Jan 13, 2009

Columnists - Star India CEO talks on Media coverage of Mumbai attack

To argue that television did a bad job of covering the Mumbai attack is suddenly fashionable. The case is being made most vociferously by the political and the bureaucratic class in India. Short of accusing news channels of planning the attack with the terrorists, TV has been accused of pretty much everything else. So what exactly did TV do during those three days?

First, even though the terrorists targeted only four locations — the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the Taj, the Oberoi and Nariman House — news channels multiplied the theatre of the attacks million-fold. Almost every one of the 85 million cable homes plus 5 million DTH homes in India behaved as if each of them was under attack.

When the Mumbai Police behaved like comic artists, the entire nation was shaking with rage. When the commando action was delayed, everyone was angry with the Home Minister and his bumbling department. When the navy commandos did their ‘filmy’ press conference in the backdrop of a continuing National Security Guards (NSG) gun-battle, even the most casual TV viewer figured out that it was a shameless attempt to grab credit. When Ratan Tata blasted the government for its tardy response mechanism, people nodded their heads in agreement. And when Vilasrao Deshmukh took his actor son and his director friend on a guided tour of the Taj, no one was left in any doubt that it was his only decisive contribution in those three days.

Now assume a scenario in which the channels are not allowed to cover a terrorist attack or have to submit their tapes to some censor agency for clearance. Can you imagine getting yourselves involved with something that you know has already happened? People drop everything to catch a live broadcast only because they know that what they are watching is happening at that moment. Live news has the power to remove the distance between the viewer and the participant or victim.

So did the news channels do a bad job? Let’s break this into two parts: one, did they make mistakes? Yes, they made some mistakes. Some of these were mistakes of ignorance, some mistakes of inexperience and some mistakes were made in the sheer rush of events. Two, what did these mistakes do to the rescue operation? Did they impair the response or enhance it? To answer this, let’s talk about another anti-terrorist operation that was concluded last week: terrorists had crossed into Poonch and had set up bunkers inside Indian territory. Did you even notice the news? Our security forces and intelligence agencies had completely missed it. We don’t even how long this was going on for — until one day we were told that our forces had launched a massive combing operation. The operation lasted for eight days and at the end of it, the government issued a brief, convenient message that the terrorists had all fled back into Pakistan.

The Mumbai attacks, on the other hand, forced the government’s hand. It was one of those rare occasions when all Indians insisted on accountability. As a news channel editor asked the other day, is the government supposed to monitor the media or should it be the other way round? That is the fundamental question. The government is determined to monitor the media so that it can censor pictures and soundbites that demand accountability from the government. You have to decide whether the next time there is a terrorist attack you’ll trust the government or the TV channels.

(Uday Shankar is CEO, Star India)

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