India’s TV channels — How their competition helped 26/11 attackers

August 31, 2012 at 2:59 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The medium as messenger

(Hindu editorial August 31, 2012)

The Supreme Court’s blunt rebuke of television channels which went into a careless and competitive feeding frenzy while covering the Mumbai 26/11 terror attack is almost entirely justified. However, its concluding remark that “the mainstream electronic media has done much harm to the argument that any regulatory mechanism … must come only from within” is misplaced. First, the reprimand. There is no doubt that the live coverage of 26/11 set a low in TV journalism with the most basic of norms — objectivity, verification, dispassion — making way for a heated, overzealous and inconsiderate jumble of words and images as channels fought each other to ‘break news’ and gather eyeballs. Worse, there is evidence that at times the frenzied coverage risked the lives of people trapped in the two Mumbai hotels and endangered the security forces. Transcripts of phone conversations between the terrorists and their Pakistani handlers clearly establish that the latter were issuing instructions on the basis of what they were watching. For instance, the terrorists in Taj Mahal Palace were told the dome of the hotel had caught fire; those holed up at The Oberoi were informed that the security forces were strengthening their positions on the roof.
The Supreme Court is right that, insofar as it risked violating the right to life of others, such TV coverage cannot be justified under the right to free expression. However, it is one thing to criticise over-the-top coverage and quite another to say something that could be interpreted as tacit endorsement of an external regulatory framework. Despite the occasional excesses, self-regulation of the broadcast media is the best way of striking a balance between preserving freedom of expression from state interference and preventing the abuse of its immense power. News broadcasters are not unaware of their obligations and the reasonable restrictions on their freedom to report events. The setting up of the News Broadcasters Association, comprising 45 news and current affairs channels, with its Code of Ethics and its Redressal Authority to address complaints from those aggrieved, is a significant step in the right direction. Stung by the criticism of the coverage of 26/11, the NBA has issued guidelines for reporting in emergency situations, which mandate, among other things, that no information be “given of pending rescue operations or regarding the number of security personnel involved or methods employed by them.” As TV coverage of subsequent incidents has shown, self-regulation is working reasonably well and there is no reason for external control.


Reining in the hyper-active T.V channels .. (My view)

When the dust settled down on the 26/11 terror attacks on the dastardly Mumbai attack, the security agencies were horrified to discover that the ‘Control Room’ of the terror campaign located in Pakistan had immensely benefited from the ‘real-time’ reporting of the events by the TV channels in India. The Control Room could guide their operatives to take evasive action or go in the offensive depending upon the way the Indian security forces were being deployed in and around the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Jewish enclave. Thus, the effectiveness of the anti-terror operation was compromised, and some more civilian lives were lost.

One needs to recall the intensely competitive TV coverage of the events during those fateful days. The graphic details aside, there were bizarre captions, innuendoes, incendiary comments and everything else that took away objectivity from the reporting the gullible viewers saw day in and day out in their TV screens.

In the race to capture eyeballs, the TV reporters and the backend editorial staff in the studios threw all the three cardinal principles of media reporting to the air. Objectivity, verification and dispassion, the three principles which form the bedrock of balanced reporting were given the go by. Instead what came through was jingoistic commentaries, untrue accounts and exaggerated claims. Thus, what the TV viewers got to watch was not factual balanced account of the unfolding events, but some frenzied cocktail of footages, grotesque inferences and fully untrue accounts. A few intrepid reporters of some channels broke the security cordons to reach the spot where the military operations were taking place.

The Supreme Court has come down rather heavily on such ‘over-the-board’ reporting by TV channels. It has noted with concern that such saturated reporting of the events did provide crucial inputs to the terror control centre operating from Pakistan. By such unbridled reporting, the TV media undermined the argument that the editorial control of the outputs of the TV channels must come from within their organizations, and not through an externally- imposed Regulatory body.



The Supreme Court has pointed out that the Constitution-mandated principle of freedom of expression of the TV channels must not be extended to ludicrous limits where they begin to imperil the state’s security interests and the right of the citizens to live in a threat-free environment. However, a line has to be drawn here. The past irresponsible behaviour of the electronic media can not justify strangulation of their editorial freedom by an externally appointed regulator. Despite, all their failings, it is a safe to conclude that the TV channels are aware of their responsibilities to the society with regard to dissemination of factual news. So, the regulation of their conduct is best done by themselves. If this achieved, tt will be a healthy and mature step.



In this regard, one must welcome the coming into being of the National Broadcasting Association (NBA) with all the 45 TV channels under its supervisory umbrella. NBA has adopted its Code of Ethics and has a Redressal Authority to delve into and decide upon complaints relating to transgression by any Channel. This is a very desirable outcome.
The aberrations in the conduct of the TV channels during 26/11 attacks have spurred NBA to tighten the norms for reporting in crisis situations where the security forces battle an external enemy inside our territory. This seems to have salutary effects on the TV channels who appear to have brought their repotting in line with the newly-enforced ethics. TV reporting in the past few months bears this out.

We, therefore, can conclude that ‘self regulation’ is finally yielding results.



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