Ranjona Banerji: 26/11 – battleground news channels and newspapers

25 Nov,2013

By Ranjona Banerji

 

Like many others in Mumbai, I also got a phone call from friends asking me to switch on the TV on the night of November 26, 2008. And then all night, I watched the surreal events being played out in front of millions. The first suspicions were of a drug gang shootout in Colaba – an area known for the unsavoury characters that emerge once the sun sets. But as the focus shifted from Colaba to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (also known as VT) and then to Mumbai’s most iconic hotels, the Taj and the Trident (still called the Oberoi) it was clear that something far more sinister was going on.

 

Images of the young and gleeful Ajmal Kasab began to flash on TV screens, evil intent apparent in his glittering eyes – or so it seemed to us. There was news of the best and the brightest of Mumbai’s police force being killed in the attacks. There was fear for friends who were out in the area – and never have mobile phones been more useful. There was immense sorrow as news of those missing began to emerge. In my case, it was an old school friend who I had known since we were both five.

 

But in all this, you had also to look at the events as a journalist. You were not just a voyeur. You were a trained professional with what is in media terms the story of the decade playing out in front of your eyes. The first drum beat roll therefore has to go to television. Many brave young reporters stood out there for three days telling the world what was happening inside the hotels and Nariman House which were under siege for three days after the first attacks on Cafe Leopold and CST on the night of November 26 ended. By Thursday morning Kasab – the only surviving terrorist of the 10 – had been captured.

 

Much as this was a seminal moment for television, it was a particular turning point for Times Now. It emerged as the best channel covering the events and Arnab Goswami – for a long time playing catch up with TV stars and his former colleagues Barkha Dutt and Rajdeep Sardesai – emerged as a national figure. Dutt and Sardesai made two rookie mistakes – they jumped into the fray and tried to get in front of the cameras instead of being the conductor in the studio. This meant that they could only give viewers impressions. All the ground information still had to come from reporters.

 

Goswami by contrast stayed in the studio, letting his reporters do their jobs. Editors of newspapers very rarely jump into ground coverage. Not just because they are lazy fat cats but because they know that they have beat reporters trained to do their jobs and it is hard to beat them for information. An editor can go out there to see what’s happening. He or she can provide colour copy. But editors are far more valuable in the newsroom orchestrating coverage. Times Now’s other advantage is that it is Mumbai-based unlike other TV channels which are situated in Delhi.

 

There have been complaints against Goswami and Dutt that they gave away vital information about the locations of guests to the terrorists. In the case of Goswami, he acknowledged the error and then stopped that line of questioning. The same cannot be said for Dutt.

 

There were also complaints that the media concentrated on the five star hotels because it is anti-poor. This argument is ludicrous. The attacks moved to the five star hotels and stayed there as commandos fought a deadly battle with the terrorists. There were no terrorists at CST from Thursday onwards. Also, as events unfolded as fast as they did, it is unfair to expect the media to have a foolproof coverage plan. For a long time, no one had a clue what was going on, least of all the authorities.

 

If 26/11 was the making of Times Now, it was also a battleground for newspapers. The Times of India was at the spot and that gave it a massive advantage. But even though I was working there at the time, I have to give a big shout-out to DNA. I had watched in horror as DNA was paralysed during the July 2006 serial bomb blasts in the train service. I could not believe that I had just joined a newspaper which fell to pieces during a crisis like this – when it should in fact have claimed it as its own, as a new entrant to the Mumbai market.

 

DNA redeemed itself during the November 2008 terror attacks. In one of those remarkable miracles – which I had seen once before in The Times of India’s Ahmedabad edition during the Gujarat 2002 riots – the newsroom rose as one. Internal conflicts and politics were put aside and everyone assumed responsibility. It was a stupendous effort and it showed in print. The other newspapers could not match us – for that time at least.

 

The tragedy at the personal level remained however. Old friend and fellow journalist Sabina Sehgal did indeed die in the attacks on the Taj. And in another note, none of the promises made to Mumbai at that time have materialised.

 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator based in Mumbai. She is also Contributing Editor, MxMIndia. She can be reached via Twitter at @ranjona. The views here are her own

 

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One response to “Ranjona Banerji: 26/11 – battleground news channels and newspapers”

  1. Guest says:

    Thank God Ajmal Kasab was captured alive. Else the trail would have run cold, with total deniability from Pakistan.

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