Should the Government have a role in the way films are made and the sort of television programmes we must see? That was the key issue on CNN-IBN's Devil's Advocate when Karan Thapar interviewed Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Ambika Soni.
Karan Thapar: Let's start with your ministry's notice on television programmes like Sach Ka Saamna and Pati, Patni Aur Woh, or you your decision for demand that changes be made in a film to be made on the life of Edwina Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru.
Why, in the twenty-first century, in a flourishing democracy do you believe that the Government is the best judge of what people should or should not see?
Ambika Soni: No, I do not think that the Government acts on its own. I also do not see the Government wanting to do that at all. But there is an on-going debate and I am lending all my strength to that debate that let people decide.
In the twenty-first century, in a democracy, let the people decide what kind of infrastructure mechanism do they want to have, which balances rightly the freedom of speech and expression as well as the sensitivity of civil society.
Karan Thapar: Before I explore your thinking, are you saying to me that you believe that this is a debate that has to happen and that you have an open mind at the moment?
Ambika Soni: (I have ) absolutely an open mind. I committed myself on the floor of the House in Parliament last session and the broadcasters. Wherever I am asked to address I do say, please debate. But these two priorities have to be addressed simultaneously.
Karan Thapar: On your having an open mind, let us then try and explore, first of all, your attitude on the film on Edwina and Nehru. Now both the families--the Mountbatten family and the Nehru family--readily accept that they loved each other.
Both families readily accept that this is a relationship that they were very happy with. Why then can't the film show them as two people who were in love?
Ambika Soni: We do not really get into the film-making aspect of Indian films, but films which are coming from outside do not get permission from the ministry of Home Affairs for their visas, etc till the content has been looked into by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. This is not of my creation. This has been the case for so many years.
Karan Thapar: That I know. But in the process of looking into the content, you are actually asking for changes. That's what I am questioning? Why?
Ambika Soni: No, it's not a question of changes, Karan. It is what I said, right at the beginning. It is (about) trying to balance. If we ask them to overlook some of the parts of the dialogue, or to eliminate some the script it's a role which is performed also by the Central Board of Films, which gives film certification and is headed by Sharmila Tagore.
Karan Thapar: We come to the Censor Board later. I want to talk about the Ministry and the Government of India. You represent the Government.
First of all, let me ask you simply but bluntly, do you accept as Nayantara Sahgal, Nehru's closest living relative, accepts, just as Pamela Hicks, Lady Mountbatten's daughter accepts; that the two loved each other?
Ambika Soni: Karan, I have no personal views. There are facts of history. There are other family members. There are lots of books written, one way or the other. None of those books have been certified.
I am not at all at any stage wanting to put my views on any subject on to the table. It is not that. There are lots and lots of people who have different views. Maybe you haven't been in touch with them. But they count.
Karan Thapar: The only views that count are those of the relatives. Pamela Hicks and Nayantara Sahgal have both said that the two (Edwina and Nehru) loved each other. How can you dispute that or even question it?
Ambika Soni: I am not disputing anything, nor am I questioning it, Karan. I am not doing that. There is a mechanism in this ministry which does not involve the minister, the secretary or any other officials. There are experts who are retired ambassadors, retired Information and Broadcasting secretaries.
They read the script; they have an idea of civil society--Nehruji or our leaders are not just people where only the family has a right to say. India was their family.
Karan Thapar: Just a moment. When it comes to their personal lives, only those who were intimate to them have a right to say, whether it is right or wrong. Both, the people's closest living dependents say that the two were in love.
How can any ambassador who did not know them; how can any ministry who did not know them dispute it and therefore deny the film showing that they were in love?
Ambika Soni: No, Karan, no one is disputing anything. The family may know the members more intimately as does any other family better than any outsider, beyond doubt. But we are talking of something which is for public broadcast, for public showing. And we are a nation of a billion people. We do have our own right or wrong.
Karan Thapar: Are you protecting Nehru and Edwina from the truth of their relationship just because you are embarrassed by the fact?
Ambika Soni: Look, I am not going to get provoked by you, Karan. You may get as tough in your questioning as you want to. But, I know the mechanism is there which does not affect just this particular film. In the last one year, 97 films which have been made by outsiders, including Slumdog Millionaire, have been done.
Karan Thapar: Can I put to you, the consequences of the intended and the implied, when you demand changes in or to eliminate scenes where they are said to kissing or the scenes where they declare love to each other.
