This is the story of how an incident should not be reported. Especially in these coronavirus times.
Early Tuesday evening, news channels were diverted from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement that the lockdown would continue till 3 May, by the sudden appearance of huge crowds of migrant workers at the Bandra railway station in Mumbai.
Soon enough, we saw disturbing footage of a gigantic crowd milling around, shots of police and other leaders entreating them to leave, succeeded by visuals of police lathi charges to disperse them. There were similar visuals from Surat, Gujarat where crowds had also gathered.
However, the narrative soon changed. Surat was forgotten as channels sniffed around Bandra station, for clues: from India TV and ABP to Aaj Tak, NewsNation, Times Now and Republic, they asked in one voice — who is responsible for this? How did crowds gather there?
These are reasonable questions and they were rightly directed at the Maharashtra government. ABP said that Uddhav Thackeray’s government was “sleeping”; Times Now said it was an intelligence failure, India TV wanted to know what the police was doing. Again and again, they asked questions of the state government.
Which is as it should be. Also, given that in the coronavirus crisis, social distancing is of paramount importance, they were right to raise fears of infection spreading rapidly through the intermingling of the crowds.
Is that a masjid?
News channels did report that migrants, needy and hungry, said they wanted to return to their villages and thought trains were coming to take them home.
However, this explanation for their presence at Bandra station did not satisfy the channels, nor did they seem keen to pursue this line of investigation.
Instead, the NewsNation reporter in Mumbai questioned the proposition: with a keen eye for detail, he noticed that the people were not carrying any luggage so, ipso facto, they were not planning to go anywhere, were they?
Even as we considered the case of the missing luggage, another angle popped up on the channels: “Lockdown broken in Bandra…why have 3,000 people gathered at the masjid?” asked India TV.
“Why have crowds gathered only outside the masjid?” NewsNation demanded to know.
“Why is the crowd near the masjid?” inquired ABP.
In a very good ground report that mapped out all the developments as they unfolded, an ABP reporter asked a local political representative Vishal, about a reported announcement from the masjid – Vishal immediately denied this and asked the reporter to not communalise the issue.
That was impossible: ‘masjid’, somehow, found its way into every description of the Bandra migrant story across channels, although so far, there is no evidence that the masjid near Bandra station where the crowds gathered, played a role in the drama.
On Times Now, Rahul Shivshanker warned that this could be a “Tablighi moment” for Mumbai, referring to the now infamous Delhi Tablighi Jamaat congregation, which is reportedly the single largest source of the coronavirus infection throughout India.
That one incident has now entered daily our language as a commonplace description, a byword for coronavirus ‘super spreaders’. By association, ‘masjid’ has become an accessory to crime – at least for some news channels, to say nothing about social media.
Is that a conspiracy?
The story then took another turn: as soon as the crowds faded into the evening, the anchors went on a leather hunt: As India TV put it, “Villain kaun?” in the “MumbaiMigrantMystery” (Times Now).
“Conspiracy,” said India TV.
“Conspiracy,” agreed NewsNation.
“This is a conspiracy, a plot… by design,” declared Times Now — Rahul Shivshankar added there were many theories doing the rounds including that this was “sabotage” by political parties “inimical” to the BJP (Huh?).
At Republic TV, it was dismissed by Arnab Goswami as a “pseudo political protest”. Then Times Now and Republic discovered the tweet by one Vinay Dubey (who was arrested Wednesday) in which he reportedly exhorted people to leave the city. Aha, so he was “villain’’ responsible for the entire nasty episode.
You would have thought the matter ended there. However, it has since been muddied by allegations that a report by ABP Majha correspondent Rahul Kulkarni, Tuesday morning, that Railways would run trains for the migrants to go home, led to the migrants rushing to the Bandra station. The reporter has also been arrested by the Mumbai police but ABP, in a press release has said it reported accurate information, in the “public interest” and reported the subsequent cancellation of the trains by the Railways.
This signals an alarming twist to the story — the state government can be accused of muzzling the media and trying to brook criticism by intimidation.
The saga, then, continued into Wednesday afternoon with Republic TV acquiring a “Mumbai conspiracy video”, which allegedly showed people in the crowd saying they were summoned there to face the media – or to receive money.
A wild guess?
The story has now reached a full circle: by Wednesday evening, it had the following characters: Vinay Dubey, one ABP reporter, a Bandra station, a masjid, missing luggage, a conspiracy video, and thousands of people. But we are still asking the same questions: who gathered these people together, how did they get there—and why?
Wait for new stories.
Meanwhile, we can wonder why channels did not speak to more of the migrants, investigate their versions, talk to the Railways….
A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court advised the media to report facts and verified government information. The Narendra Modi government has also tightened rules on publishing and spreading fake news.
But news channels are deaf and blind to such advice. As reports and discussions around the Bandra migrant “mess” (Republic TV) reveal, news channels spin yarns, concoct theories, create their own villains and tell their stories within stories—with complete abandon.
Views are personal.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.