An almost Indian tragedy

BY sevanti ninan| IN Opinion | 28/12/2007
Off and on through the evening, the bleakness in the scenario there came through from the testimony of this one man.
SEVANTI NINAN on the reporting of the assassination.


Sevanti Ninan 


The Zee News anchor asked Nawaz Sharif, "Sharif Saab, yeh kya ho raha hai Pakistan mein?" Barkha Dutt asked Farookh Abdullah repeatedly, "What should happen next, Farookh Saab?"  And on Times Now they asked each other as they waited for George Bush’s statement, "what exactly is he likely to say?"


It has been such a grim year for Pakistan that as it drew to a close television anchors in India had more or less become accustomed to doing on-air marathons on events in that country, breaking news coverage going into several hours. What began with the confrontation between the executive and the judiciary in March would be repeated with the arrival and deportation of Nawaz Sharif, and  the declaration of the Emergency.


But on Thursday night it was the biggest tragedy of them all, so the speculation  (except for the Zee anchor) was devoid of the "it can’t happen here’ smugness that tinged Indian TV coverage of major events in Pakistan through the year. By and large the reporting was sober, and because it was on something catalytic for another country, not one’s own, it was relatively dispassionate. There was regret, not grief, and an absence of hysteria.


We had no access to how Pakistan’s TV channels were covering the news, but the contrast came from the mix of anger and emotion that came through the commentary from Matiullah Jan, the Reuters reporter in Islamabad. He described agitatedly what the threats to Benazir had meant for reporters trying to cover her electioneering schedule, and why it was plain to people who were doing the covering that the security lapse was real and glaringly so.  He described President Musharraf’s security cover and added that even if an iota of that security had been given to Benazir she would have been alive today. Then he gave other graphic instances of the repeated failure of jammers.  


And while every channel asked whoever they could whether elections could happen on schedule, only this reporter was able to instantly detail why in practical terms it was a total impossibility. 


Off and on through the evening, the bleakness in the scenario there came through from the testimony of this one man. For the rest it was commentary and speculation and the never ending repetition on channels, particularly NDTV 24x7, of the footage of the blood-spattered ground with guns lying there.  The last time we saw personality-driven assassination coverage to rival this was at the time of Princess Diana’s death in a car crash. A celebrity or politician with many archival photos and interviews to offer lends herself to coverage that seldom palls, particularly not on the night of the tragedy.


What Indian news channels do have to learn though is to occasionally take that Breaking News legend off the screen.  When Benazir had been dead for three hours it made no sense to say ‘live’ and show her talking. Barkha Dutt, Arnab Goswami, and Prabhu Chawla among others were able to dredge up interviews done before. "Aapko dar nahi lagta," asked Chawla, referring to jail, not death, with that big grin which is his hallmark while asking questions, whatever their import.


What grew wearying was the Natwar Singh and Faroukh Abdullah interviews on a succession of channels. Has-beens can studio hop with alacrity, when given the opportunity.


Given how many times Indian journalists have met her, the coverage was only notionally that of a foreign leader. For both viewers and anchors the sheer familiarity of the person assassinated made it an almost Indian tragedy.  Karan Thapar was able to score over others in anecdotal terms, because nobody else had quite been a long time personal friend. 


In one sense Barkha Dutt’s was the most amazing performance  of the evening because of the entirely solo act she pulled off over a longish period, without  getting either hectoring or hysterical. There was repetition and the occasional foolish question from almost every anchor but overall nobody through the evening really made me cringe. And that’s saying a lot for a news event tailor- made for hysteria.


Not nobody—Star News stood guilty on one count: it actually had animated gun shots pepper pictures of Benazir on the TV screen, gun shots that then dribbled blood.  Even proprietor Rupert Murdoch might have cringed at that.  













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