Saturday, 13 December 2008

Television Terror

On Friday, February 12, there was a panel discussion on "Who is to blame for media hysteria on terror? Journalists or viewers? --Lessons from Mumbai Siege" organised by a new forum – Federation of Media Professionals.

I couldn’t attend it, but from what people who did told me, the representatives of the television news channels were quite unapologetic and repeated the same old arguments – that there were no dos and don’ts, that they did what was best in the circumstances, that they did not endanger operations etc.

This line of defence has been taken ever since criticism of the media coverage started even as the drama was playing itself out on television screens. And how did the news channels respond?

CNN-IBN apparently did a panel discussion on the media coverage, where it patted all television channels on the back (with the occasional sniping at rival channels). According to thehoot.org, a mediawatch website, Mail Today (a part of the India Today group which also owns Headlines Today and Aaj Tak) does a story on media reactions to the information and broadcasting ministry’s advisory on television coverage. It was completely one-sided with public criticism of the media blanked out. Barkha Dutt responds to two Facebook groups that got set up calling them hate groups. Sure, they were named after her (Can u please take Barkha off air! and Barkha Dutt for worst senior journalist on the planet) but that was only because she came to epitomise all that was wrong with television news on those three days.

But none of our senior television journalists would admit to being wrong. So if Barkha flaunted so-called testimonials from N R Narayanamurthy (who, it later turned out, is on the NDTV board) and Shashi Tharoor (who seems to spend his time in television studios now) apart from Suketu Mehta Salman Rushdie, Sunil Khilnani, in her article on the NDTV website, India TV’s Rajat Sharma got a certificate from an unnamed former army chief whom he got to address his colleagues in an article in the Indian Express. Barkha said Naryanamurthy called it the "finest piece of TV journalism in a decade"; Sharma said the former army chief was emphatic that “News channels did nothing wrong. Your coverage didn’t do any harm whatsoever to the commandos!” This after the chief of the National Security Guards has said that the media did endanger operations.

Worse, the television journalists talk as if they are above criticism. Barkha calls the criticism of the television media “a different sort of civil war brewing; one that places us in the media on the other side of the enemy line.” Surely there should be some limit to hyperbole. Sharma says the war against terror is not over and that therefore the government should stop putting the blame on the media and the media should stop criticising the politicians, bureaucracy and intelligence agencies.

How very cosy! Don’t criticise me and I won’t criticise you. Even if both of us deserve criticism. This you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours attitude isn’t journalism, by any standard.

A Parliamentary committee has concluded that some kind of statutory regulations covering the media are needed in the interests of society. What a very fascist idea. But then why do I – who is all for a minimalist state and cringe at the term `in the interests of society’ – after initially recoiling at the idea start to ponder over whether the committee has a point after all?

Calls for self regulation and media responsibility are made every time the media transgresses its limits and the government threatens action. But at the next big event, all this gets forgotten. The television media, especially, is not going to regulate itself, it is not going to respect any ethic unless it is made to.

Worse, they themselves seem to be asking for it, with their `we weren’t given any dos and don’ts’. From dos and don’ts to diktats and censorship is just one small step.

Sometimes, stern action is the only way to tackle brats. But in this case, the action against brats is going to have larger implications for even the saner and well-behaved lot.

One can only hope that out of this madness, some sense will emerge.

Am I being too optimistic?

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