Mixed Media: Don’t damn the news channels for the terror coverage

Introducing Mixed Media, a no-holds-barred weekly column by Pradyuman Maheshwari, Group Chief Editor, exchange4media.com and impact. This week, he says it is wrong to condemn our news channels for coverage of the Mumbai siege and rues about TRAI’s acceptance of the government belief that FM radio stations can’t air their own news.

e4m by Pradyuman Maheshwari
Published: Dec 1, 2008 8:56 AM  | 6 min read
Mixed Media:  Don’t damn the news channels for the terror coverage

The serial blasts of last Wednesday and the prolonged offensive with terrorists thereafter were the worst that India has seen on the militancy front. Mumbai has seen some 11 minor to major blasts in the last 15 years – including the 1993 serial blasts – but this one was unprecedented.

In many ways, the ’93 blasts were bigger. Mumbai had never experienced anything like that before. They happened at the Bombay Stock Exchange, Air-India building, Sea Rock Hotel, etc – the kind of places (13 in all) the city’s growing middle class identified with. What turned last Wednesday’s terror attack into a bigger event was that it didn’t end with just the blast. An offensive followed, and it was captured live on a few dozen news channels.

There has been much discussion already on the coverage on our television channels. The social media on the internet – Facebook, Twitter, Orkut, etc. – is full of how some channels got carried away. Surely they did. My view is that overall the media was pretty responsible. Checks-and-balances exist in large organisations, but there are times, when things slip away.

Like with the incorrect news of a fresh round of firing at the CST/VT station on Friday afternoon. Such rumours abound in times of despair, and it’s critical that info is double-checked before being put out.

Agreed these are matters of national interest, and there’s no room for a casual approach to coverage, but the Government contention – as per the information received from a media owner who attended a meeting with the Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting on Friday – that the terrorists foiled the cops’ plans as they could access the coverage of our news channels is a lot of poppycock.

These are extraordinary times for everyone. It isn’t easy for a news channel (or for that matter any other news offering) to be covering a hostage crisis live. We do not have media schools training us to do all of this. Mumbai isn’t Beirut, where the journos have put in x personhours in combat coverage. The same holds good for the government and cops too.

If the government didn’t want channels to air live footage, they should’ve given very clear instructions on that. If they wanted channels to not cover a certain spot, they could’ve ordered them to back off. As they did do after a point. Blaming the news channels for doing their job isn’t right.

Yes, there was an element of bravado in what was shown. Channels kept repeating their exclusives – Times Now for the CCTV grabs it got, India TV for its interviews with the terrorists etc. But that’s the nature of the beast. Even newspapers tom-tom their specials. Why, even an exchange4media ‘flashes’ breaking news.

To condemn news channels is not on. Catch them if you find them acting against national interest, but don’t blame channels for doing their job.

Govt doesn’t trust radiowallahs with news, but news on TV is OK

As if what happened in Mumbai wasn’t terrifying enough, Friday evening left me gloomier with the news that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, which is also empowered to be the regulator for the electronic media, has okayed the recommendations of the I&M Ministry that FM radio players will not be able to have their own news bulletins. A review will happen after three years.

This is what the Government view on news on radio is that has been accepted by the TRAI:

“In the absence of a Regulatory Authority with a localized presence and any arrangement for monitoring the Private channels and the sensitivities involved, it is not possible to allow complete freedom to Broadcast News even though the content may be sourced from Authorised agencies as suggested. What is material is the way of presentation.

The same event can be sensationalized or put in a sober manner taking care of the sentiments and sensitivities involved. Thus while the Government can allow the news bulletins of AIR or the Audio version of the news programmes of DD on such terms and conditions to be mutually agreed with Prasar Bharati, it is difficult at this stage to allow Private operators to Broadcast news on their own.”

Wow! What this means is that the radio stations can air exceedingly engaging stuff that All India Radio and Doordarshan dish out every day. If the Prasar Bharati is willing, that is. How very exciting!

But, wait a min. There’s something more that the note says:

“However, Government recognizes the need to enable Radio broadcasters to bring in diversity in their content and to make the radio broadcast fulfill certain other needs of the listeners apart from remaining only as a means of entertainment. Therefore broadcast pertaining to following categories can be treated as a non-news and current affairs broadcast.”

Very noble thoughts indeed. So, what we get is the following:

“Commentaries (including live broadcast) and information pertaining to sporting events, (ii) Information pertaining to Traffic and Weather, (iii) Information pertaining to and coverage of cultural events, festivals (iv) Coverage of topics pertaining to examinations, results, admissions, career counseling (v) Availabilty of employment opportunities (vi) Public announcements pertaining to civic amenities like electricity, water supply, natural calamities, health alerts etc. as provided by the local administration (vii) Such other categories as may be specifically permitted by Ministry of Information and Broadcasting from time to time. Opinion of the Government as to whether a particular broadcast falls in these exempt categories or not shall be final and binding.”

I love Point (vii) and the end-note. The scope will evidently be revised depending on various requests (read lobbies) that might come in.

It’s clear that the Government realises the need for more broadbased content on FM, but it thinks tracking (read policing) content in multiple centres is going to be tough.

Agreed it will be, but then what about the boys in tellyland? To my mind, part of the reason why news has still not got permissions for FM is because the radiowallahs haven’t presented their case well enough.

I am not sure if it exists, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a lobby from the newspapers and television channels fraternity that would not want to see news happening on FM radio and thereby eat into revenues?

Folks, go for it. News is what could take FM radio to the next level. Agreed it may mean loss of revenues for other media, but it will all add up.

(Note, the views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent those of the exchange4media Group where I am group chief editor, exchange4media.com and impact. Feel strongly about what is written here? Email me at pradyumanm@exchange4media.com with ‘Mixed Media’ in the subject line.)

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