Ranjona Banerji: When Times Now got it wrong

16 Nov,2012

By Ranjona Banerji


Mumbai lived through an extraordinary day on Thursday both in actual terms and on news television. The news of Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray’s ill-health on television on Wednesday night led to the city being shut down on Thursday morning. There were no newspapers and there was no bandh call. It seemed that fear of reprisal by angry Shiv Sainiks kept auto-rickshaws and taxis off the roads and many shops shut.


This was, ideally, time for news channels to shine. It was their moment. They could not only tell India about Thackeray’s condition but also report on the situation in the city. Times Now decided that Thackeray was going to be the only story of the day. So its reporters and camera crew perched outside Matoshree all day. However, the channel had no clue about what was going on inside Thackeray’s residence and little clue about what was happening in the rest of the city. So after a while, you felt that you were watching a red carpet report of all the celebrities arriving at the “event”. Initially, funereal tones were adopted by the channel but as the day progressed, these were abandoned. There was no investigative or even standard reporting of any kind – no direct interaction with doctors, either Thackeray’s doctors or anyone else’s, no reports based on conversations with other Sena leaders, no leads as to what was going on inside. And even when it was clear that all the Sena would say is that Bal Thackeray was “critical but stable” the celebrity parade was all that the channel would focus on.


Outside the Bandra East area however was the big story – how India’s financial capital shut itself down in the morning for fear of attacks by Shiv Sainiks in case of an eventuality. This the Mumbaikar learnt about from hearsay to social media to talking to people, with rumours merrily mixed up with facts. Times Now, incidentally, is a Mumbai-based channel unlike the others which are headquartered in Delhi.


Headlines Today also concentrated on Thackeray but instead of standing outside his house, had panel discussions on Thackeray’s life and politics. Anchored by Rahul Kanwal, the channel looked at Thackeray’s career and the various controversies surrounding him and the contradictions in the man himself. Sociologist Dipankar Gupta and journalists Vir Sanghvi and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta shared their own experiences and their insights. One could not agree with all of them but it was a mature discussion about a politician who carved out a unique space for himself in India’s polity.


CNN-IBN treated Thackeray’s ill-health like just another news story, also looking at the visit of Burmese politician Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in Ireland because she was refused a medical termination of pregnancy after a miscarriage and the fact that the government had not mopped up Rs 1 lakh 76000 crore from 2G spectrum auctions.


At night, however, Times Now having perhaps decided that it had wasted a whole day on what turned out to be a non-story, had its primetime discussions on Savita’s case. Being the foremost upholder of national pride, the focus of course was on the fact that an Indian had died and not on the medical and religious aspects of the case.


Deciding on the news is a judgment call in any media organisation and everyone makes mistakes. But Times Now not only called the day wrong it also showed incompetence in the way it handled its news of the day. It could have changed its strategy at any time but appeared to be sleeping on the job. An unfortunate example of how not to run with a news story.


It took the morning’s newspapers, as ever, to put Thursday in perspective and tell us what else had happened.


Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Contributing Editor, MxMIndia. The views expressed here are her own (though we often agree with them)


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