February 23, 2020
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Delhi Diary

The media’s role in the devastating human tragedy which battered Uttarakhand has been entirely exemplary.

Delhi Diary

Praise Be Upon the Media

For once, instead of shooting the messenger, let us praise him. The media’s role in the devastating human tragedy which battered Uttarakhand has been entirely exemplary. Our TV channels and print media do not have much experience of covering natural disasters of this scale in unfriendly terrain. Therefore, their professionalism, courage and skill deserve extra praise.

Basically, the media had three tasks. Firstly, to show the extent of the catastrophe, keeping in mind the loss of human life. Secondly, highlight the contribution of the army, air force and other agencies involved in the rescue operation. And simultaneously present the stories of bravery and daring of those engaged in saving trapped tourists and locals. Thirdly, it was critical to report in some detail the apathy and unpreparedness of the authorities as nature’s fury struck. Unsurprisingly, charges of exaggeration and sensationalism against the journalists were bandied about, but finally the ministers and the babus acknowledged they had failed spectacularly.

Now we have information that precise and area-specific warnings of very heavy rain were sent out by the meteorological office in Dehradun 48 hours before the heavens opened up. No action was taken. Everyone sat on their backside.

Next to my office in Safdarjung Enclave is the splendid edifice of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). From the outside, with its shining glass facade, it looks like a five-star hotel. What goes on inside is a mystery. The NDMA turned out to be so incompetent that they could not even ensure the working of a communication network at the office and the residence of the prime minister who heads it.

Sitting safely in our bedrooms, we were able to get a frightening, poignant and real-time picture of the disaster thanks to those magnificent men and women armed only with cameras and tape-recorders. I can’t praise them enough.

A Cooked-up Rescuer

Malcolm Muggeridge once defined public relations or PR as “organised lying”. We have seen an instance of that dubious art in the Narendra Modi 15,000 story. Did he single-handedly rescue the statistically impossible number in a single day, or two days, or three? The main players in the story are The Times of India (which front-paged the report) and a BJP official in Dehradun. The ToI correspondent, Anand Soondas, claims he was given the number and details of mission impossible by BJP official Anil Baluni. Now, after keeping quiet for several days, he denies having ever met the correspondent or spoken to him. In fact, he has sent Soondas a legal notice which demands an apology and financial compensation. Add to this the suggestion that the whole thing was cooked up by Mr Modi’s PR agency APCO who recommended it to its client.

My first instinct is to believe the journalist. There’s no reason for him to fabricate such a stupid tale. My second instinct is to chew on this fact: there is a PR agency active in the controversy. (That it is a highly shady one is besides the point). It’s part of their job to hype and exaggerate and be economical with the truth. So I am not surprised Narendrabhai performed the act.

Mad About Mad Men

I’m currently watching Monday to Friday on Star World a gripping TV serial (not fair to call it a soap opera), Mad Men. It’s set in an advertising agency in the ’60s, but it goes beyond portraying the mood and melodrama one associates with a glamorous ad agency. The ser­ial captures vividly and authentica­lly the lifestyle and zeitgeist of America of the ’60s. Naturally, there is a tremendous amount of bonking, smoking and drinking in the office (everyone, even the women, drink copiously, and neat; no ice or water or soda) and the flavour of the era is reflected faithfully. One brilliant episode shows how the office reacted to the assa­ssination of John Kennedy. Not too much is said or emotion expressed. But the shock and sense of personal bereavement is conveyed through the staff hugging and just hanging around in front of the black-and-white TV screen staring at it blankly. The trauma of abortion and the disappointment with liberal politics of that period is also communicated without drama or cynicism. There is much to commend in Mad Men.

Red Hottie

Besides her power game, Serena Williams’s flamboyant, blazing red knickers are part of her appeal. In the match she lost on Monday, they were more conspicuous than her tennis racquet. Not everyone loves them and I’ve seen some bitchy comment in the British media. I wonder if Outlook readers have any views on the subject, besides labelling me a dirty old man.

By Shiva’s Grace

This week I had some good news. My cottage in Jharipani, Mussoorie, is damaged but still standing. Lord Shiva has been kind.

Vinod Mehta is editorial chairman, Outlook, and its founding editor-in-chief; E-mail your diarist: vmehta AT outlookindia.com

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