Disgraceful coverage

BY Padmaja Shaw| IN Media Practice | 24/02/2013
It is a minor leap of faith after that to throw around names, photos and police sketches from the morgues to beef up the stories and ramp up jingoism.
PADMAJA SHAW says TV hysteria is growing, but where is the regulator?
The trauma of bomb blasts in Hyderabad is confounded by the disgraceful coverage provided by several leading media organisations. Even in an instance of such great tragedy, sections of the media behaved like vultures looking for carrion. The tragedy of the media scene today is that it is the market leaders who do this. It is high time a regulatory mechanism is put in place to peg-down some of the media houses and the public hysteria they deliberately create in times of crisis.
Within minutes of the blasts, media frenzy broke out around the issue. Some Telugu news channels and cable channels like Jai Sri Ram began to fork out ‘definitive’ information on who is responsible for the blasts. Soon the major channels like TV9, NTV and others began to fall in line with the Indian Mujahideen story put out by unidentified ‘intelligence’ sources, amateur sleuthing by their own reporters.
It is a minor leap of faith after that to throw around names, photos and police sketches from the morgues to beef up the stories and ramp up jingoism. In the last round of blasts in Hyderabad in 2007, this kind of instantaneous theorising by the media led to the arrest of several Muslim youngsters. They spent years in jail before getting acquitted, with their lives and dreams destroyed forever, while now Swami Aseemanand and his followers are being investigated and prosecuted.
It is notable that none of the newspapers or channels was held accountable to the canards that have been spread about the Muslim community in Hyderabad. None of the media houses have felt it their responsibility to apologise to the community for grossly distorting facts, exaggerating random police updates without any modicum of hesitation.
The same bizarre drama is unfolding this time around as well, with some channels going overboard. National channels like NDTV have moderated their coverage by giving more of the human angle and also refraining from jumping to quick conclusions about the perpetrators. But some channels decided to ask if the Home Minister should go while some others also asked if the bomb blast was a result of uncertainty surrounding the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister’s survival and whether he should quit now.
NewsX, however, carried a debate that called for a more moderate and responsible approach to crises of this sort from the media. The anchor himself set the tone, giving space for moderate voices like that of senior journalist Vinod Sharma.
The worst culprit as ever was Times Now. The channel pinned the blame on Indian Mujahideen even as security sleuths began to collect evidence and went on ask if India should be soft on Pakistan. Times Now periodically goes into war mode against Pakistan, whether it is the beheading issue, Parliament attack or the Hyderabad blasts. The high-adrenalin jingoism and warmongering does not leave room for a more rational response to a crisis of this nature. Political parties outside the ruling coalition willingly add fuel to fire in these debates, leading to further erosion of faith in the political process.
With all this misspent energy, many questions were never asked by the media: Why do such high-profile public crimes have the habit of occurring just when the Parliament is about to debate a major defence scandal? The parliament attack, if one recalls right, happened on the eve of the day parliament was to debate the coffin scam. The Opposition was waiting to haul the government and its defence minister over the coals on the issue. The parliament attack wiped it off the headlines and brought India close to a nuclear confrontation with the ‘unfriendly neighbour’, Pakistan. We indeed need more weapons.
This time around too, the English news channels were waving wads of documents in evidence and debating the helicopter scam when the convenient blast comes along to wipe the issue off the headlines. Parliament, which was to see pandemonium on the chopper scam, discussed the blasts and terrorism and government’s soft approach instead. That brought war as a necessary evil to the fore once again. One is tempted to ask, no matter which government is in power, are there any other forces at work which are trying to steer the conversation away from arms deals and corruption?
On the first day, some national channels were lamenting the lack of operating procedures in cordoning off the crime site, trespassing by curious bystanders and the influx of VVIPs trampling on possible evidence. Yet some of the channels were zooming in to the evidence being collected by the security men, which their channels were carrying live on the first day.
Is it so difficult for the channels to distinguish between right to know and restraint in the larger public interest? Why does a man on the street need to see the details of what’s being collected? As in the case of 26/11 coverage, will it not provide ‘live’ information about post-blast developments to the wrong people?
On day two, TV9 began a candle-light campaign to bring people to the scene of the blast to honour the dead, with their banner and the works! While sentiment may be fine, the investigative officers are still there collecting evidence and the channel thinks nothing of mobilising people in large numbers, adding to the confusion and putting pressure on the already stretched security establishment.
When the Guwahati molestation case was occupying media space, Network of Women in Media, India, the women journalists’ organisation, after much virtual debate, drafted a petition complaining about the nature of exploitative coverage of the molestation issue on media and the dubious role played by journalists in the case. But when it was time to send the petition, NWMI was stumped because when a complaint about television channels is to be lodged, there is no regulatory body to whom you can send it. The only option is to file a case in court, which the big media and big business seem to be able to do easily to silence critics, leaving few avenues for ordinary people if they find television content offensive.
To this day, the situation remains the same. To whom do we complain when we object to coverage on some of the channels? The News Broadcasters Association, which has about 45 members out of a population of several hundred news channels, has the very same channel honchos as representatives and office bearers. Some of the channels are repeat offenders. The violations are not innocent transgressions, but are premeditated based on a strategy. No one is waiting to ‘correct’ themselves with alacrity in response to a rap on the knuckles. And what does one do if one wants to complain about a non-member channel?
In fact, much like Arindam Chaudhuri of IIPM, the channels assert their right to do what they do. They do not even want anyone to give an advisory about their coverage (again, much like the generous advertiser, Mr Chaudhuri). That will be considered defamation. There have been several instances of media big dads leaning even on media watch websites, interpreting critical comments about themselves as defamation and getting them removed. Cases of bloggers being slapped with cases and made to apologise are too well known.
Contrast this with the vociferous demands on prime ministers and home ministers to resign taking moral responsibility; the unbridled freedom being exercised to defame entire communities and putting their lives at risk!
In the name of nationalism if a channel is rabble-rousing against a neighbouring country and making an entire minority community feel under siege, pushing the state and central security agencies to make examples of individuals without due process, it should be possible under the Constitution of India to impose reasonable restrictions (disturbing friendly relations with another country and public order) on such programmes.
There should be a centralised regulatory agency independent of the media industry to regulate the behaviour of the broadcast industry. On complaints and after due verification, the complaints body should be empowered to impose penalties equivalent to four times the advertising revenue earned on the day when intemperate/objectionable programming is carried, thus neutralising the revenue incentive for such programmes, TRPs or no TRPs. In addition, making the channels carry as prominently that they have been punished for intemperate programming.
Meanwhile, senior journalists and public intellectuals who disapprove of the channel tactics should refuse to participate in their talkathons. This in some way is also giving legitimacy to the verbal mayhem that is unleashed every evening. It is a small price to pay in larger public interest.
Related link:
Subscribe To The Newsletter
The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

View More