Blasts and the press

Blasts and the press

Events following the terror attacks in Mumbai ran so true to script that it would have been funny if not for the human tragedy behind it all.

The visits by politicians, the home ministry’s admission that its intelligence networks had no clue about the blasts, and the Prime Minister’s threat of “relentless pursuit" are all laughable—the statistic of 18 dead and 132 wounded, isn’t.

I am not going to beat up the government, though. There are enough people doing that and it is becoming a bit tiresome. What I would have liked to hear the Prime Minister say was “sorry" to the families of 18 people who died for no fault of their own other than going about their business.

London and New York have learnt after the terror attacks that ravaged them. The cities remain thriving centres of business and culture, and attract millions of tourists, but as any casual visitor to them will tell you, security is tight, and visibly so. And there is probably a lot that isn’t visible keeping the cities and its people safe. Mumbai and India do not seem to have learnt anything from 26/11. So yes, an apology followed by a list of all the things that will now be done (with deadlines) would be in order.

The attacks and the government’s response make me angry, although I was impressed with the alacrity with which the current chief minister of Maharashtra reacted to the crisis. As a responsible newspaper, we will try and keep the issue alive, and press for the government to do things that make our cities safer. If New York can do it, so can Mumbai. And it would be unfortunate if this bad memory were to, like many before it, scab over and heal (without a scar to show).

As a journalist, what made me really angry was the way television channels covered the blasts. For some time now, the channels have been trying to convince anyone who cares to listen that they have reformed and that, if a terror attack were to happen, they would not cover it the way they did 26/11. The events of 13/7 prove beyond doubt that nothing has changed. Reporters and anchors displayed none of the restraint that was expected of them. The coverage was, at best shallow and immature and at worst, melodramatic and hysterical. And, at least to this writer, it looked as if the reporters for most TV channels wanted policemen responding to the emergency on 13 July to speak to them first and then go about their work.

Between them, the channels made a strong case for something I have been vehemently arguing against: Media regulation. I have always believed that newspapers, news websites, and TV channels need to regulate themselves. Mint, for instance, has a code of conduct that its people live by (and die by; the paper has thus far fired four people for violating the code) and an ethics committee that reports not to the editor, but the board of HT Media Ltd. When I was younger in the profession, I was convinced that my inherent rectitude meant that my work would not need to be regulated by anybody. I am not as sure now. Moral superiority cannot decide who will be regulated and who will not; nor can it decide who will rule the country or edit newspapers, and who will not. I used to be in favour of self-regulation, but after witnessing the way in which the Press Council of India’s original report was smothered by powerful media houses—just for the record, the original report has some very nice things to say about Mint; thank you—I am not convinced it will work. Finally, I have to admit that India has had some very good regulators, albeit largely in areas related to banking and finance. Most governors of the Reserve Bank of India, and most chairmen of the Securities and Exchange Board of India have been men of integrity.

Media regulation is an evolving debate, and not just in our country, as proved by events in the UK concerning the News of The World. It is also a complex issue. Who can be expected to regulate the behaviour of newspapers and magazines and TV channels whose job often involves antagonizing the government, judiciary, industry, and just about everyone else other than the paying and unpaying public?

Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?

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