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Guest Column Newsmanic: There’s a big hole in the TV-helped-the-terrorists theory

03-July-2009
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Guest Column Newsmanic: There’s a big hole in the TV-helped-the-terrorists theory

One story that news channels should have grabbed and played up was the investigative report of BBC’s Richard Watson on the Mumbai 26/11 attacks. India’s news channels have unfairly been carrying the stigma of helping the terrorists in their mission. Watson pointed out that there was something elementarily wrong about the Government’s accusation and I expected some pick and play to this story even though Michael Jackson was ruling the airwaves.

Watson quoted an Indian intelligence intercept of a terrorist conversation:

Terrorist in Nariman House: Is there anyone in our building? Pak handler: Look at the terrace at the back, the police are there. There’s a building under construction, they’re on top of that building and there’s a lot of police on the main road. You know Merchant House? They are sitting behind the protruding rear wall and firing shells…”

Watson argued that the detailing those in Pakistan had about the position and deployment of police in Mumbai and the precision with which the war was being directed from there meant two things: one, that it was impossible for them to have got this information by just watching live TV, and two, that this kind of minute military intelligence gathering can happen only with hands-on work from ground zero. Meaning that the terrorists had local Lashkar units feeding Pakistan precise details from all three spots of engagement.

This was an unexpected lifeline for the Indian channels to rid themselves of the sad slur of acting to aid the enemy in times of war (in normal parlance that is called treason). BBC is not gospel, though we often treat it that way, but there was merit in Watson’s argument. I don’t recall any channel consciously or unconsciously showing or talking about “the Merchant House or the protruding rear wall” from where shells were being fired. As I recall it, all the 60 hours of live coverage were marked by little coherent reportage and yielded little intelligible information to the viewing public, forget about military intelligence to the enemy.

The most serious charge against the channels’ indiscretion was also the most absurd. They were damned for exposing the NSG commandoes to risk by telecasting the chopper-dropping at Nariman House live. It was said that the Pakistani handlers instantly Blackberried the information to their wards in Mumbai. (I can imagine the message: “There’s a chopper on your heads. Look up, you idiots….Sent from my Blackberry!”)

Were they choppers or B52 Stealth Bombers? What about the racket they would have raised from miles away? They were hanging over for a good 10 minutes, damn it! You think the terrorists mistook the noise for a marriage band on the terrace? If they were as well trained as we all agree they were, they would have known exactly how many commandoes dropped down by just noting the time the chopper was hovering over. (Anyway, if this was going to be such a deadly surprise assault – I can’t see how, with all that noise – why didn’t the Government advise the channels just before to suspend live telecast for a while?)

There is another big hole in this TV-helped-the-terrorists theory. It presumes that the terrorists left the crucial job of intelligence gathering at ground zero to India’s news channels! Which in turn presumes the terrorists were cocksure the Indian security establishment would goof up its most elementary job of securing the war zone and keeping the media at bay.

The Mumbai police instantly rubbished Watson’s investigation. At the same time, the Government has not tired of telling us how meticulously well-planned this operation was and how it had ISI and the Pakistan Army written all over it. If that be the case, as indeed it seems logical, how is it that they left the most critical part of the war (intelligence-gathering) entirely to chance? What if the Indian Government had disallowed live coverage? Once the terrorists entered the premises, would they have conducted the rest of the operation blindly, without a script? Knowing the ISI and its operations, that’s hardly likely. Isn’t it incredulous to think that they planned only as far as getting the teams inside the premises and it was just by a happy accident that they decided to work a little harder because TV was anyway giving them precise real-time intelligence?

As we can see, the News Broadcasters Association (NBA), a representative body of major news channels, had solid grounds to debunk the Government’s theory. Instead, the NBA chose the path of self-indictment by rushing into a Code of Conduct for Emergencies back then in December. If that was bad enough, the channels only surpassed themselves by completely ignoring Watson’s report. The newspapers briefly played it, but the channels blanked it out.

This reticence to take on the Government confounds me. Not just because this was a golden opportunity to revisit the Mumbai 26/11 attacks and redeem themselves, but because it was an equally good chance to turn the heat on the Government and the security establishment. By accusing the media of helping the terrorists, the Government had deftly deflected the debate from uncomfortable questions about the quality of our response. God knows the Government has a lot of explaining to do, but by pinning the media down with absurd charges of complicity with the enemy, it ensured the media was on the defensive and did not raise any questions about the efficiency of the 60-hour operation.

News channels riled the viewers in many ways during Mumbai 26/11. But helping the terrorists, even if unconsciously, is not one of them. Desperate bits and pieces, which was what live reporting was, do not make for solid, actionable military intelligence. The Government knows it, it just needed to be told off by the NBA. But as you can see, when it comes to standing up for their rights, the collective power of television news industry is still a myth.

Tailpiece: Addition to the Dumb List

Last week’s ‘Top 10 list of dumb lines on TV’ evoked quite a response. One friend, a senior print journo, wrote: Loved your TV piece. Upset that you didn’t mention how they tell the weather person “thank you sooo much”, as if she’s paid their home loan EMI!

(Venkat, as the author is called, thinks TV channels do not stand up to government-bullying because they have squandered the power of public opinion, which they enjoyed during the heydays, because news has been replaced by nuisance.)

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