ONE of the routine aspects of national calamities in India is the conspicuous lack of interest on the part of the national broadcaster. As cyclones shatter coastal states and trains plunge off railway tracks, Doordarshan fumbles with ministerial clearances, copies in triplicate about the requisitioning of OB vans and agitating about how to hire the cheapest form of transport for a cameraman to wend his way to the spot.
The mid-air collision, which occurred shortly before 7 pm was flashed by PTI at 7.20 pm. It took a full hour-and-a-half for Mandi House to put in a line on its 8.30 news bulletin. Says media critic Amita Malik: "DD treated it as a casual headline, giving the barest details." CNN and BBC announced a "newsbreak" within minutes, interrupting their regular news programmes with graphics and interviews with experts. DD managed a few lines only: there were no preliminary interviews with experts or any visuals. After 8 pm, CNN and BBC devoted almost their entire bulletins to the crash. CNN was the first to get Civil Aviation Minister C.M. Ibrahim for an interview. It was also the first to get the eye-witness account of an American pilot flying a military aircraft in the vicinity. While STARTV kept up an hourly report until 2.30 am, Doordarshan, as usual, went to sleep at midnight, secure in the belief that since the minister was still in his berth, there was no immediate reason to panic.
"DD has various problems," says an official on condition of anonymity. "First of all, the minister for information and broadcasting is also the minister for civil aviation, so there may have been some political pressure to go easy on a story involving an air disaster." Further, DD still does not have adequate news teams to cover disasters. The common practice is to send a cameraman to the spot and then once he returns, match his pictures with a report written in Delhi. Reporters and cameramen do not file their inputs together, leading to loss of valuable time while the foreign competition gobbles up prime time viewing with expert comments and visuals from the scene.
DD has no news service of its own, relying on the ‘pool copy’ that is sent to All India Radio from different kendras, and on PTI and UNI. Thus the diligent messengers of the state in Mandi House have no way of knowing what is going on in the nation (and outside), unless they are informed by another news service. In addition, there is the mobility problem. Getting approvals and permission take time. Also, there is the cost of competing with 24-hour news channels that DD is unable to bear. NDTV does not blink a camera eyelid in hiring a helicopter nor do BBC and CNN balk at flying down crews from London, but DD? Never more zealous in its guardianship of the taxpayers’ money than in times when it is required to film a national tragedy.
"DD is being unfairly targeted," says Dr Shakuntala Mahawal, deputy director-general, DD News. "We got the news from PTI at 7.52 pm and from UNI a little later. By the time we had crosschecked with Air Traffic Control it was 8.20 pm. So rather than have a separate programme, we decided to keep the news for our regular 8.30 pm bulletin." Mahawal asserts that DD was the first to get pictures of the wreckage which they then sold to Eurovision and Asiavision. "In fact, CNN has shown our newsreaders reading out the terrible news." But why was the news not given in greater detail? "Because," says Mahawal, "the tragedy was so complete that there was nothing to show. All was lost. So we could hardly show any pictures of confusion. If you remember the CNN interview with the minister, even the minister did not have any details at that time."
"DD was the first to report on the news," claims Deputy Director-General News and Current Affairs, Harish Awasthi. "After all, we are not a 24-hour news channel, we need time to decide on details and we do not put out news in the way that 24-hour news channels do." Awasthi’s claim that DD supplied the first pictures is not accepted by Anita Pratap of CNN. "The first pictures of the wreckage did not come from DD," she says.
However, DD’s news bureau agrees that it is simply not equipped to deal with emergencies. "We do not even have a single cellular phone, so we cannot even do ‘phone-ins’ from the spot," says a correspondent.