The aftermath of the terror attack on Bombay has seen the tiresome game of shoot-the-messenger being played with great glee by news consumers who were lapping up the non-stop coverage only hours earlier.
Questions have been raised over the media compromising the safety of commandos by getting too close to the action or giving out too many details, intruding into the grief of victims and relatives by thrusting cameras into their faces, etc.
By BARKHA DUTT
Sixty hours of live television at the best of times is impossibly difficult. But when it involves an ongoing and precarious terrorist operation and a potential danger to the lives of hundreds of people, it throws up challenges of the kind that none of us have ever dealt with before.
Even those of us who have reported for years, on conflict, war and counter insurgency weren’t prepared for what we encountered in Bombay: an audacious attack on a city that was more in the nature of an invasion of India, than terrorism in any form, that we have known before.
As India debates where to go from here and whether a “war on terror” is the borrowed slogan that should define our response, I notice there is a different sort of civil war brewing; one that places us in the media on the other side of the enemy line.
For every Mumbaikar who believes we did the best we could in very trying circumstances—and we have received thousands and thousands of such messages—there are some others who are now questioning our ethics, our integrity and our professionalism.
On the streets of Bombay, I only met people who thanked us for providing a larger sense of community to a city seething with rage and grief. But as I fly back to Delhi, I am told that “hate” groups are trying to compete with “fan” communities on social networking sites like Facebook and Orkut.
The Internet apparently is buzzing with vitriol and we, in the media in general, and sometimes, me in particular, are being targeted with a venom that is startling.
I understand that India is angry, nerves are frazzled and emotions heightened.
Even so, many of the charges are not just offensive, malicious and entirely untrue; they are a convenient transference of responsibility.
This is not to say, that we made no mistakes—I am sure we inadvertently made a few—as did every department of government, when faced with a situation that India has never dealt with before. But to park concocted and slanderous charges at our door is simply unacceptable, grossly unfair and saddening.
I would also like to stress though that this eruption of allegations is only one small part of a larger picture. In the past week, we have also received countless words of support and encouragement—from thousands of people—Indian citizens of every hue and ilk across the country, as well as some better known ones, like Narayana Murthy, Salman Rushdie, Shashi Tharoor, Sunil Khilnani and Suketu Mehta, to name just a few.
When asked in an interview on NDTV, what struck him watching the events unfold on television, Narayana Murthy, said it was the “finest piece of TV journalism in a decade.”
But in journalism, we know that, praise and criticism are twins that travel together. And we welcome both and try and listen to both carefully.
So, for those who wrote in to tell us that we got it right, Thank You so much. Your words encourage us.
But for those who charged us with crimes we absolutely assert we have not committed, here is our response. Some of it is answer to general questions about the media and some to specific charges made against our organization.
1. Please do note that at all times, the media respected the security cordon—a cordon that was determined by the police and officials on site—and NOT by the media.
If, as is now being suggested, the assessment is that the media was allowed too close to the operations, here is what we say: we would have been happy to stand at a distance much further away from the encounter sites, had anyone, anyone at all, asked us to move.
In the 72 hours that we stood on reporting duty, not once were we asked to move further away. We often delayed live telecasting of images that we thought were sensitive so as to not compromise the ongoing operation. Not once, were we asked by anyone in authority, to switch our cameras off, or withhold images. When we did so, it was entirely our own assessment that perhaps it was safest to do so.
Across the world, and as happened in the US after 9/11, there are daily, centralized briefings by officials to avoid any inadvertent confusion that media coverage may throw up. Not so in Bombay. There was no central point of contact or information for journalists who were often left to their own devices to hunt down news that they felt had to be conveyed to their country.
No dos and don’ts were provided by officials.
While we understand that this situation was new for everyone involved, and so the government could not have been expected to have a full plan for media coverage, surely the same latitude should be shown to us? The NSG chief even thanked the media for our consistent co-operation. Later the NSG commandos personally thanked me for showcasing their need for a dedicated aircraft—which they shockingly did not have—they have now been given there after NDTV’s special report was aired.
We have only the greatest respect and admiration for our armed forces, and throughout the coverage repeatedly underlined how they are our greatest heroes. But we were taken aback to hear the Navy Chief, branding us as a “disabling force,” for reporting on an ongoing operation.
If that is the case, why were his own officers briefing us on camera, bang in the middle of an ongoing operation and that too when they only had a few rushed moments at the site of encounters? Before the encounter was over at either the Taj or the Oberoi, his marine commandos even held a hastily called press conference that was telecast live, with their permission, across channels.
If we were indeed the obstacle, or the “disabling force” why did they have time for us in the middle of an operation?
