Today in New Delhi, India
Oct 22, 2018-Monday
New Delhi
  • Humidity
  • Wind

The medium is the mess

The problem with much of the TV coverage — and the principal reason why people are so angry — was the complete misjudgement of tone. At times of national crisis, we don’t need hysterical reporters telling us how bad things are, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Dec 14, 2008 11:22 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

Beware of those whose anger you fan. Because one day, that same anger will be directed at you. If that’s not an epigram, it should be — as the TV news channels are now discovering.

Within the electronic media, there’s a considerable degree of self-satisfaction over the coverage of the Bombay attacks.
The intense criticism that the TV channels have come under in the aftermath of the attacks is sought to be ascribed to irrational public hysteria.

I do not dispute that some of the criticism is overblown, unjustified and unfair. In times of crisis, people tend to lash out wildly at anybody they associate with that crisis. In the case of the Bombay attacks, it began as rage against politicians, was transformed into hatred of Pakistan and has now mutated into anger against the media.

But two points need to be kept in mind. First of all, TV channels encouraged and fanned irrational public anger and hatred, giving airtime to everybody — small-time film stars, midgets on the fringes of journalism, party kings and party queens, advertising know-it-alls, etc — to rave and rant against politicians, democracy, the Indian state, civilian authority, Pakistan and god alone knows what else.

Now that this hatred has turned on them, can they really complain?

Second, many of the criticisms are justified and valid. Unless the media stop patting themselves on their backs and accept that they made many mistakes, things are not going to get better in the next crisis.

One problem with much of the TV coverage — and the principal reason why people are so angry — was the complete misjudgement of tone. At times of national crisis, we don’t need hysterical reporters telling us how bad things are. We can see the pictures for ourselves.

Too many journos failed to realise this, inflicting their own sorrow on us and needlessly emphasising the emotional dimension of the crisis. We didn’t need that. We needed calm authority and a sense that even as the horror of the crisis unfolded, the rest of India was still functioning normally.

Anchors also misjudged the national mood. They either spoke to relatives of the hostages or listened only to Bombay trash celebrities and believed wrongly that this was the mood of the national audience. But it wasn’t our mood at all. India was united during that tragedy. We were all Bombayites for those three days. But we were not all sipping champagne in Simi Garewal’s suite at the Four Seasons and worrying about the danger posed to our facelifts by the slum-dwellers below our windows.

The rest of India retained its perspective and its rationality even if Page 3 people did not.

No matter what the media may say now, there is no doubt that security considerations rarely entered into their programming calculations or affected their news judgement. Was it right to show the commandos being lowered on to Nariman House in real time? Should TV channels have revealed that many guests had taken shelter at the Chambers at the Taj?

These are just two instances but in both cases lives were lost. The NSG believes that one of its commandos died in the Nariman House assault at least partly because the terrorists knew he was coming. And we know now that terrorists went to the Chambers and opened fire after they heard that guests were hiding there.

It’s not good enough to say, as the TV channels are saying now: we simply did what we were told. The defence offered by the channels is as follows: “The authorities never told us what not to show or where not to go. How were we to know any better?” This is a dangerous argument because it suggests that the media are incapable of any kind of self-regulation and unable to think beyond the next shot unless they are instructed what to do. This is an invitation for censorship or external regulation.

For all the lectures that TV pundits give politicians every night, telling them how to run the country, it is clear that a) they turn into small children at the slightest signs of a crisis, bleating helplessly “But nobody told us what to do” and b) they have no emergency protocols and no lists of dos and don’ts for disaster coverage.

But the government is also to be blamed. It’s all very well for the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to issue advisories now and call meetings of TV channels. But where was the ministry when the crisis was raging? What was it doing then?

I accept that the events of the first night took everyone by surprise. But the crisis went on for three days. Why was nobody issuing instructions or evolving guidelines? Why bother to send an advisory about repeats of footage when you could have intervened when the footage was actually going out live?

Briefings during the crisis were rare and followed no particular pattern. Most bizarre of all was the role of the Indian Navy — and it is no surprise that the government has asked for explanations.

I think all of us owe a debt of gratitude to the navy’s commandos for their role on the first night when they were briefly involved (for a few hours) in the action at the Taj till the NSG arrived and took over. But the naval commandos would have come off better if the naval high command had not decided to turn their brief intervention into the centerpiece of a PR campaign.

Senior officers gave TV interviews while the operation was still on, proudly displaying evidence for the cameras without considering the security ramifications. In a monumental error of judgement, the commandos — who are supposed to be a shadowy secretive force — then gave a press conference, also while the operation was still continuing and NSG officers were laying down their lives. Worse still, they gave details of what they had found at the Taj. And even worse, some of these details were wrong. For instance, they claimed to have found Malaysian ID cards on the terrorists — quickly amended to Mauritius ID cards — when in fact the one card they had found was subsequently traced to a guest at the hotel.

Too many agencies talked too much and in different voices.

Three things are clear. The first is that the suggestion made by Hindustan Times a week ago about delayed coverage has not been seriously challenged or disputed by anyone. We had said that one way of avoiding security breaches was to ensure that all live coverage went out after a delay (this could be as little as 10 minutes and as much as 20). That way, terrorists would not get information in real time and authorities could intervene to stop the telecast of anything that might compromise the operation. It’s time to implement this suggestion.

Second, we desperately need a unified command structure when such crises occur. I accept that the police need to call in help, from the army, the navy, the NSG, the CRPF, etc. But all these agencies cannot operate in isolation. There needs to be one boss; one man who calls the shots while everybody else listens.

Third, we need a PR protocol. There must always be somebody in a position of authority on the spot who decides where to draw the line; what can be shown and what can’t; how far away the press must be from the action; how to prevent released hostages from being mobbed by TV reporters; how to punish and stop channels that air interviews with terrorists or give false news such as the claims of fresh firing at VT station.

This person or agency must also be in charge of briefing the media. Three briefings a day are normal in these situations and could easily have been arranged during the Bombay siege.

If you don’t give information to the media, then they will get it from other sources: talkative policemen, relatives of hostages, publicity-hungry naval officers, etc. And nearly always, this information will either be wrong or will compromise security.

We are all agreed on some things. Politicians must learn to be accountable. The intelligence apparatus must be overhauled. Our reaction times must be quicker. Our forces should get the arms and facilities they need.

To that list, add one more: the TV channels must never repeat the mistakes of the siege of Bombay.

First Published: Dec 13, 2008 19:24 IST