In the immediate aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, we asked Sevanti Ninan, media columnist and editor of The Hoot, to give us her thoughts on the coverage. At the time, she was too busy, but the uproar over the Indian media's coverage hasn't subsided so we put some questions to her last week.
Some background: There's an ongoing debate in India over whether the government should impose greater controls on the media. Additionally, several prominent journalists are under constant attack from people who felt the media either did a poor job, or even worse, aided the terrorists during the operation by broadcasting sensitive information.
NDTV's Barkha Dutt, who seemed to report nonstop throughout the ordeal, has been taking constant heat since the attacks, from prominent pieces in The Telegraph and the Christian Science Monitor to a Facebook campaign ("Barkha Dutt for worst senior journalist on the planet" has 1,748 members now). She also has lots of fans who have come to her defense, but recently another controversy emerged over Dutt/NDTV's threats of legal action against a blogger who criticized her. As this Hoot article makes clear, the blogger retracted his original post and conceded that it had been "untrue and defamatory." Dutt and NDTV have been accused of trying to stifle free speech.
In that context, we caught up with Sevanti Ninan. We also asked her a couple questions about the state of the Indian media, which is now seeing a downturn after a period of intense growth.
SAJAforum: What do you think are the more constructive criticisms to have emerged of the media, in the wake of the Mumbai attacks?
NINAN: That it should be far more restrained in its live coverage, that it should be aware of the import of the information it is dishing out in an unfolding crisis, that its editorial bosses should be in the studio directing sensitive coverage and not out in the field reporting breaking news, because no one in the studio is senior enough to rein them in when they go overboard. That it is neither the place of TV reporters and anchors to editorialise constantly while reporting, nor to war monger or promote ridicule of politicians.And that there should restraint in labelling the news, and trying to queer the pitch with slogans like "enough is enough."
And that the media should be conscious of a class bias in its coverage of events, and guard against it.
How does this class bias manifest itself?
Who do you think did the best job of covering the attacks?
Among TV channels Times Now tended to be most on the ball with the news as it developed, they had more people on the ground, they also have their headquarters in Mumbai unlike the others, which gave them an advantage. Some of that was nullified by unnecessary editorializing by anchors.
Newspapers in general were more informative than TV. I did not follow DNA's coverage but the Times of India and the Indian Express had a lot to offer.
As I understand it, the Prime Minister decided not to push for media curbs, but do you think any impositions are likely, down the line? How substantive are the media's own self-policing guidelines?
The government backed off because there was an outcry, but now it has proposed a media consultative committee to oversee sensitive coverage in times of emergency. The media's own guidelines are substantive enough but it did absolutely nothing to ensure that they were observed.
Do you think there's anything the Western media can learn from this episode?
The fact that terrorists and their handlers can be sophisticated enough in their use of live televsiion and satellite phones to turn reporting to their own advantage. And that in times of life and death (literally) less coverage can be wiser than more.
After a period of intense growth, the Indian media is contracting - you've dubbed it The Great Indian Media Meltdown - with layoffs being regularly announced. Do you see this as a short-term decline, or a necessary long-term correction?
Well it is linked to the downturn, with valuations of media companies falling and a sharp drop in advertising growth, which is to go down from 17 per cent in 2008 to 2 per cent in 2009. The industry is 80-90 per cent dependent on advertising revenues. So whether it is short term or long term depends on how long the recession lasts.
Given that the US media is in even worse shape than India's, will American companies continue to push for a bigger piece of the Indian media market?
Well, Turner seems to be going ahead in partnership with an Indian software company Miditech to launch yet another Hindi general entertainment channel.