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Reality, Not Television

We Should Not Be Squabbling Among Ourselves, When We Live In A Country At War

Last Saturday, I invited a former army chief to address the entire staff of India TV. I wanted my colleagues to understand, from a decorated war hero, whether news channels went overboard in their coverage of Mumbai terror. I wanted him to tell our producers, reporters and camerapersons what precautions they should have taken while showing “live” action. My most important objective was to understand if news channels, in any way, endangered the lives of our commandos.

To my surprise, the former army chief was emphatic: “News channels did nothing wrong. Your coverage didn’t do any harm whatsoever to the commandos! I’ve handled action as a major, then as a full colonel, and finally as an army commander in anti-terrorist operations, and there’s nothing I could make out from the news channel about the strategy of our commandos.” 

Frankly, I expected him to echo what some have been saying—how terrorists got valuable clues on the commando plan by watching our channels. But sample what he said: “Do you think that terrorists holed up in a hotel facing commando fire had time to watch TV?” A young reporter persisted. He reminded the general of the “widespread belief” that the terrorists were being briefed on their Blackberries by their bosses, watching our news channels. Promptly came the angry reply. “Anyone suggesting this must be mad. (Even) I could not get an idea about the action plan. Who has the time to look at TV and Blackberries when you are in the midst of gunfire?”

I’m giving only a small portion of the hour-long interaction. I’m not even giving the name of the former army chief, as he wanted the briefing to be off-the-record. Later, I asked him why he wanted all this to be away from the public eye — “Because we are at war. This is not the time for a blame game. You don’t start finding faults with the system when war is on.”

I think this is a key point. Our war against terror did not end with 60 hours of live action. It’s on. And it’s therefore time our news channels and opinion makers stop finding faults with politicians, bureaucrats and intelligence agencies. Similarly, those in the government must stop putting the blame on the media. We must realise that no government, no intelligence, no police, no army can fight this war without involving the people. Leaders in political parties and the media must come together to educate and invite the people to participate.

You may think that news channels went overboard showing live action. Or that the political leadership failed us. But can’t we discuss all this later? Rather than fighting each other, shouldn’t we put our minds together against Pakistan-supported terrorists? Whether or not the intelligence gathered by one agency was passed on to the other in time; why there was delay in flying down the NSG to Mumbai; why action against 10 terrorists took 60 hours—all these questions should be left to those who have the authority (and now the will) to formulating the strategy for the future.

For the news channels, showing public anger will not take us anywhere. For those in authority, the time has come to partner with our news channels and convert them into ‘instruments of war’ against the enemy. Our political leadership should sit with the editors and prepare a comprehensive media action plan.

And let’s stop giving examples like the restraint the media showed in America during 9/11. We are not America. No one in America asked President Bush to resign or demanded that the FBI chief be sacked. The mayor of New York took over the unified command in the city and even the Democrats rallied behind Bush. Everyone recognised that the system had failed completely, and joined hands to build a new one.  

We should also have clear-cut guidelines for both the media and the security agencies. In a war-like situation, there should be a unified command. Camera units should not be allowed within 300 metres of the live action. But the government should have a war room with limited and regularly updated footage of action. Senior officials, trained in the art of media interaction, should come to this room at regular intervals with information released by the unified command. In case a terrorist contacts a TV channel, the concerned newsroom should know which security agency or official to get in touch with, which nuanced questions to slip in, without losing time. These are just a few suggestions emerging from the experience of recent terror attacks. Comprehensive guidelines modelling other crisis situations will emerge in consultation with media leaders. Once a mechanism is put in place, there would be no scope of anyone entering into the danger zone.

The war against terror isn’t just about information gathered by the intelligence. The action begins when intelligence officials start getting information from the common man and the media. The war against terror is not just for the security agencies, it is a mind game against our enemy which can’t be fought without involving the public and the media. Together, the media and the political leadership can prepare the public to play a role in India’s war against terror. The times have changed. Mumbai did that to us. Let’s not attack each other. Instead, let’s join hands to prepare the nation for a terror-free tomorrow. Pakistan has no answer to our combined might.

The writer is chairman and editor-in-chief of India TV. His views herein constitute the official editorial stance of India TV

Published in The Indian Express on December 10, 2008.