Recalling killer news

Last Updated 29 August 2015, 18:30 IST
The BBC can err, and when it does, it makes news. The one that airs headlines itself figures in headlines! The latest goof up by  the venerable news portal was its tweet about the Queen’s death. Queen is dead? No, but long live the howler.

The faux pas happened when the news house was rehearsing the broadcast of royal deaths. In these days of breaking news, a royal death, and if it is Her Majesty the Queen herself, cannot wait to be broken for its readers the world over. To be accurate and fast, the broadcasting house practises and will be in a meticulous mode when it really happens. A bit of practice will make the breaking of news perfect, so thought the seniors who let the greenhorns practise. The technical rehearsals were on, but one day it went viral and BBC itself became the newsmaker. Well, it happens.

The BBC can take solace from the fact that it is not the only one in the world of news broadcast. From my experience as a journalist of some three decades, I can recall at least two such incidents of goofing up obituary news.

First, let us go to the then Madras, in the late 60s, when the DMK supremo C N Annadurai was counting his last days on a hospital bed. Anna, as he is affectionately called in Tamil Nadu, was a cult figure and was worshipped by his followers. The DMK was a monolith organisation with no splinter groups and Anna was sort of a benevolent dictator.

Naturally,  the masses were agitated when he was ill. As his condition deteriorated, PTI, the national news agency, installed a computer in the hospital itself and was directly connected with all newspapers across India. Those were the days when there was no internet, no apps, no Skype and no TV. News had to travel by the undependable phone or teleprinter.

These machines broke the news as ‘flash’ and the news desks were alerted with one-liners even as news was breaking out elsewhere.

At the hospital, a die-hard DMK woman came out crying loudly, beating her chest. And an alert reporter posted on duty there immediately interpreted it as Anna’s death and without bothering to check with the doctors, sent out a super flash: ANNA IS DEAD.

Anna was still breathing but teleprinters in newspapers all over the country had picked up that super flash. PTI had killed Anna even before he had died. In the next few minutes there were frantic messages beseeching the news desk to ignore the news. A detailed explanation with an apology followed.

Now let us go to Goa. Dayanand Bandodkar had died and his daughter Shashikala Kakodkar had taken over as chief minister. The Goa government Information Department decided to do a documentary on her and its enterprising director wanted to start with Dayanand’s death.

He came to the news organisation called  UNI and asked for a tweet on the teleprinter thus: Goa CM is dead. He wanted to show that message first and then move on to Shashikala’s swearing in as his successor. The chaps there obliged and typed out that flash news, but they were unaware that the machine had not been disconnected with the outside link. So the message went viral and newspapers all over got the flash message that the Goa CM was dead.

Unfortunately for the news organisation, power supply was disrupted at that very moment and there was no way they could put out an erratum immediately. It came out with a lengthy explanation the moment power supply was restored. But by then the alert news desks believed that Shashikala Kakodkar had died and were hunting for her obituary! Morarji Desai announcing JP’s (Jayaprakash Narayan or ‘Lok Nayak’) death prematurely in the Lok Sabha does not fall into this category, but it was also a deadly faux pas.

(Published 29 August 2015, 15:45 IST)

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