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What lessons have we learnt from 26/11?

The blame can be divided into two, between the TV channels and the government. I am staggered by the quantity of information that appears to have been available to our security services, writes Vir Sanghvi. Looking back: The 60-hour terror traumaFaster, quicker | Tackling terror

india Updated: Nov 26, 2009 11:09 IST
Vir Sanghvi

In the aftermath of 26/11, politicians emerged as the biggest villains. But close on their heels were the media. Whether it was people you ran into on the streets or the hate groups on Facebook, the middle class seemed united in its disapproval of the way in which the media had covered the crisis.
(File photo) Pigeons fly as the Taj Hotel continues to burn in Mumbai, India, Thursday, Nov. 27, 2008. Teams of heavily armed gunmen stormed luxury hotels, a popular restaurant, hospitals and a crowded train station in coordinated attacks across India's financial capital Wednesday night, killing at least 82 people and taking Westerners hostage, police said. A previously unknown group, apparently Muslim militants, took responsibility for the attacks.

Now that we have had a year to reflect on the events that led to this outpouring of public anger against the media, it may be time to come to some conclusions.

First of all, did television channels behave in a manner that endangered the lives of hostages and commandos?

The answer has to be yes. I can quote three instances. Terrorists found out that guests were hiding out in the Chambers at the Taj on the night of the 26th when their Pakistani controllers told them that TV had carried the news. The TV channels appear to have discovered this when a politician who was at the Chambers gave a phone interview to the media.

Two, an excellent Discovery channel documentary on the survivors of 26/11 contains an interview with a woman who was trapped at the Trident. She texted her daughter in Canada to say that she was hiding on the 19th floor and was safe because the terrorists were down below.

Within minutes, her daughter texted back. Canadian TV was carrying a live feed from an Indian channel. The reporter was revealing that guests had taken refuge on the 19th floor and the cameraman was zooming in on a lit window on that floor.

Three, the NSG believes that it lost the advantage of any kind of surprise because all TV channels (except, to its credit,
NDTV) ran live coverage of commandos being lowered on to the roof of Nariman House. An NSG havaldar lost his life. And the mission was less successful than it might have been otherwise.

All three instances are solid, concrete and hard to refute.

But from then on, it is more difficult to be definitive about the role of TV. For instance, were the channels insensitive in talking to relatives of those trapped inside the hotels and in interviewing those who had escaped from the siege?

Well, yes and no. You and I may cringe slightly when the camera focuses on a distraught relative or on a man who has just lost his wife. But here’s the thing: Hardly anybody who was interviewed was unwilling to talk. The relatives outside the Trident actually asked to be put on camera so that they could be heard.
Employees and guests use curtains to escape the Taj Mahal hotel, site of one of the shootouts with terrorists, as fire engulfs the top floor in Mumbai on late November 26, 2008. Nearly 80 people were killed and an estimated 200 to 350 injured in a series of coordinated attacks in Mumbai, India.

There were some unpleasant scenes when reporters thrust microphones into the faces of people as they escaped from the Taj or the Oberoi.

And this was clearly insensitive. But this occurred maybe three or four times over three days. The rest of the time, all those who were interviewed were willing participants in the media coverage.

As a viewer, I thought that the tone of much of the TV coverage and the choice of guests were all wrong. But this is a criticism of style.

In terms of substance, the only things that matter are: was TV insensitive and did it endanger the lives of innocent people?

The answers are that I think we’ve made too much of the insensitivity but yes, the coverage was reckless and did put people at risk — perhaps it led to some deaths.

One of the problems with the way in which we have reacted to media coverage of 26/11 is that in our indignation, we have blurred the lines between the criticisms of style and the more serious criticisms of substance. I may not like a reporter or anchor. But that’s quite different from saying that he or she caused lives to be lost.

The big question therefore is: whose fault was it that TV served as an impediment in fighting the terrorists? <b2>

The blame can be divided into two, between the TV channels and the government. We know now that the authorities were listening in to conversations between the terrorists and their Pakistani handlers. I am staggered by the vast quantity of information that appears to have been available to our security services — in real time and as the crisis unfolded.

