As this reporter with a popular TV channel was battling the floods and his newsroom at the same time during live coverage of nature’s most recent affront on Chennai city, he received a call from a senior bureaucrat who had not spoken to him, in fact avoided his calls, for nearly 5 years. “It has been a long time,” the officer said, and quickly moved on the job at hand – requesting the reporter to please not indulge in ‘negative coverage’ of the Chennai floods. “Please show our rescue efforts as well, this is not fair,” said the officer. The reporter claims to have told him that what was actually unfair is that journalists have not been getting the information they need from the Tamil Nadu government. The officer then promptly arranged for the logistics of passing on information to the reporter.
This wasn't the case with just that reporter. Amidst the massive floods which Tamil Nadu saw in the past few weeks, the government machinery got a rude wake-up call on an unexpected front. The government realized that in the past 4 years or so, it had effectively closed down all channels of communication with certain sections of the media, except for a press release every now and then. That works when all is hunky-dory, or even when scandals are underway since the strategy is not to say anything anyway. But when a natural calamity shakes up the state, reality hits hard. Press releases are not enough, real time information needs to be passed on. Senior officers have not been in touch with reporters for years, clearly leading to a lack of coordination.
TV reporters have told TNM that while the government was swift with relief measures and did pick up speed in passing on information, the initial sluggishness with information was nothing but standard practice and did much damage.
Initially, officers and politicians did not realise how grim the situation could get. The standard press releases were sent and the mouthpiece of the ruling party downplayed the calamity. But when Tamil and English TV channels started broadcasting the real extent of the damage and gaps in the administration’s efforts to help people, the government went on a PR overdrive.
TV reporters have never had so many officers and politicians throwing themselves at the cameras offering to speak, ever before. Perhaps for the first time in the past 4.5 years, ministers were given full freedom to speak to the media.
Senior-most IPS and IAS officers were calling and texting TV reporters asking to be interviewed, willing to wait for hours for the reporters to turn up. Some even sat on live call-in shows for hours on TV channels, responding to queries of the viewers. Tamil news channels got calls every hour asking if they can ‘please’ show visuals of rescue efforts and not just people stuck in the floods. Public relation officers had their hands full with several press releases and calls for coverage. The frustration and paranoia among officers and politicians that they would be judged based on TV channels’ coverage was more than just palpable. Their primary concern was simply this: the media coverage should be positive of the government’s efforts.
And in the off-chance that someone evaded the media as a matter of practice (we call it ‘pazhaka dosham’ in Tamil), like Chennai Mayor Saidai Duraiswamy did, immediately calls were made to the respective media house offering phone-numbers of others who were willing to speak. For the first time ever, someone was in trouble in the Jayalalithaa regime for NOT speaking to the media. Imagine that!
Interestingly, senior officials of Arasu Cable, the state-owned cable distribution company, too apparently called up reporters and ‘politely requested’ positive coverage.
In the last four years, information would come out either as a leak favouring the government, or bits and pieces of it given to journalists who were personal friends of officers. Getting permission to even shoot visuals at government institutions for regular stories was getting difficult, say TV reporters. In a situation like this, when a natural calamity occurs and information becomes an important tool for relief, there is significant friction and hiccups between the government machinery and journalists, when ideally they communication channels should simply snap into action. Instead, there is a significant fear psychosis which flows down right from the top. Officers and politicians are paranoid at the consequences of even one wrong statement to the media.
If not anything else, the TN floods were a rude wake-up call for the government to keep in regular touch with journalists and not shut down channels of communication. Will they learn from this?