On Friday, the entire nation saw dramatic visuals of masked commandos descending from helicopters and dropping down on the roof of Nariman House — just one frame of an Indian fascination for 24/7 news that the terrorists had banked on.
Create mayhem, make it last. And leave the rest to the power of television news.
Vikram Sood, former chief of India’s Research and Analysis Wing, said lots needed to be self-censored. “It was horrific,” he said. “The terrorists would have got to know exactly what was happening.”
The visuals were shown despite a Thursday night advisory from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting asking news channels not to report on operational details. The advisory was issued after Home Ministry officials complained that channels were indirectly helping militants keep tabs on the security forces’ operation.
Government officials said that the militants in the Taj and Oberoi hotels were getting details of the movement of security forces around the hotels on Wednesday night from Pakistan through satellite phones and laptops, even though cable television lines were snapped in hotels on Wednesday night itself.
“The satellite phone intercepts indicated that television was being used to provide information to militants inside the hotels till Thursday evening when the government issued an advisory,” said and I&B ministry official. Added an official: “The militants knew from where the security forces were zeroing in.” That could have slowed down the operation.
News channels were also advised not to show the bodies of victims till the operation was over as it could give a boost to the morale of the militants inside the hotels. “We also asked the channels not to show the burning hotel rooms repeatedly. If they were shown, then the logo of repeat telecast should be clearly mentioned,” an official said.
Though senior ministry officials described the TV coverage overall as restrained and much better than in earlier times, there were lapses.
A channel actually broadcast a live interview with an alleged terrorist. Said Star Network CEO Uday Shankar, who has in the past run the 24-hour Star News channel, “There has to be a consensus that you don’t give that kind of platform to such terrorists. Even if a channel does get such an interview, it should be recorded and gone over carefully before airing, if at all.”
On Friday, many news channels also put out unconfirmed ‘news’ that there had been firing at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, creating panic and fear among Mumbai’s citizens. Later the ‘news’ turned out to be inaccurate. Soon after, cable channels went off the air in Mumbai, though they were restored after a while.
“Terrorists want to create fear. Anything that generates fear is in their interest. News channels must guard against that,” added Sood.
But the former RAW chief was in favour of media briefings by the authorities in question. “That’s important so that there’s no panic. Every impression should be given that the authorities are in control, even if that may not be a hundred per cent true.”
Shankar says anchors play a critical role in maintaining balance in the midst of live coverage. “Unfortunately, many channels have people of poor intellectual calibre and maturity as anchors. And this is across English and Hindi news channels,” he said. “We also need to find more dignified ways of approaching victims who’ve just emerged from a traumatic experience rather than thrusting mikes in their faces as if they have just come out of a matinee show.”
Not surprisingly, the television rating points (TRP) of news channels increased four to five times in the last two days as against normal news days, Audience Measurement and Analytics (aMAP), a company measuring television viewing, said on Friday. The increase was witnessed more for Hindi news channels than English news channels.