Guest Column: Carry on, NBA, till the pain returns

Even as the nation remained glued to the TV sets during the 60-hour Mumbai terror attacks, the ‘live coverage’ came in for a lot of flak. Veteran journalist BV Rao in an open letter to the National Broadcasting Association (NBA) analyses what was wrong with the coverage and why the need of the hour is better content more than a self-regulating content code.

e4m by BV Rao
Updated: Jan 6, 2009 7:28 AM
Guest Column:  Carry on, NBA, till the pain returns

Dear NBA,

The public has beaten our backsides blue for our coverage of the Mumbai attacks. We are all nonplussed over the severe lashing we have received. We cannot, for the life of live TV, understand what the commotion is all about. We covered the attacks much the same way as we covered any news event over the years. We were there every minute of the 60-hour drama risking our lives, without rest, without sleep. We even did piece-to-cameras lying on the floor! We were in the battleground of the war on terror, no less. This time we actually thought we were doing national duty.

So, where’s the applause, guys?

That we are getting condemnation instead of commendation is a bit hard to digest, but I see that it’s not giving any of us gastric ulcers because we think we have self-medicated with a new Code of Conduct for Emergencies. With the placebo of self-regulation in place, we are behaving like the pain in the butt is gone. That’s exactly how a placebo is supposed make us feel, but let me tell you, the pain will return. Our viewers have given us the sore bottoms not because of our loose morals during a national emergency, but for our inability to rise to the occasion. They are protesting against our incapacity to take the story beyond the obvious (which is 20 minutes of fresh footage in a 24-hour cycle). Our inability to comprehend that many times the story is far bigger than the action on the spot and that breathless, high-pitched verbal diarrhoea from ground zero, our daily menu, does not make for a good meal during a national emergency of the magnitude of the Mumbai attacks.

Let me explain. All channels stayed on the spot for 60 hours of live coverage, that’s quite a lot of time on news TV where we measure time in seconds. With so much time spent on the event, our viewers should not have felt the need to pick up their newspaper each morning of the crisis. If they did, it should have been to contribute toilet paper to the neighbourhood wedding. But they devoured their newspaper more than ever, 60 hours of live, 24x7 TV notwithstanding.

Let me correct that, because of 60 hours of live, 24x7 TV.

As news channels, we can raise the viewer’s curiosity, but do not have the skills to satiate it. We are happy to leave the job of in-depth reporting to the morning after, to the newspapers. So it was that the viewers got to first read about Vishnu Zende, the Churchgate announcer before they got to see or hear him. Same is the case with Tukaram Omble (the cop who gave his life so the country could capture its first terrorist alive) and a thousand other heroes and victims of 26/11. One of the worst newsroom insults to a lazy reporter was to describe him thus: “Oh, that guy, he won’t find news unless a press release is issued”. Similarly, TV can now see only what reveals itself to it, not what is hidden. We have lost the appetite for the hidden after a brief, disastrous fling with the sting.

While staying on the story for 60 hours, we were narrow-focused, uni-dimensional. All of us were riveted to the action spots, where there was only so much that we could do. The story was just not moving, but we needed to make it seem like it was happening all the time. So theatrics took over. And, as always, we applied the formula we have perfected over the years: “When you have nothing much, make much out of nothing”.

That’s why every time a Taj window went up in flames, the viewer got to see the “exclusive” shots “first” on 50 channels! All the stories of personal tragedy, escapes and valour went on air (mostly picks from the newspapers) only after TV took its eye off the ball, so to say, at the end of the siege. If we had interspersed at least some of these stories with the live action, we could have cut down heavily on the empty hyperbole and lent substance and sobriety to the proceedings. It is this inability of ours to satiate the viewers’ hunger for “more” that shows up like a sore thumb during big disasters. It is this incompetence that has irritated the viewer beyond tolerance this time simply because the whole world was our stage and we proved completely inadequate to the challenge.

Yet, you (NBA) will not do anything to address this problem, because that will involve hard work, innovation and costs. Instead, you will build a smokescreen of change by running to the Government like chastened schoolboys, promising to reform by not telecasting situations of hostage-taking live, by promising to delay telecast by a few minutes. This is a responsible thing to do, but will it do anything to improve the quality of coverage for the next big challenge?

For an answer to that question, let’s look at the coverage during a typical hour of the Mumbai attacks. It went something like this: A screaming, screeching, hyperventilating anchor would shout into your ear-drums the latest bit of breaking news (which was what you heard on the same channel an hour ago) and toss to the reporter on the spot for “more” on the “same”. The reporter would do his allotted share of screaming, screeching and hyperventilation and give us the “same” stuff the anchor already told us and (in all the self-generated excitement) completely forget the “more” bit that she was supposed to tell us. After exhausting all methods of trying to make the same bit of info sound like the latest exclusive, she would toss back to the anchor who would then take over the scream-screech-hyperventilate routine with a wrap-up of what the reporter just said – which is exactly what the anchor said just before the reporter, which is what they both said just 10 minutes ago. This anchor-reporter-anchor-reporter routine went on for 60 hours.

If this is the rich intelligence we were guilty of glibly passing on to the terrorists, the Government should honour us for our capacity to talk so much and give so little away – both to the viewer and the terrorist. While the viewer had no cohesive idea what was going on, the terrorist would not have got one worthwhile idea in 60 hours!

Anyway, to get back to the no-live telecast rule. How different would the coverage be with the mandated delayed transmission? The screaming, screeching and hyperventilation would begin five minutes late and the entire routine would last 60 hours plus five minutes! The terrorists would perpetually be five minutes late in matching their wits against the NSG and shooting in the wrong direction. And the channels? We would have five minutes more of content. Hurray!

Of course, I’m overstating this, but don’t you think the average bioscope-wallah at the Gateway of India would have given us a run for our money? (Dekho dekho…/ aatank ka yeh tandav dekho/ Khoon ka yeh khel dekho/ Taj mein yeh aag dekho/ Trident par yeh hamla dekho/ Nariman ka nar samhar dekho/ dekho dekho….)!

If anything needs immediate fixing in TV, it’s this one formula (scream, screech, hyperventilate) fits all syndrome. When we cover a Blueline bus death in Delhi and the Mumbai attacks with the same ferocity, anger, intensity and hollowness of content, we dilute the idiom of outrage and obliterate the difference between the commonplace and the extraordinary. The country is sick of news TV’s lack of mores rather than morals. It’s the repetitive gibberish recycled every half hour that gets the viewer’s goat. To address this problem we don’t need new content codes, we need content. And good content will not come by resolving to behave better, but by resurrecting the reporter, an institution that has been destroyed in three horrible years of TV’s wedlock with venality.

What we need is not self-regulation, but deep introspection. And we could begin by asking ourselves a few questions: Why have we not produced any great reporter after the initial flush? Can we survive as news organisations after annihilating the reporter, the very gatherer of news? And, how many of us deserve to keep the “news channel” licence?

Sadly, this eyewash of a self-regulating code suggests that we are light years away from any deep churning. On the contrary, it suggests that we are still in denial and think a mere change of mask or make-up will suffice.

It’s not that we don’t get it. It’s just that we choose not to get it.

So, carry on, NBA, till the pain returns with the next big emergency!

Yours truly,

BV Rao

(BV Rao is a veteran journalist and former Group Editor, Zee News.)

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