After all the family is happy, if it is tasteful, but you are not. So let me tell you the consequences. The consequence is that you are suggesting to people that there was something improper or even morally unacceptable in the relationship. That is an insult to Nehru and Edwina. You are censoring their lives, because you are embarrassed.
Ambika Soni: Karan, I did see your interview with Ms Nayantara Sahgal. I think she came out very well. Many of the things which I am not able to articulate as well as she did, but she said the right thing. We are not talking of a film.
I am talking of a mechanism in place which has this film and 97 other films. I am sorry that is all I can say on this subject and I do not want to take this debate any further.
Karan Thapar: You said you saw the interview with Nayantara Sahgal on Network 18 and that you admired what she said. Let me quote what she said.
She said, "I do not think that the Government should lay down any rules in the matter of art. I do not think that art should be controlled."
Then she adds pointedly, "Every filmmaker is an individual. Each of them has their own style and approach and you cannot lay down a law about how much is to be shown or done, how much of private life is to appear, or not. It is the discretional judgment of the person making the film. Why are you not allowing the filmmakers to exercise their discretion? Why are you imposing your views on them?
Ambika Soni: No, I am not. I have been a minister of culture. I have endorsed what she said. I have followed for three and a half years as Minister of Culture whatever the Government wants to put on the academies dealing with art, culture, music or dance and writing.
Having said that, I am talking to you about the mechanism in place, about getting the mandatory permissions from the Home Ministry, to make sure that it does not disrupt feelings. It depends really on how it is presented. I have nothing else to say.
Karan Thapar: What lies behind the ministry's position is the assumption that the Government somehow knows what is right, decent and in good taste. What qualifies, you or your ministry, to determine that?
Ambika Soni: That is a mechanism. It is not an individual decision.
Karan Thapar: It is an outdated mechanism.
Ambika Soni: Alright, then let us start a debate. If it is outdated, I welcome a debate. Let us have a debate in the civil society whether everybody in this country wants that anyone may come to India and do what they like and then have it for public showing; then how people would react.
Did you record Nayantara Sahgal saying that there are people who we have not yet been able to deal with, in the way democracy allows.
Karan Thapar: She talked about Sena mob-rampaging.
Ambika Soni: I am not talking about anybody. I am repeating what Nayantara highlighted.
Karan Thapar: And I am clarifying what she said, because she said it to me. One last thing, the impression you gave is that somehow you think the Indian people will be misled by a film and that they do not have the capacity to discriminate.
Ambika Soni: No, I am not.
Karan Thapar: Is this not an insult to the Indian people?
Ambika Soni: Not at all. There is an independent mechanism in place, which deals with every film that comes in a manner which we feel is as enlightened and as free from Government control as possible. If it is not suitable, let there be a public debate. I welcome it.
Karan Thapar: Who judges suitability?
Ambika Soni: Let there be a public debate. I am ready. Aren't we talking about the broadcasters?
Karan Thapar: But the debate cannot happen when the film is not being made. You are not letting the film happen.
Ambika Soni: No, Karan, sorry. You are talking about a film. I am not. I am talking about the mechanism. I mentioned to you that in the last four years, 97 films sought clearance. Those are the rules and the law of the land. I cannot change it.
Karan Thapar: But you said you welcome a debate. I hope there is a debate.
Karan Thapar: Lets come to television news. Why does the Government believe there is a need for a regulatory authority? Why can't you accept with specific reference to news that self-regulation is best and anything else would undermine freedom of expression and press?
Ambika Soni: That is what the debate is about. I have committed myself on the floor of the House that we are talking to the self-regulatory bodies like the NBA, the Editors Association-- which is recent--and the IBF, the ASCI which looks after the advertisers. There has been a debate in this country since 1997. Different governments have brought in legislation which hasn't been able to fructify. I have opened it up.
Karan Thapar: The point that I'm questioning is that why is there a debate when there is no need for a regulator for press, newspapers and magazines, why is there a need for a regulator for TV news. On what basis are you discriminating between the two?
Ambika Soni: Because you have got it wrong, Believe it or not, Karan Thapar has got it wrong. We don't want to put in place a regulator to monitor content--that is not the intention or the government at all.
