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Media reportage: Interview with Mark Tully

MARK TULLY is a media legend in India and, has in his 30 years with the British Broadcasting Corporation - 20 of them as Chief of Bureau, BBC, Delhi - covered every imaginable disaster, natural and human-made, in South Asia. Born in Calcutta in 1935, schooled largely in England, he has virtually adopted India as his home and has straddled both nations: he was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1985 and the Padma Shree in 1992, a rare exception for a foreigner. Tully has often ruffled establishment feathers, both government and media, in his insistence on the humane side of media coverage and his subaltern view of things. The size and variety of his footprint leaves him uniquely able to comment on media linkages with issues of national and regional importance. Excerpts from an interview to Max Martin and Unnikrishnan P. V. on media and disasters.

How can the media change the perception about disaster-affected people from "helpless victims" to "partners in change"?

My own feeling is that, in the media, we fall into the difficulty of portraying victims really in a way as victims rather than as individuals. A lot of journalists try to get around this problem by telling individual stories of people. Even then I feel that what we have to do more is to make sure to emphasise that it is people who suffer and somehow try to tell the reader what their suffering is like.

I will give you an example of a human-made disaster. I was to make a film 10 years after the Bhopal gas tragedy. I saw some of the other documentaries. What struck me in these documentaries was that the victims were somehow presented as examples rather than as human beings. It was like showing examples in a museum. When we went to shoot, we went out of our way to humanise the characters. We tried to bring out the subtleties of each individual's story.

I think it is very important that we should make it clear that the victims of disasters are the people who also have the courage to survive that disaster. Far too often the stress is on aid... a fact which is important in itself.

* * *

"Suffering makes a good story". Reportage is dominated by stories of "starving children" in drought-hit areas or the homeless in cyclone situations. Reports of atrocities dominate the reportage on riots, but reportage on the possibilities to minimise the impact of disasters is virtually non-existent. What role could the media play to prepare and help people survive a disaster?

There is a role that the media can play, and to some extent have played, in preparing people for disasters. I think, for instance, in the situation of Bangladesh, the widespread reporting of cyclones there has been a major factor that led to a much more effective relief system than there was before.

I think a more careful analysis of the causes of communal riots sometimes could help. If it is made absolutely clear as to what were the reasons behind the riots and who has created them, and why, then the public outrage may be awakened. The local people might become more aware of what is happening when badmash and goondas come into their area instigating trouble. Then they may be on their guard against rumours. I think that is quite important.

The Indian media are trying to fudge everything by saying there is a riot between two communities without mentioning their names, I think they are not helping anyone by doing that at all. I think such issues should rather be faced by being absolutely fair and square, as to what has happened. Make people understand how it has happened, and also present the story in a manner that may arouse public awareness against it.

* * *

The media has been known to be choosy about which disasters to cover, depending on sensational value and, sometimes offensively, their own circulation and advertising exigencies. How do you view this?

I have no direct evidence to support that view. All I would say is that it is true, in general, that media organisations are being more and more dominated by commercial considerations rather than by old-fashioned editorial values. That, in my view, is one of the crucially important factors in favour of public service broadcasting. Public service broadcasting need not be dictated by commercial considerations. But even the commercially motivated media organisations have to cover the main news agenda, otherwise people won't watch their news. There are pressures on them. Equally, I wouldn't deny that there is a tendency to cut down on news and dub it down because of increasing commercial pressure.

The media is metro-centric. If there is a fire in Delhi, in an office building, it will get national coverage. A worse fire in the Orissa will probably be reported only in Orissa papers. In some ways you can't help this just as you can't avoid celebrity news.

In India there is a real problem. Certain disasters which recur frequently like bus accidents and people getting killed at railway level crossing do not get covered. The numbers involved are very large. The media can think of a campaign on such issues. Level crossings are often unmanned, the approaches are too narrow and badly designed. The Railways should be taken to task for ignoring this safety aspect.

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