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Return of the Censor

Television channels did a bad job of covering the Bombay attacks. But they did not necessarily behave unethically, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Jan 11, 2009 10:24 IST
Counterpoint | Vir Sanghvi

Now that over a month has passed since the Bombay attacks, we are probably ready to discuss media coverage of the incidents dispassionately and without rancour. When the attacks occurred, many of us had expressed reservations about the way TV channels had covered the crisis. The channels responded with a mixture of outrage, anger and incomprehension, claiming that much of the criticism was unfair.

Was it, in fact, unfair? Do we need regulation? And should this regulation be imposed by the government? These questions assume a new importance because a Cabinet Note prepared by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry seeks to amend the Cable Television Network Rules and to increase governmental control of TV.

The way this debate is now conducted will affect the Indian media for a long time to come. Once laws are in place, a system of regulation and censorship is almost impossible to change.

So, let’s go through the main criticisms, step by step.

Security concerns: Did the TV coverage of the anti-terrorist operation come in the way of the security forces?

There’s little doubt that it did. We know that the Pakistani handlers of the terrorists were glued to their TV sets and kept them informed of all developments: the presence of MPs at the Taj, the landing of commandos at Nariman House etc. Given that the police and the NSG both feel that the coverage gave away too much, let’s agree that serious mistakes were made.

Was the coverage foolish? I think it often was. Enough has been said about the bimbos who were interviewed, the pointless lectures that anchors gave us, the overdose of emotion in the reporting and now the war-mongering. At least two TV channels have already declared war on Pakistan.

But equally, let’s be honest. Many of the things that we complained about in the TV coverage have also turned up in print. The same bimbos have been interviewed, there is just as much war-mongering and the same victims have told their stories in magazines and newspapers without print journalists being accused of profiting from tragedy.

So yes, this was not TV’s finest hour but some of the criticism has been too selective.

Was the coverage unethical? This is where I part company of many of TV’s critics. There is a difference between being foolish and being unethical.

There’s no law against bad TV. Perhaps anchors should not lecture, but this does not amount to a violation of ethics.

If you don’t like a hectoring anchor, change channels. If you don’t want to hear page three morons, don’t watch that channel.

One of my concerns is that we have lost sight of the distinction between ‘bad’ and ‘unethical’. You may not like my articles. You may think I write badly. You may not think much of the HT as a whole, even.

That is your right.

But equally, I have the right to write badly, to be too emotional and too provocative in my journalism.

The recourse available to you is not legal; it is commercial. Stop buying the HT. Or at any rate, stop reading me. But you cannot demand a ban on me or the paper because you think my articles are crap, or because if I pontificate too much.

It’s the same with TV. To say — as I do — that the channels did not cover themselves with glory is not to say that therefore, they should be censored or banned.

In a free society, censorship can only be used in extreme cases. It cannot be a form of TV criticism.

Did the authorities fail? Completely. Anybody who watched TV could see the chaos within the chain of command. The navy’s publicity-hunting has already been widely criticised as the chief’s behaviour and his shameful refusal to retract slanderous statements. But even the army, police and NSG often gave briefings that were at variance with one another. Clearly, nobody was in charge and this led to confusion.

There is another sense in which the authorities failed. If they were monitoring the phone calls of the terrorists and knew that they were being tipped off by those who were watching TV, then why, in God’s name, did they not intervene to stop live TV coverage?

Could they not have spoken to the channels? Couldn’t they have moved the barriers so that the cameras were too far way to reveal anything that the terrorists could have used?

Did the I&B Ministry fail? Yes. Totally. It’s all very well to try and censor the media now but where was the Ministry during the three days of the siege? Nobody bothered to organise briefings for the press with the result that journalists depended on leaks. No official made the points that the ministry is now making when it would actually have made a difference — during the operation.

Were all channels as bad? No, of course not. Many behaved responsibly even though there was nobody they could talk to in a position of authority for guidance. For instance, several channels refused to let the terrorists go on air even when they called up demanding to speak to viewers. I know that NDTV had the sense not to carry the Nariman House operation live even as other channels covered it from four different angles, contributing, or so the authorities say, to the death of Havaldar Gajender Singh.

So it is unfair to tar everyone with the same brush.

What kind of regulation do we need? Here’s what I think we should immediately get. A) An agreement among channels to show footage with a delay. That way, terrorists get no information in real time. And if the government wants something not to be telecast, it has enough time to stop the channels from showing it. B) A proper command structure (actually, we need that to fight terrorism, not just to brief the media) with one person clearly in charge. C) Somebody responsible to decide where the cordons should be. During this crisis, the decisions were ad hoc and poorly thought-out. D) Proper briefings organised by a branch of the I&B Ministry.

What does the government propose to do? The proposals contained in the Cabinet Note are so far-reaching that nobody who believes in the freedom of the press can possibly support them. I know that I certainly will be opposing them as loudly as I can.

According to these proposals, ‘authorised officers’ (policemen or bureaucrats) will have to clear all feeds during crisis situations and, in some cases, an approved feed (that is, Doordarshan) will be provided to all channels and they will be asked to carry only that.

This sounds vaguely reasonable in the context of the Bombay operation. But these restrictions will be used to censor coverage of many other events: communal riots, police brutality, anti-government demonstrations etc.

Consider how the media would have covered, say, the Gujarat massacres if these restrictions had been in force. The truth would never have got out. We would have watched a sanitised feed and any genuine coverage would have been banned on the grounds that it fanned emotions. Ditto for the Amarnath agitation or the Bombay riots of 1993 when the government completely failed.

What liberals need to understand is that once you empower governments with the power of censorship, you cannot complain if these powers are exercised by future governments whose motives are less noble than say, kindly decent Manmohan Singh’s motives. What happen if Prime Minister Narendra Modi decides to do the censoring? Or Prime Minister Mayawati?

And if TV can be censored on these grounds, there is no logical reason to not extend the censorship to print or the internet.

Is this really what we want?

So, what now? I think TV did a bad job of covering the Bombay attacks. But it did not necessarily behave unethically or knowingly put lives at risk. Yes, there should have been some control over the operational details that were revealed. But that is as much the fault of the government as it is of the channels.

It makes no sense to therefore empower the government to censor the channels and to let the ministries and officials get off scot-free.

Some minimal restrictions (a delay, for instance) and a better information set-up are what we need. And some introspection by channels.

We do not need censorship from the very people who failed us during the crisis. Give them these powers and they will fail the free society even more spectacularly.

First Published: Jan 10, 2009 21:54 IST