Media trial most foul

As the media goes wild with speculation, the only code of conduct appears to be that all is fair in love, war and breaking news.

September 02, 2015 12:48 am | Updated September 02, 2016 02:59 pm IST

The ‘nation’ (euphemism for a television channel that demands answers from participants in its newsrooms) dedicated itself to Indrani Mukerjea and the Sheena Bora murder virtually the whole of last week.

The >saga with its twists and turns provided fodder to the media in general and television news channels in particular like nothing else in the recent past. There was breaking news every half hour, breathless newsroom debates on what might have prompted the famous wife of media baron Peter Mukerjea to allegedly kill her own daughter (with help from her ex-husband and her driver) and dispose of the body in a forest area near Mumbai. And worse, lead a seemingly normal life for three years.

The crime, as some put it, was no doubt the ‘mother of murders’, and it deserved the huge media attention because it involved a celebrity and there were many Hitchcock-ian plots and sub-plots, beginning with the disclosure that the murdered young woman was Indrani’s daughter, not sister as the world had been made to believe.

The media trial, the aim of which was ‘justice’ for Sheena, began in all earnest in television studios — only an irresponsible, terrible woman could pass off her children as siblings, they said; she gave them in adoption to her parents; their school certificates listed their grandparents as guardians; papers were waved at viewers, school teachers revealed that the grandparents had accompanied the children to school and that Indrani had not visited her children for years, as she went around changing husbands and climbing the social ladder… the details emerged in a breathless torrent. A well-known journalist came on air to claim that Indrani had told him that she had been molested by her stepfather. Other sections of the media asked if her so-called children could perhaps be her siblings too.

In the heat and dust raised by the issue, it just did not matter that under the law one cannot disclose the identity of a victim of sexual crime. Sensationalism knew no limits, with some reports claiming Indrani ran away with a man when she was just 15. No consideration for the fact that she was a juvenile when the incident allegedly happened. No consideration either for Sheena’s right to privacy when speculation was rife on who her father was. Everything, it seems, is fair in love, war and breaking news.

If indeed Indrani and her accomplices committed the crimes, they deserve exemplary punishment. But is sitting in judgment of a woman for her personal choices in private life warranted? Here, it must be said to the credit of at least one TV news channel that the anchor presented a ‘contrarian’ view when she said that the murder and the other aspects of Indrani’s life need to be separated.

Was Indrani an irresponsible mother who distanced her children and went in search of the ‘good’ life as is alleged? If yes, abandoning them or putting them in an orphanage would have been so much easier than going through the elaborate process of giving them up in adoption to her parents and ensuring their safety and education.

Adoption allowed

In fact, the practice of couples with daughters adopting a grandson to pass on the family wealth and to have their last rites performed by him is not unheard of in India. Besides, it is not difficult to believe that a young mother with an uncertain future would give her children her parents’ name, for both economic and social security. Strangely, >Siddhartha Das, the alleged father of her children , has not been pilloried as much as Indrani. Where was he when Sheena and Mikhail were growing up? The man, who seems to have waited for the media to discover him while his daughter’s gruesome murder virtually set the nation on fire, has alleged that Indrani can do “anything for money”. All the more reason, one would think, that he should have ensured they were safe and not left to her or her parents’ care. The arrangement put in place by Indrani seems to have suited him all these years.

Did Peter Mukerjea know that Sheena was Indrani’s daughter as reported? If anyone should be outraged with Indrani for not revealing this, it is Peter and Rahul Mukerjea, who has said he was in a relationship with Sheena. Honestly, it is none of anybody else’s business. Willingly or otherwise, Indrani’s parents, Sheena and Mikhail were okay with the arrangement for over 20 years. Sheena is supposed to have disclosed her relationship with Indrani to Peter (he claims he did not believe her) only because of her mother’s objections to her affair with Rahul. She did not do so for 10 years after Indrani’s marriage with Peter. (One wonders, though, why Indrani should have lied to her husband when people close to her family in Guwahati seemingly knew that Sheena and Mikhail were her children.)

If Indrani indeed hated her children and wanted to leave them behind in her race towards a good life, why did she bring Sheena to Mumbai? Keeping her in distant Guwahati would have been safer. From media reports, it is clear that Sheena shared a fairly good relationship with Peter and her stepsister Vidhie (Indrani’s daughter from her second marriage). She and her brother Mikhail were very much a part of their mother’s good life. Even their grandparents reportedly benefited from Indrani’s newfound prosperity. She is said to have spent crores of rupees on renovating their house and setting up a business for her father.

The root cause of the whole issue is supposed to be Indrani’s unchecked ambition — that she wanted too much too soon, that she was dying to become famous and influential. But being ambitious in a competitive world is certainly not a crime. And the fact that Indrani was married several times or wanted to taste social success cannot be held against her.

It is for the criminal justice system to punish the people involved in the murder of Sheena Bora. But a no-holds-barred parallel trial by the media is not only unfair journalism but borders on vigilantism. No one can dismiss the media’s stellar role in ensuring that justice was done in cases such as the Jessica Lal murder, but that does not give it the right to cross the line of propriety in this one.

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