Friday, September 24, 2004

Raja Ramanna's death

Work on the News Desk is often very hectic. Successive reports of rapidly developing events can pose a major challenge, as one has to quickly replace the outdated items with updated ones. Deadline is so sacrosanct that nothing matters after that.

What happens if a piece of very important news breaks out just around the deadline? Few instances in the recent past have created as much confusion as the death of the architect of India's nuclear programme, Raja Ramanna, last night.

At 9.50 pm, we received a phone call from a colleague. "I heard that Raja Ramanna is dead. His nephew will give the details," she said. One of the reporters was immediately put on the job. As the deadline is 10.15 pm for early editions, immediately some space was created for this breaking news on page one. Meanwhile, the reporter quickly typed out a few lines and we carried it.

Then, for the last edition, we carried detailed news of the passing away of the scientist, who hails from Karnataka. We also ran an obit.

Then, suddenly around 1 am -- when many thousands of copies had already been printed -- PTI (leading news agency, Press Trust of India) moved an advisory recalling earlier stories on Ramanna. It moved a fresh series on a press conference addressed well after midnight by Dr B.K. Goyal, director of Bombay Hospital. He said, Ramanna was alive, sustained by a ventilator. The newsroom was thrown into chaos.

There was further confusion. On hearing Ramanna's death, President Abdul Kalam who was in Aurangabad (Maharashtra state), rushed to Mumbai, "to pay respects to the departed soul". This copy too was revised, saying the President was rushing to wish Ramanna "a speedy recovery". By the way, Ramanna was a senior colleague of Kalam, who was a space scientist.

But, how could we carry a news item saying Ramanna had died, when possibly he was on way to full recovery? We had to quickly get into action and undo the damage. Fresh copies were flowed in. Earlier copies were abandoned. And fresh copies printed. None of the readers today morning must have got an inkling of the confusion and chaos in the newsroom.

But Ramanna wasn't lucky. He passed away early in the morning. In retrospect, even if the earlier news had been carried, it wouldn't have been so much of an error. But if he had survived...

Today we were left wondering how it all happened. His personal assistant Ramakrishna in Bangalore had said Ramanna had died. His daughter-in-law too had spoken of his death. How could they be wrong?

One speculation is that a decision to put him on ventilator must not have been communicated properly. He might have been already clinically dead. Or, did the President's visit got to do something with it? Did someone think Kalam's visit would create protocol problems, and decided to delay the announcement? It remains a mystery.

Anyway, this incident brings to mind some earlier instances. The most quoted is Mark Twain's obituary in 1897, which he himself got to read. There are many versions of how he reacted. One of them is, "Reports of my illness grew out of his (my cousin's) illness, the report of my death was an exaggeration."

In the 1970s, AIR broadcast the news of freedom fighter and socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan's death in its 2 pm bulletin. But later corrected after doctors managed to revive his heart. JP managed to live for many more days if I remember correctly.


  1. I find the things you write/post about really interesting. What do you do at the newspaper? Are you a reporter?

  2. Tara, I am a chief copy editor at the newspaper. I work in a team that selects, prioritises and edits news items, and then plan and make pages of the newspaper.