The Supreme Court’s blunt rebuke of television channels which went into a careless and competitive feeding frenzy while covering the Mumbai 26/11 terror attack is almost entirely justified. However, its concluding remark that “the mainstream electronic media has done much harm to the argument that any regulatory mechanism … must come only from within” is misplaced. First, the reprimand. There is no doubt that the live coverage of 26/11 set a low in TV journalism with the most basic of norms — objectivity, verification, dispassion — making way for a heated, overzealous and inconsiderate jumble of words and images as channels fought each other to ‘break news’ and gather eyeballs. Worse, there is evidence that at times the frenzied coverage risked the lives of people trapped in the two Mumbai hotels and endangered the security forces. Transcripts of phone conversations between the terrorists and their Pakistani handlers clearly establish that the latter were issuing instructions on the basis of what they were watching. For instance, the terrorists in Taj Mahal Palace were told the dome of the hotel had caught fire; those holed up at The Oberoi were informed that the security forces were strengthening their positions on the roof.
The Supreme Court is right that, insofar as it risked violating the right to life of others, such TV coverage cannot be justified under the right to free expression. However, it is one thing to criticise over-the-top coverage and quite another to say something that could be interpreted as tacit endorsement of an external regulatory framework. Despite the occasional excesses, self-regulation of the broadcast media is the best way of striking a balance between preserving freedom of expression from state interference and preventing the abuse of its immense power. News broadcasters are not unaware of their obligations and the reasonable restrictions on their freedom to report events. The setting up of the News Broadcasters Association, comprising 45 news and current affairs channels, with its Code of Ethics and its Redressal Authority to address complaints from those aggrieved, is a significant step in the right direction. Stung by the criticism of the coverage of 26/11, the NBA has issued guidelines for reporting in emergency situations, which mandate, among other things, that no information be “given of pending rescue operations or regarding the number of security personnel involved or methods employed by them.” As TV coverage of subsequent incidents has shown, self-regulation is working reasonably well and there is no reason for external control.