What inspired you to pen your latest book?
When we used to come back from tours, a lot of drawing room conversation revolved around the back stories. One of the key movers of this was 26/11 when we were flat out on the pavement in front of the Gateway of India. There were allegations that the media crossed the line. But truth is that there was this barricade and we stood behind the barricade with the janta that had come to see the “circus”.
So sometimes you want to tell your side of the story too, and obviously, then you want to bring forth the good and the bad part of the stories you covered. I wanted to juxtapose the good stories with the bad ones, what makes us proud and what should make our heads hang in shame.
Coming back to 26/11 why do you call it a “circus”?
In terms of the management, a lot of flak came to the media. The police put a lot of flak on the media. On the morning on 27/11, when the shootout happened, we were immediately rushed to the spot. On that morning, just after the worst attack had happened, our car was trying to find the way to where we were supposed to go and we took a wrong turn and we landed right under Taj – right there where the gun fight was happening. They saw our car, they probably saw the stickers and they removed the barricades and they just let us in. So I say it was circus in terms of the event being allowed to happen and even after that a series of bloopers that occurred. And there were hundreds of people who came to see over the next two days to see what was going on. Some even came with kids. The government could have managed it better, but the media got the flak for showing what was happening.
Now, whether we should have had an idea or the government should have had an idea is a circular argument. Why is it that the terrorists are always one step ahead? We honestly had no idea. We had no idea or inclination that our reportage was being monitored. There are standard operating protocols elsewhere. If there is a bomb blast in London, they cordon off the entire area. If you see a shootout, a shootout, not a terror attack in America, sometimes you only see aerial shots because the entire area has been cordoned off. When this basic hygiene of cordoning off a terror site is absent, how can you blame the media? The next day when we were told that the channels were being monitored by the terrorists, we didn’t show the angles that we weren’t supposed to show. The government must tell us. You can’t say that 60 channels will have the common sense and self restrain. You tell the 60 channels to stay away and they will. The government needs to a have better control mechanism.
When you started out as a journalist, who was your inspiration?
When I started out ten years ago, that was the golden period of journalism. There were several private channels coming up. There were many people – Rajdeep Sardesai, Arnab Goswami, Deepak Chaurasia. That was an era, a time in the 90s when journalists were feared and looked up to, but somewhere down the line, that respectability factor has gone for whatever reasons. I don’t think all media is paid media, but due to TRP pressures, corporate pressures, that respect has been lost.
Do you see that respect for journalists coming back?
That respect has to come back and it will, with digitising and more DTH coming in, because these will give you better metrics. You can’t have 5,000 TRP boxes, and that too the same ones as Bigg Boss. You need to have a TAM rating system which is only based in metros, and then you know that the educated people in the metros are watching one kind of news and the rest of India is watching a different kind of news. This will also give you better analytics. But the unfortunate part that has come out of DTH data is that people still prefer to watch that sleaze. So the mainstream media is going to continue this sensationalism, jingoistic nationalism, because the data from DTH reveals that. So it is not going anywhere. But what is however going to happen is that there will be niche channels, like we have niche magazines. With better data, it will be affordable for low cost niche channels to survive. Today, you try to be niche and you die.
According to you, is the Indian broadcast media shining or sinking?
Right now, the Indian broadcast media is definitely not shining. Is it sinking? Well, I think it is tilting toward sinking and struggling to stay afloat because of credibility, financial viability and viewership-interest related issues. There are multiple issues, but the main issue that is struggling to survive is the problem of consumption too. The consumption patterns needs to change. I honestly believe that news channels don’t want to bring this upon themselves. They don’t want to be sensational. They are doing this because they have to survive. There is immense pressure on them to get the numbers because numbers are what fetch TRPs which get ad revenues and ad revenues are what help the channel survive. There is no other way of survival because advertisers don’t open their purse based on perception.
Who do you think the broadcast media in India is representing at large?
The broadcast media today is representing the lowest common denominator. It is representing anybody who is giving them numbers. Is it representing a particular class? If you go by Times Now, for example, then the common denominator is the lower middle class in large numbers. This is because it is the lower middle class that is watching news- English news for aspirational reasons and news in general because they are frustrated with the system. And, they watch Times Now in particular because they want the government to be bashed, and they also want nationalistic jingoism. So, the lowest common denominator is the middle class, lower middle class, and that is what the news channels are targeting, because they’re targeting TRPs.
The broadcast media today indulges heavily in commentary; do you see that trend changing?
News channels do debates because it is the quickest, cheapest, easiest thing to do to fill up air time. Call five people and they will come virtually for free for a television appearance versus investing time and money in sending a team of minimum of two people for something that you don’t even know will be consumed. The reason why these debates go on for as long as they as they do is because somebody is watching. I think there is a little bit of fatigue that is coming and there will be a return to the 9’o clock news which is real news. It is all a phase. Hindi channels went from a phase of selling superstition, and now they’ve turned to crime. Even the general entertainment channels have a crime show.