My column in today’s DNA
The evening of 26th November 2008, saw the beginning of concerted attacks on Mumbai. A squad of highly trained, well-armed terrorists landed in South Mumbai and worked in small teams to wreck death and destruction. Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) was the first to be attacked. People waiting to catch a train, people sleeping on the platform, people going home – ordinary people were murdered in cold blood. Over 50 died and over a hundred were injured. CST also saw the capture of one terrorist. The Taj and Oberoi, Hotels were attacked and between them saw dozens of people dead, many more injured and the Taj dome set on fire. Nariman House, a centre for Chabad Jews was attacked and a Rabbi and his pregnant wife along with those who lived there were murdered. Cama Hospital was another target. In all, one hundred and sixty six people lost their lives, and 238 people were injured, many seriously. Damage to property ran into hundreds of crores, and the damage to psyche – terrorists walking into civilian areas and killing people at random- was huge.
As the terror unfolded, India watched with gruesome fascination. Live images were being beamed into homes. Every nuance, every speculation, every little bit of panic was captured and relayed. It was almost there was no other news in India. V.P.Singh, former Prime Minister of India and architect of Mandal died on the 27th November, the day after the siege began. But the airwaves were relatively silent on this. Cyclone Nisha hit the coast of Tamil Nadu on the 26th of November, and continued its wreckage for the next two days. Just under 200 people died, tens of thousands were displaced, crops destroyed and the cumulative loss ran into thousands of crores. But, it barely registered in the media. It seemed like every single news camera was busy, parked in the one square mile of Mumbai, covering a made for TV event that would keep their viewers hooked.
A few days ago the Supreme Court of India, upheld the death penalty on the one lone terrorist – Mohammed Ajmal Kasab – captured on the 26th of November. The verdict lays out the preparation, planning and the training given to terrorists to attack India. It also carries transcripts of terrorist handlers from Pakistan giving instructions to those holed up in the Taj, the Oberoi and Nariman house. They are heard telling the killers to tell the Indian media, and by default the authorities, ‘hamra abhi toh trailor hai abhi asal film to baaki hai’. The transcripts make for eerie reading. It is evident that the handlers sitting across the border are able to give accurate information to the terrorists holed up in Mumbai. As the SC states in the verdict, “from the transcripts … it is evident that the terrorists who were entrenched at those places and more than them, their collaborators across the border were watching the full show on TV. “ Calling the television coverage ‘reckless’ the SC has harsh words for TV news media at large, saying that it resulted in a situation where the terrorists who were complete hidden from the gaze of Indian security forces had complete knowledge on the movement and weapons of Indian security forces because it was being beamed live on television. The SC also takes on the freedom of expression defence on live broadcasts in situations like this by saying that it is “subject to reasonable restrictions. An action tending to violate another person’s right to life guaranteed under Article 21 or putting the national security in jeopardy can never be justified by taking the plea of freedom of speech and expression.”
In the competition for TRP’s and the race to be the first with the news, it is evident that news channels have forgotten two important words ‘accuracy’ and ‘responsibility’. In most cases TV news is neither. While the coverage during 26/11 remains the most visible manifestation of this malaise, it is not the only one. The SC’s observations on TV news are by far, one of the most telling indictments of main stream news television in India. Given the power and the reach of news TV one must ask the question, is there anything to be gained by transmitting news live? There is something fundamentally wrong about news that has not gone through an editorial filter hitting the screens. The world will not come to an end if news and visuals were transmitted half an hour later, after someone responsible in the news channel – the editor – had a look at the coverage and moderated ‘recklessness’. In fact, it will possibly make the world a better place.