Don’t Hail HYSTERIA!

The media will have to choose between responsible reporting and mindless sensationalism

Herbert Traxyl Delhi

After having been in touch with India for 33 years, 2008 will always remain in my memory for the terror attacks in Mumbai and the horrible scenes we all witnessed live on television and read about in the print media. It brought to the mind that man is man's worst enemy and so is the inhumanity of human beings - and worst of it - in the name of higher ideas and ideals.

What made it memorable was the directness with which it was brought to our awareness, at all times of the day. This shows the enormous reach of the media today, and their power and influence on us. However, shouldn't it also give rise to introspection on how this horror was dealt with and what lessons we should draw for the future?

Much has been said - and rightly so - about the danger permanent and close-up reporting might have brought to the operations. Common sense should forbid reporters and camera crews to transmit live ongoing operations, as if this is a cricket match or a soccer-game. But shouldn't a security-cordon have been drawn around the major centre of attacks to keep unwanted attention at bay? Why were so many people, not only from the media, but also those ‘sensation tourists,' permitted to be close to the Taj and Nariman House?

The access necessary for keeping the public updated is a delicate matter; the authorities should have this need for proper information always in mind. In the heat of the operations, shouldn't the freeing of victims, to defeat the terrorists, be the first objective? I have unpleasant memories of the frantic, even hysteric shouting of anchor-men/women about "curtailment of freedom of information" and the "right of the public to be informed", when the broadcasting of live television in Mumbai had been barred for a few hours in the interest of protecting the ongoing operation. Wouldn't the rights of innocent victims come before this "right" for unhindered reporting?

And what about the role of anchors? Haven't they evolved from being fair and objective presenters of news to opinion-makers, influencing and even prescribing policies?

Competition is a healthy phenomenon in business, as well as in media business. But competition needs to be governed by a sense of responsibility, and not cut-throat ‘one-upmanship'. The Mumbai crisis certainly brought out the best; unfortunately, also, the worst in Indian journalism. Being immediately on the spot, fast reporting and commenting were admirable. But a running 24 hours telecast, three consecutive days of coverage, without any breaks or pause for reflection, was the other side of the coin. It brought along uncountable repetitions of major scenes, not only confusing the public - even worse - shifting the focus and the importance of individual events.

The human miseries, which are the fall-out of such cruel attacks, should give rise to a decent dealing with the victims, alive or dead. The microphones stuck into the faces of fellow-humans just coming out of day-long ordeals, and the display of blood and gore, remnants of other human beings not so fortunate to survive, is certainly not what one should expect (sorry to say -  this is not the first time that the media have shown this regrettable lack of self-restraint).

The debate on the follow-up of the Mumbai experience has set in. Both sides will have to see where things would have to change. A clearer government approach would be necessary to assure fast and fair information to the public, while protecting the efficient and successful functioning of the security forces - in the interests of the larger collective.

But even more, a self-introspection of the media - particularly the electronic media - will be most urgent. Agreed, they have an important role to play in the functioning of a democratic and responsible social system. But there functioning should satisfy the need for information, not a self-created demand for sensationalism and hysterics. Knowing the strength and tradition of the media, their integrity and idealism, I am sure they will rise to this challenge.

The writer is former Austrian ambassador to India