You didn’t have to be in Mumbai on November 26 to be suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome today. Life offers very many good, solid reasons to wake up screaming in the middle of the night, but in case you were running out, here’s another one: the excruciating television news coverage of the initial attacks and the three day siege that followed. Everything you knew or suspected about Indian media, compressed into four hysterical days complete with promo montage and jingle.
Our news reporters and anchors provided screechy real-time accounts of exactly who and what was where, and when—terrorists, hostages, armed forces personnel, grenade launchers and helicopters—possibly because the force of repeated explosions and gunfire had knocked their brains clean out of their skulls, leaving them incapable of making the connection between giving the game away and more dead people, though I should mention that this is the charitable interpretation.
They stuck their mikes and cameras into the faces of traumatised survivors and the traumatised friends and family of survivors and non-survivors to screech, “How did you feel when you were locked in your room without food or water with the sound of gunfire and smoke billowing under the door for sixty hours/when you found out your loved one is missing/when you discovered your loved one was dead?” To be fair, that’s standard operating procedure; they always do this in any situation involving human pain, looking for that one maverick who might say, “I feel wonderful, just wonderful.”
They trampled all over the crime scene, providing screechy and wildly astute commentary on how there appeared to be broken glass on the ground. The camera zoomed in on it, presumably for the benefit of millions of viewers who wouldn’t have believed this unless they saw it with their own eyes.
They became outraged and weepy, because for the first time terrorism was targeting privilege, to which most reporters and anchors belong. It’s hard to forget the moment when one reporter came to poignantly startled self-awareness as she hesitatingly recapped an interviewee’s question about why the media were obsessing over the Taj and ignoring all the dead people at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus: You mean, she said, that we in the media tend to identify with our own class?
For that same reason there was a lot of candle lighting and pontificating in the studios about how it’s all the fault of the politicians, when the same media spends the rest of its time engineering discussions not about whether the constitution should be changed to break the politician-bureaucrat nexus that is crippling the country, but about whether A displayed a shocking lack of patriotism by calling B a dog.
They seemed to figure that right then, in the middle of the siege, was a good time to pester the NSG and the police for interviews—though if that was stupid, it was stupider still for those organisations to oblige, instead of having one spokesperson who could coordinate information from various agencies and have a single press conference instead of wasting the precious time of each agency.
We saw incessant coverage of the funerals of the men who lost their lives fighting this crime, but have heard nothing of the innocent victims who lie unclaimed in hospitals. And now we’re hearing the media increasingly cry for war, because why would we learn from the experience of the US after 9/11?
Hitting out is easier than doing the very hard work of self-examination and self-correction that is missing at every level of Indian society. from the law-maker in Parliament to the beat policeman, from the company CEO to the householder. It requires us to put intelligent systems in place, and then take individual responsibility for following them. It doesn’t make for great TRPs, but we might end up with a decent country.