Anirban Roy Choudhury

Why Arun Jaitley felt that an ad cap on TV channels was a terrible idea

The former I&B Minister, whose third death anniversary falls today, said that the issue should be settled between broadcasters and viewers. The government should stay out of it.

How much advertisement should channels air per hour? This argument has taken the centre stage in India again. Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has written to the Delhi High Court appealing for an early hearing on the ad-cap issue which is scheduled for September 29.

On the death anniversary of former Information and Broadcasting Minister, Arun Jaitley; a lecture he delivered at the beginning of 2015 comes to mind. It was the first Justice JS Verma memorial lecture organised by the News Broadcasters Association - a body comprising of television news providers.

The room was filled with the who's who in news television. Arun Jaitley, followed Justice Ravindran and started his lecture by shedding light on Justice JS Verma's illustrious career. Then he delved into the state of media in the country.

To say the least, he was critical of the way the news is being covered especially by television channels. Using his personal encounters with news and the changing media ecosystem, he amicably painted a larger picture that depicted a tale that’s more sublime than sorry.

However, there was more acceptance, than resistance, to what he was saying. Former Prasar Bharati CEO, Jawhar Sircar who had Jaitley as his minister, wrote, "I would rate him as a true liberal who had friends in every party." This is not only true in politics but also in the media fraternity. Back then, along with MIB, Jaitley had Finance and Corporate Affairs ministry in his portfolio and he spoke about the business too.

"The news channels are cutting costs on news collection to meet the expenses involved in news distribution," he said. He believed that this was impacting the quality of news. "The definition of news has changed," he asserted. According to him, after the advent of 24x7 news channels, the camera started deciding what is news. "Only what the camera captured became news," he said.

Arun Jaitley
Arun Jaitley

The race for television rating points, he opined, had forced the channels to telecast what was out of the ordinary. "Good harvest never made news, draught did, the flood was news, whereas a normal monsoon was not. Everything bad became news and something good ceased to," he shared.

That is what moved Justice Ravindran's observation that the government should ‘discipline’ media organisation once they move out of the scope of ‘self-regulation.’ Jaitley opposed the idea of the Government or its arms disciplining the media.

He said, "If the government gets into the business of starting to discipline media organisations it will have its own pitfalls. I would be more comfortable leaving the right to discipline media organisations with the viewers who have a remote to switch channels."

He talked about emergency and freedom of the press in India. Speaking just a few days after armed terrorists entered the office of French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris and killed 12 people in 2015.

Jaitley said, "Satirical or humour magazines are meant to make fun of people. They depict what the people think about them," he condemned that incident and said any ‘gag on the media’ is counterproductive.

"There are many platforms available today and the truth will ultimately surface. The more you ban or censor, it will increase the curiosity and people will sample that piece you are trying to censor. It is better to leave it for the public to decide which version of the story they want to go with," added Jaitley.

Remembering his days in prison during the emergency, Jaitley referred to the closure editorial written by Kesava Shankara Pillai better known as Shankar, and considered as the father of political cartooning in India. "Shankar's Weekly was one of the first publications to shut its operation during the emergency."

Jaitley added he read the editorial in prison which stated, "There is no space for satire in a dictatorship as dictators do not like people laughing at them."

Apart from a politician, Jaitley was an eminent lawyer and he referred to many judgements where the court ruled that the government cannot decide how many pages must a newspaper print or how many advertisements must it publish.

Then he commented on the issue of a cap on advertising during a television broadcast. Jaitley asserts, "My ministry, the Information and Broadcasting ministry a couple of years ago came up with a statutory amendment to the law saying, no channels will telecast advertisement beyond so many minutes." For the benefit of the readers, the proposed cap is 10 minutes of advertisement plus two minutes of self-promotion a total of 12 minutes of commercials per hour.

Back to what Jaitley said about the proposed ad-cap. "I have been struggling in my own mind since then as to how this meets the Challenge of Article 19 1(A). Is the government supposed to tell the media organisations how much advertisement and how much news it should carry when the viewers or the readers have the power to switch to something else if they find it monotonous?"

"Government getting into how much advertisement and how much news, in my mind, is a bad precedent to lay down," he concluded. Jaitley has breathed his last and now Prakash Javadekar is at the helm of Information and Broadcasting Ministry.

Under the MIB's purview, the TRAI has rolled out a controversial New Tariff Order (NTO) which dictates the pricing of channels. The government's regulator has also intervened in the manner the television viewership is measured in India. Now it has moved to the court seeking an early hearing on ad-cap.

Is there anything left for "the viewers with remote to decide," as Jaitley suggested?

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