The Stockholm syndrome of a stake out coverage

My earliest memory of a stake out for a story gone wrong is of back when Lalit Modi (I hope he won’t tweet about this now) was still IPL commissioner. Modi would keep flitting in and out of Mumbai and on this particularly unfortunate day, when he was expected to react to something the BCCI had done, he was lodged at the Four Seasons in Mumbai. By a quirk of fate, yours truly, had the job of standing outside Four Seasons on a hot and humid May day waiting to see if Lalit Modi might drive by the gates, hopefully lower the car glasses, and give a reaction when one put the mic in front of him. That was not to be. And I spent an entire day along with another channel reporter, staking out at the Four Seasons gate. Any area near a 5-star hotel is supposed to be kept pristine, which means there were no food outlets, nothing except a chai tapri nearby, which is of no use as such on a hot and humid day. We spent the entire day hungry, somewhat thirsty, scoping out each Mercedes that drove out of Four Seasons. At around 8 in the night, our bosses felt it was enough and we left the place. To our utter chagrin, sometime in the night, Lalit Modi, broke his silence on Twitter, declaring that he had had a relaxing day at the Four Seasons spa!!

A stakeout or chowkidaari, as it is referred to in journalistic slang, is a phenomenon of the 24/7 news business and is quintessentially TV. A reporter and cameraman are expected to stand at a place where dramatis personae of the story are expected to be or expected to arrive and watch every movement around the area. It is as taxing physically as covering an election/protest rally, but somewhat less rewarding emotionally because an outcome is not guaranteed. At the end of a stake out you may or may not get a visually exciting story or sound bite, but you have to wait nevertheless. Veterans in Mumbai are likely to tell you stories of the great stake out outside the hospital when Pramod Mahajan was battling for life for 12 days after being shot, or of the time the 93 trial was on and Sanjay Dutt was in and out of jail. Stake outs are not as hazardous as papparazzi style chases, which has caused bodily harm to many a photographer and video journalist. But the odd tearing of clothes and pulling of a muscle is common, so is the possibility of dehydration and starvation.

The recent Indrani case was an example of a prolonged stake out. The story played out from 3 main locations, the Khar police station, the Worli residence of the Mukherjeas and the Bandra court. Reporters were deputed almost 20 hours a day on these locations. When I had just started journalism, channels had enough reporters to afford stake outs in 2 shifts. But today every channel in Mumbai has less than half a dozen reporters, which means any given reporter spends 12-16 hours at a stakeout, talking on national TV non stop, with very little time for breaks. While you are talking, you also have to keep an eye out for who is coming and going, you are not to miss shots or bites, you are also supposed to speak to your sources to get newsbreaks and generally be alert and coherent enough to make sense on national TV. The viewer who shall question you on social media is not bothered that you have been out in the sun for 10 hours already when he spots that grammatical error in the sentence you just spoke, or that this is the 10th day in a row that you have been pulling 16 hour shifts. It is simply not his concern and perhaps you cant blame him for wanting consistent quality for the cable money that he has paid.

In this particular case, the only place with food outlets close by was the Bandra court. The Khar police station had nothing in the vicinity except a college stall that sold wada pav and samosa pav and cold drinks, the staple Mumbai diet of any stake out. Outside the Mukherjeas Worli residence, the only recourse was the Traffic police headquarters canteen, which served lunch.

Stake outs are sometimes inconvenient for female journalists because most of the times there is no ladies wash room around. There are times when female journalists don’t pee the entire day during a stake out because there is no proper place. One day I had to request the Khar police to allow me to use the lady officers’ rest room at 10 pm, but with the suspects in the same police station, the police didnt want to allow any journalists anywhere in the station complex. It took a bit of convincing by a male colleague before they let me use the loo, but a female constable was standing right beside the door and told me not to latch it. Desperate times. At the Worli residence, the Traffic headquarters was more co-operative.

But its not all gloomy on a stake out. Mostly it is the rare occasion when we meet our cohorts from other channels and some newspapers in months. In the brief breaks when the channel is on a commercial or some other breaking political news has taken over, everyone tries to catch up. You exchange stories related to the coverage at hand and also about personal victories and losses. After mobile cameras became a reality, it is also the time when you get FB pictures for an entire week clicked. All this in the hope that it will make the endless wait more bearable. Many enduring friendships have started on such stakeouts, a few successful and a few not so successful romances too. Industry gossip is exchanged, some bitching about work is done. There is a sense of bonhomie, an empathy of shared suffering.

In a stake out, the reporters are hostage to the news requirements of the situation. As you share half a sandwich and the last few drops from a water bottle with each other, you develop a sort of traumatic bonding with your cohorts. You want to leave the place, you dislike the disruption to your normal life a lot and yet you don’t want to miss out on that one visual or sound bite when it happens. It is some form of Stockholm syndrome. In fact, Stockholm Syndrome, perhaps defines the love hate relationship every TV journalist has to his/her job. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

Days later when the story somewhat cools down and you pass the same locations again while on a different shoot, you reminisce, you open your Facebook and check photos from the time, you perhaps contact one of those friends you haven’t met post that stake out. Whether a stake out made you a better TV journalist is debatable, but mostly you have material for a few blogs and many more stories to tell people over drinks. So, see you at the next stake out.

P.S. Apologies to residents in Khar and Worli for any inconvenience, we were just doing our jobs.