Karan Thapar: Though I'm glad to hear that let me mention that the guidelines on your website make it clear that you believe a regulatory authority is necessary. Are you now saying that this is not intended for TV news and that it would be excluded?
Ambika Soni: It is not only for content control. Most ministries which have public dealing have put in place a regulator and I have assured the House--to which I'm answerable to the Parliament-- that it would be independent, autonomous, without government control, not only to address sensitivity or civil societies or concerns and rights of the broadcaster but also to look at other issues.
Karan Thapar: You have now accepted in that answer that you are looking at a regulator for TV news. If you don't need a regulator for newspapers and magazines, why do you need a regulator for TV news? Why are you discriminating between the two?
Ambika Soni: I'm not. What we are talking of is a mechanism. You may call it regulator. Most ministries have a regulator like the Petroleum Ministry.
This is not a regulator in the sense of content control. It's been on the website for two years, it's being discussed. What needs to be taken off, what needs to be added or if we want to dump it all together and put in place a new thing.
Karan Thapar: So, you are saying it is not a regulator in the sense of content control.
Ambika Soni: That is right. I'm not looking at a regulator only to monitor content.
Karan Thapar: When you say 'only to monitor content' it suggests it will monitor content as well as other things. Is content excluded?
Ambika Soni: I cannot preempt a debate. I have told you there is a debate going on and I haven't even put a time frame on it. Let there be a debate.
Karan Thapar: So we could end up with a regulator?
Ambika Soni: No, I'm not saying that. I don't know what everybody will decide. To give a small example, I said that the NBA has a grievance redressal committee headed by Justice Verma. So, I said there can be a mechanism for addressing concerns of the broadcasting sector.
Karan Thapar: So create a press council equivalent for TV, that is acceptable. Don't create a regulator.
Ambika Soni: But I'm just saying that.
Karan Thapar: Can you stop using the word regulator - it would clarify a lot. I'm questioning you about it as it is on your website.
Ambika Soni: They are calling it a Broadcasting Regulatory Council of India.
Karan Thapar: Broadcasting Regulatory Authority of India?
Ambika Soni: Change the name.
Karan Thapar: So remove the word 'regulator'?
Ambika Soni: I'm not going to fight on words. I have not taken over to myself. I have not appropriated to myself and the I&B (Information and Broadcasting Ministry) or any power to either name a body or attribute its functions or to decide its perimeters of reference. I have left it to the secretary on our behalf and the representatives of the Broadcasting Association.
Karan Thapar: But you are still the Minister, you carry the cane?
Ambika Soni: No, I'll step down if it helps. At least I had started the debate. It hasn't been there. The alternative is what is happening today: some people don't like a serial (and) they start sending the channels or broadcasters concerned direct notices. I don't want the ministry to play the role of a regulator.
Karan Thapar: I can understand about entertainment channels as there it is a question of ethics and morality. I'm talking specifically about news. I'm saying exclude TV news from the ambit of a regulator. A press council equivalent but not a regulator
Ambika Soni: Let that be the outcome of this debate which has started.
Karan Thapar: Do you have an open mind?
Ambika Soni: I have an absolutely open mind.
Karan Thapar: You also are accepting that people have been misled by the use of the term 'regulator'? You don't intend regulation of news?
Ambika Soni: I have clarified that. I don't want to regulate anything from the ministry. I want--whatever name everybody decides--some other mechanism which is fair, credible, autonomous to do that job. The commitment of Dr Manmohan Singh and the UPA government, that is the mandate I have.
Karan Thapar: I want to quote to you what Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru said in 1950. "I have no doubt that even if the government dislikes the liberties taken by the press and considers them dangerous, it is wrong to interfere with the freedom of the press".
And then he adds pointedly: "I would rather have a completely free press with all the dangers involved in the wrong use of freedom than a suppressed or a regulated press". Do you agree with that or are you trying to find a way to reverse it?
Ambika Soni: That is a legacy we have got and are proud of. That is the mandate I was given the day I assumed charge by the Prime Minister.
Karan Thapar: You have said to me that you will try and see that the word 'regulator' does not mislead people who are thinking there will be content control of news?
Ambika Soni: There is no clarity I can give further than what I have said. You know what happened after 26/11. The NBA and the Editors Association have asked me to administer, to help facilitate an empowered group on behalf of the Government which they could access in times of an emergency.
Karan Thapar: But no regulation?
Ambika Soni: No regulation.