmically control content to the detriment of public and national interest, it is important to reinvent conventional broadcasting.

With direct-to-home platforms in India seeing a steady decline in subscriber bases and local cable operators staring at an existential threat, creative intervention is needed. Similar to how India in the late 1990s and early 2000s skipped digital terrestrial TV completely by directly moving from analogue terrestrial to satellite and cable, there is now a crucial window of opportunity for us to leapfrog to the future of smart broadcasting. This is possible with the convergence of broadcasting and broadband, leveraging emergent 5G standards and direct-to-mobile (D2M) technologies such as ATSC 3.0 to directly reach smart devices. The moment calls for a public-private initiative in India to remake broadcasting for a smart converged future that can result in a win-win business model for both the public broadcaster and private platforms, especially local cable operators.

The BBC’s editorial drift as it mulls a streaming future minus broadcasting are an early warning to India on the risks to its democracy from the geopolitics of techno-nationalism being played out through internet platforms.

The convergence of 5G and D2M broadcasting will offer a crucial strategic capability to insulate our democracy from foreign influences through the ability to directly deliver content of national interest to citizens on their mobile phones and smart devices.

Shashi Shekhar Vempati is the former CEO of Prasar Bharati.

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