Ranjona Banerji: Intelligence failure on News TV

28 Jul,2015

By Ranjona Banerji


Two films that I saw recently highlighted the role of the media in our lives, but in very different ways. Jon Favreau’s Chef demonstrated how social media, particularly sites like Youtube and Twitter can make or break us or at any rate, bestow both fame and popularity in ways that someone unfamiliar with this phenomenon cannot fathom.


But David Fincher’s Gone Girl shows us the ugly side of mainstream media, of how journalists run with the pack and like a pack, ignoring facts and playing up the drama. The media, although not integral to the gripping main plot, was always there at the edges and in the subtext. The hysterical TV anchor who decided on guilt and demanded blood regardless of the state of the police investigation, the nonstop presence of screaming reporters and running photographers, the jam of OB vans and long wires – we see them or people like them on our TVs every day.


However, Hollywood is hyperbole. And the media is a convenient whipping boy. As a journalist I am not denying the media’s right to be where it wants to be and cover what it wants to cover. But I am decrying the media’s tendency to abandon good sense when a little bit of thought or discussion might serve you better than leaping into the mindless chasm of “they’re doing it so I must follow”.


When terrorists, suspected to be from Pakistan, attacked a bus and then a police station in Dinanagar, close to Gurdaspur in Punjab early on Monday morning, news channels decided that they would not report on India’s police procedures or have live coverage of the shootout between terrorists and the Indian forces which lasted for hours or reveal operational details. Well and good. This was because TV news received a lot of flak for the way it covered the Mumbai terror attacks on November 2008, giving away vital information to the handlers of the terrorists.


I decided to follow updates on Twitter rather than put on the TV on Monday morning, to spare myself any more cardiac infarctions than TV news normally causes. By the evening, it was business as usual though. Instead of giving the viewer details of what had happened, how many casualties, how many terrorists, we had high-decibel jingoism, facts at variance with each other, repetition of information between anchor and reporter and no clear picture. How many dead? 3? 5? 10? How many terrorists? 3 or 4? 5 or 6? Different channels had different numbers. How difficult is it to say, “We are awaiting clarifications from the authorities but we can confirm that there are casualties?”


An interview with an eyewitness, who was shot in the shoulder, as the scroll below informed us, had the reporter asking the man the same questions again and again. Why not just edit what is extraneous or unnecessary? The questions included where he had been injured, more than once. More importantly, he had nothing substantial to add to what was already known at the time. It was as if the channel wanted to prove to the viewer that its staff had actually gone to the hospital. Well, thanks.


After an attack like this, the viewer might expect to hear from terrorism experts or defence and geopolitical analysts or retired police and army officers who have dealt with such attacks to throw light on what had happened or offer their ideas on the whys and wherefores. Can we do something as simple as that? Of course not, when there is a simpler option at hand. Dial someone from the BJP, someone from the Congress and set up a pointless battle on nothing on your TV screens.


There are intelligence failures and there are intelligence failures.


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