I really wanted Aftermath to be the last time I referred to what is stupidly being called 26/11 (as if the next three days didn’t happen) but it’s clearly not to be. We don’t know who orchestrated the events in Mumbai or why but one thing is for sure: what this latest terror attack has exposed is our woeful ineptitude. Whether it’s our security forces or our politicians or the media, India appears to be populated by buffoons. As further proof of this, yesterday a parliamentary panel suggested “statutory regulations” were needed to curb the irresponsible behaviour of the news media “in the larger interest of the society”. It seems we have a committee of petitions and they tabled the report in the Rajya Sabha (our House of Lords). Politicians like Sitaram Yechury and Sharad Yadav lambasted the television coverage of the recent terror attacks in Mumbai. These channels were not presenting ‘breaking news’, said Yechury, but they were “breaking the unity of the country”.
While there’s no arguing that the television channels’ reportage ranged from idiotic to sensationally idiotic, I’m aghast that the reaction of grown adults is so similar to that of a kid who’s been tripped over in the playground – instead of getting ourselves a band-aid, let’s complain to the principal. So instead of giving the media a chance to discipline itself, we have Vishal Dadlani lodging his PIL, expecting the Supreme Court to rap the knuckles of the news channels, and now this parliamentary committee wants to impose “regulations” upon the media. And it seems this stuff has public support, which goes to show how frail public memory is. No one seems to appreciate the fact that there were no guidelines for the reporters, none of whom had ever seen a situation like this before. Or that we all watched the channels that brought us closest to the action, even when we knew that the reporter and cameraperson were being irresponsible. Where, for example, were the government briefings to keep the public abreast of what was happening? The most disgusting aspect of the media coverage was the driving need of television reporters or anchors, like Barkha Dutt and Arnab Goswami, to make themselves the heroes of the pieces and that is something that can’t be regulated. What regulations would ensure is how much information reaches you. At about 10pm on 26 November, there was a rumour that the Taj and the Trident hadn’t been attacked; the gunfire was the result of a Nigerian drug bust. In a world with regulated media content, the story of the Nigerian drug bust could have continued for hours, obscuring the actual course of events because it made our police and Rapid Action Force look singularly hapless and inept. Instead of sms-ing for information, most of us turned on the television and internet and didn’t switch off till 29 November. Because we could trust the media to show and tell us what was happening in Colaba and Nariman Point.
We’ve got so used to the idea of a hundred television channels offering us breaking news and magazines serving up exposes of corrupt public figures that we seem to have forgotten the years when the electronic media was a state-run enterprise. When Sherlock Holmes was our idea of a ‘new’ show. When news, edited and approved by bureaucrats, was read out stiltedly by elegant ladies with lacquered hair and men in suits with velvety baritones. When it took eight hours for the news of the Prime Minister’s assasination to reach the nation, even though the rest of the world knew she was dead. Indira Gandhi died at approximately 9.30 in the morning on 31 October 1984. By 3 in the afternoon, the BBC had said she was dead even though there was no official confirmation from the Indian government. All India Radio and Doordarshan continued with normal programming until those in the New Delhi media headquarters were given confirmations of security forces being in place to prevent any possible outbreak of violence. The state media announced Gandhi’s death at about 6 in the evening. Is this what we’d like to return to?