Ranjona Banerji: Was TV news reckless in covering 26/11?

30 Aug,2012

By Ranjona Banerji


On Wednesday evening, after the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, the lone terrorist caught in the November 2008 terror attacks on Mumbai, I received a tweet saying that no TV panel discussions would ever be held on the way the court indicted TV channels for their “reckless” coverage.


Perhaps they will and perhaps they won’t. Certainly newspapers have reported on the apex court’s comments.


“The shots and visuals that were shown live by TV channels could have been shown after all the terrorists were neutralised and all the security operations were over. But in that case, the TV programmes would not have had the same shrill, scintillating and chilling effect and would not have shot up the TRP ratings of the channels,” said the two-judge bench of Justices Aftab Alam and CK Prasad.


There was much discussion during and after the attacks about the sensational coverage of the attacks by TV channels and whether or not security had been jeopardised. There now seems to be evidence – conversations between the terrorists and their handlers in Pakistan – that certainly the terrorists knew what was going on because of the TV coverage.


There was also the anger against NDTV for revealing the hotel room of a witness on live TV during an excited conversation. This was more fuel to a latent anger against NDTV and its celebrity anchor Barkha Dutt which started during the Kargil War over the perhaps injudicious use of a satellite phone.


However, as any journalist knows covering a live event is not easy. There are instant decisions to be made under very stressful circumstances. Some mistakes are inevitable. This is not an excuse: rather it is a way to explain why mistakes will happen. Times Now, for instance, has to be commended for the way in which it decided not to give away important positions or reveal the status of those still trapped inside the two hotels and Nariman House. It was the coverage of this event which catapulted Times Now to the status it now has. Editor Arnab Goswami resisted the temptation to jump into the fray himself — unlike Dutt of NDTV and Rajdeep Sardesai of CNN-IBN who turned themselves into field reporters – and instead behaved like an editor by staying in the newsroom and directed his people.


But the phenomenon of editors wanting to grab plum reporting assignments is a critique for another time.


It also has to be pointed out that the print media not only has a better system of checks, balances and filters than TV but also that print editors usually get their celebrity status by pontificating in opinion pieces rather than stealing the thunder from their reporters. Print also has the time to sort out how a breaking event has to be presented.
Unfortunately for Indian TV news, the notion of how an “editor” functions has still not penetrated into its functioning. There is too much breathless excitement and immaturity in the way events are covered. And four years ago, a vicious, ruthless and audacious terrorist attack in India’s commercial capital was one such event. Rather than indict the medium of television news itself, it might be a better idea to punish those particular channels which compromised national security. But it is also time for Indian news channels to adopt some more practical journalistic systems so that this argument does not come up again and again.


Even if a live event is being covered, there has to be time for considered judgment about what can be shown and what cannot: a little more editorial discretion and a little less immature hysteria. Was it necessary, for instance, for Headlines Today to show godman Asaram Bapu’s helicopter crashing on a continuous loop for five minutes?
But after all the indictments and criticism, this has to be said. TV news gave India the chance to see what was happening and the extent of Pakistan’s assault on India. We also Kasab creeping past VT station and that image is one of the many which ensured his sentencing. For this, we have to thank the medium. It made compelling viewing and I for one watched it for almost three days running.


Can TV news get better? Certainly. Does it have to be damned unequivocally? Certainly not.


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One response to “Ranjona Banerji: Was TV news reckless in covering 26/11?”

  1. Why was it necessary to show or make the evidence public which could help in the investigation, trial or proceedings of the case?