Besides attracting attention to the failures of the intelligence agencies and political establishment, the recent terror attacks in Mumbai also focused attention on television news channels. Even as the 60-hour ordeal came to an end, we began wondering if television news journalist may have hindered security operations. And to anyone who followed this news coverage, it was also clear that the debate over how to react was a limited one – quick and decisive action was the only response that was entertained.
Not surprisingly, discussions about media’s role (and responsibilities) in such situations came to rest on the question of regulations with petitions being introduced and debated in the parliament. Media organizations, for their part, argued against any regulations. An editorial in the latest issue of the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) provides a very thoughtful overview of this debate (link), and invites us to think about what is surely a complex issue: oversight of commercial media institutions.
Arguing that the “entire drama is little else than a contest of wills between the political establishment and the media, and a subtle effort to spread the blame thin for what was a patently flawed response to a national tragedy,” the editorial concludes on a deeply pessimistic note:
The manifest failures of the political establishment though, cannot obscure the fact that older notions of the media serving as a vigilant watchdog over public affairs have once again proven hopelessly romantic and outmoded. The media is a slave of the market. Its social role is little else than to serve as an echo chamber for the voices of the rich and the powerful, however shrill, irrational or lacking in coherence these may be. If there is to be any credible oversight of the media, the initiative has to come from the public at large, rather than from an official establishment that is deeply implicated in its functioning.
In this specific instance, I am inclined to agree with this assessment – that the ratings discourse-driven television corporations have no incentives to rethink their practices. But I wonder what the editors have in mind when they say that media oversight initiatives need to come from the “public at large” – are we talking about an Ofcom like organization? Build on terrific existing spaces like The Hoot? Work to expand the reach and influence of news sites like India Together?
This is an important discussion that needs to take place, and I would add one other element to this: mobile media technologies and practices (social media, broadly speaking) – Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, mobile phones – which played a key role in shaping the flow of information during this time period. I would argue that any “public”-led media oversight initiative will work only if it is able to able to understand and build on these mobile media practices.