While shooting the messenger is convenient , the government also needs to introspect and determine whether it has an information dissemination system in place that is geared for such crises. Blanking out channels—as was done for a few hours—may not be the ideal solution. It only leads to more rumour mongering, panic and falsehoods spreading in already uncertain situation.
2. Why did we interview waiting relatives who staked out at the hotels as they waited for news on their families and friends? Quite simply, because they WANTED to talk.
Allegations that I or any of my colleagues across the industry shoved a microphone in the faces of any waiting relative, are untrue in the extreme. Television, for many of these people, became a medium to express pain, grief, anger and hope.
Sometimes, they expressed the desire to speak, because as they said, they just wanted to feel like they were doing something, instead of sitting by on the pavement for endless, countless hours. Many did not want to speak or be filmed, and they were neither pressured nor asked. Many personally asked me for my telephone number, and got in touch, requesting whether they could come on our shows and make their appeals.
And besides, wasn’t the issue at hand as much about their potential loss and anxieties, as it was about an ongoing gunbattle? Wasn’t it important to touch upon the human dimension and not just the military one? I believe strongly that it was.
Capturing suffering on live television is a delicate issue that needs the utmost sensitivity. We believed we showed that sensitivity, by not thrusting microphones in people’s faces, by respecting privacy if people asked for identities or images to be withheld, by never showing a ghoulish close-up of a body, and by respecting the limits set by the people themselves. Those limits were different for different people and had to be adapted to subjectively.
But every interview of a relative that was aired on any of my shows, was done so with the full consent and participation of the people speaking. If they wanted to share their story, vent, give an outlet for their grief or just make an appeal for peace—and the emotions varied—-how can other people out there determine that they should not be speaking? But to say that we had no business talking to families is an entirely naive and misplaced criticism. They chose to talk. In every case, it was their choice to share and to speak. And their voices were in fact the real tragedy and needed to be heard and told.
Similarly, when the rescued hostages first emerged from the hotels many of them WANTED to speak because they wanted to let their families know they were safe. The unfortunate absence of a cordon created an avoidable crowding in of journalists. But every rescued hostage who appeared on any of our shows did so entirely voluntarily.
Every participant on We the People, including Shameem, a man who lost six members of his family at the CST railway station was there because they wanted to share their tragedy or miraculous escape or trauma in a wider community. Shameem, who said he did not have money to bury his dead, has since been offered help and rehabilitation by our viewers. In that moment, television provided a wider sense of community, when no one else had the time of wherewithal to talk to the waiting relatives.
3. Could we have been more aware of the suffering and tragedy of those killed in the first few hours at the CST railway station and not got singularly focused on the two hotels? On this one point, I would concede that perhaps, this was a balance we lost and needed to redress earlier on during the coverage.
But, mostly our attention was on the hotels, because they were the sites of the live encounters, and not because of some deliberate socio-economic prejudice. Still, when many emails poured in on how important it was to correct this imbalance, most of us, stood up, took notice, and tried to make amends for an unwitting lack of balance in air time.
4. Should there be an emergency code of dos and don’ts for the coverage of such crises? We in the media would welcome a framework for sensitive events and are happy to contribute to its construction.
But it is important to understand that in the absence of any instructions on site and in the absence of any such framework we broke NO rules.
Both the NSG chief and the special secretary untrue took place and we have an official aknowledgment of that, including from then Army Chief V.P Malik. I would urge Admiral Sureesh Mehta to read General V.P Malik’s book on Kargil for further clarity. General Malik was the Army Chief during the operations and puts to rest any such controversy in his book.
In a formal letter, NDTV has also asked for an immediate retraction from the Navy and officially complained that the comments amount to defamation. Several writers have already pointed out how the Navy Chief has got his facts wrong. (DNA, Indian Express, Vir Sanghvi in The Hindustan Times, Sankarshan Thakur in The Telegraph). This, incidentally, was the same press conference where the Admiral threatened literally to “chop the heads off” of two other reporters who aired his interview ahead of schedule.
I believe that criticism is what helps us evolve and reinvent ourselves. But when malice and rumour are regarded as feedback, there can be no constructive dialogue.
Viewing preferences are highly subjective and always deeply personal choices, and the most fitting rejection of someone who doesn’t appeal to your aesthetics of intelligence, is simply to flick the channel and watch someone else.
The viewer, to that extent, is king.
But, when, comments begin targeting character, morality and integrity of individuals and the commentary becomes more about the individual, than the issue, then frankly, the anger is just destructive and little else.
More than anything else, it is tragic that at this time, we are expressing ourselves in this fashion. Surely, India has bigger lessons to learn and larger points to mull over, than to expend energy over which television journalist tops the charts or falls to the bottom.
The viewer has his own way, of settling such matters.
And the last word belongs to him.