This means that somebody in a position of authority knew on the first night itself that terrorists had been alerted that guests were hiding in the Chambers by the TV coverage.

How much of a genius do you have to be to recognise that somebody needs to talk to TV channels and prevent them from revealing such details or warning them that they were contributing to the deaths of innocent people?
NSG commandos re-enact their counter-terrorism operations in the 2008 Mumbai attacks during a function to celebrate the 25th NSG Raising day in Manesar, on Friday, October 16, 2009.

And yet, nobody in a position of authority said a word.

So it is with the Nariman House operation. The NSG had decided to use a helicopter to lower commandos into the building at least 12 hours (if not more) before the operation got under way. They knew then that the building was ringed by TV cameras and that real time coverage was on the air.

Would any TV channel have objected if the authorities had asked it to focus on other locations while the operation was in progress? And if anyone had objected, the government had the power to yank the channel off the air.

But not one word was said to the channels. So who has the blood of the NSG havaldar on their hands? The TV channels or the authorities?

Another of the problems faced by anyone trying to conduct the operation was that false stories were regularly being fed to the media. While the operation was in progress and while NSG commandos were risking their lives, the Navy’s commandos (who had been briefly involved in the operation before the NSG arrived but do not seem to have engaged the terrorists significantly) actually held a press conference on live television offering details (most of them wrong) of what was going on inside the Taj.

Was this the fault of the media? Or of the Navy? Or of the government for not stopping the Navy from going on a publicity hunt?

One of the enduring mysteries of 26/11 is: what did the Army do?

Most of us remember how soldiers ringed the Oberoi and the Taj and how assorted generals kept appearing before the TV cameras to tell us how the operation was progressing.

And yet, in every account that now appears of 26/11, the role of the Army finds no place at all. But at the time the generals acted like they were running the show. It was a general who first told the TV cameras — without any authorisation at all — that Kasab was alive, was talking and had been discovered to be a Pakistani. It was another general who told us on the second day that the siege of the Taj was nearly over, that there had been only two terrorists, that one was dead and that the other was badly wounded. In fact, there were four terrorists and they fought on for a full day after the general had misled the media. A third senior officer told TV channels that they were listening to the communications between the terrorists and their handlers and that the attackers spoke a Pakistani Punjabi. Surely this kind of operational information should not have been disclosed?

Say this for the Army and the Navy: at least they went on TV and said what they had to on the record. The Bombay police, on the other hand, kept leaking false stories to journalists on an off-the-record basis, perhaps because they were annoyed at being excluded from the operation.

Any fool can see what was lacking: a single authority that took charge of information dissemination and stopped the publicity hounds and those with axes to grind from talking nonsense to the media.

In fact, there was no such authority. After the event, the I&B Ministry and the Home Ministry expressed concern about the
A gaping hole is seen at the side of Nariman House during an operation against terrorists in Colaba, Mumbai on Friday, November 28, 2008.

But when they could actually have done something, they remained silent. Nobody informed or guided the media. Nobody even bothered to put up barricades to prevent journalists from getting too close to released hostages. While the media launched a free for all, the government slept.

What happens now? There has been some attempt at self-regulation by journalists. Broadcasters have now agreed to do what should always have been done: no future crisis will be covered in real time. There will be a half-hour delay. Not only will this deny terrorists the advantage of knowing what is happening as it occurs, it will also allow the authorities to step in and stop the channels from telecasting operations that are best left secret.

Other measures have been taken. During 26/11, the terrorists phoned a TV channel from Nariman House and delivered a diatribe — live — on how India murders Kashmiris. That won’t happen again. There will be no more live interviews with terrorists.

It’s too early to be sure but my hope is that the next time a crisis like this occurs, the media will avoid the mistakes of 26/11. At least there has been some introspection and some guidelines have been formulated.

But has the government introspected? Has there been any post-mortem into why the information set-up functioned so
disastrously on 26/11?

Has any action been taken against those who spoke so irresponsibly to the media? Has a crisis information authority been set up?

I doubt it. The media learn from their mistakes. Governments, on the other hand, never learn.