SUNDAY MAGAZINE

The moment of truth

Insensitive references: In the war to capture ratings, the victim is further victimised.

Insensitive references: In the war to capture ratings, the victim is further victimised.   | Photo Credit: Photo: PTI

AKHILA SIVADAS

The investigation of the Aarushi murder under the full glare of the media spotlight raises a few ethical questions. But are there any answers?

The murder of 14-year-old Aarushi and the domestic help Hemraj in the Noida residence of dentists Rajesh and Nupur Talwar on May 16 did not leave the front pages of the capital’s newspapers and the television channels for over a fortnight.

In those two weeks, monarchy was toppled in neighbouring Nepal, the BJP established a toehold in the South, inflation crossed the dreaded eight per cent mark and cricket’s newest avatar was in full flow night after night in eight metropolises across the country.

Everyone is indignant and rightfully so. The violent and gory fate Arushi and Hemraj met seems less horrific than the aftermath.

To establish a plausible motive for the crime, the police have had no qualms about making the most insensitive inferences and, in the process, speaking ill of a young child, forgetting all the legal protection conferred on a child under the Child Rights Convention.

Basic issue

More importantly, they ignored a basic ethical issue, which her friends have been constantly airing on the media. In the name of “cracking” the case, they went overboard in casting aspersions on her character when she could not defend herself. Phrases such as “characterless” and the final straw completely destroy any shred of faith the children have in the guardians of law.

This is where the media chose to have its own spin and decided to not only expose the police, nail them for not only building a flimsy case and for slurring the name of the child to provide a “foolproof” motive for the double murder but also to examine other social fault lines

The media had its hands full covering and analysing each of these, giving full scope for analysts, forensic and legal experts and clinical psychologists to display their specialised skills.

And it also provided scope for journalists to play their many roles: of detective, interrogator, prosecutor, graphic artist, simulator, God and, in a tantalising role reversal, the victim.Why blame the media? Why shoot the courier? We are only doing our job, they said, plaintively.

The bare facts of the case: a schoolgirl was found murdered in her room and her parents, though in the house, didn’t have any inkling of it. When the body was found the next morning, the immediate suspect was the servant, who was missing. And the police, fast on the draw, concluded he was the suspect. When his body was later found on the terrace, there was a frantic need for suspect.

The media, especially the visual media, thronged the place and took over, constantly interrogating, throwing up theories, mentioning possible suspects.

Mixed reaction

Ostensibly, they did this to bring the investigation under public scrutiny. Their simple and possibly convincing explanation was that, by then, it was clear that much of the initial investigation revealed a near deliberate shoddiness, incompetence and the possibility of the police “botching up” the case.

The media alleged that since the Noida Police had a terrible track record, (remember Nithari?), it was only logical that media intervened to ensure that the criminal justice system does not get flawed from the word go.

So far, so good, but is that how the viewers and readers perceive it? There is mixed reaction to this. Some are clearly holding back their ultimate verdict on the media. They feel that, instead of getting into the blame game, they cannot be exonerated from their responsibility.

Others are less charitable, and are hinting at outright media excess; some even terming it as the ultimate circus to catch eyeballs and shore up the ratings. Where does the truth lie? Surely not just in the intentions of the media but also in the day-to-day practices adopted to bring the latest khabar to the viewers and readers.

The scene is not unfamiliar to readers of newspapers and television watchers. Both thrive on excitement, want to be different, to excite the consumers, and both have an eye on the circulation figures and TRP ratings. If truth is the casualty, if they overstep the limits of propriety and even good taste, so be it. In the media’s world, there are no sepia tints; it is all in gorgeous colour and stereophonic sound.

In the present case most of the television studios also happened to be in Noida. Logistically this was tailor-made. No wonder they set up shop on the scene of crime and took over saturation “coverage” of the event as well as joining in the investigations.

The inevitable happened: a parallel investigation by media. It was at this stage that the media’s role as watchdog spun out of control. They began surmising, hinting at different possibilities, even challenging the investigators to come clean.

The police, suddenly finding themselves in the spotlight, played along and issued statement after outrageous statement through the day, as if it were a cricket match. In the process they forgot, or ignored, the basic principle of all investigations: cordon off the area and look for clues and evidence and go about the business in earnest. The forensic experts should have been the first to arrive at the place, not media greenhorns. The investigating agencies should have earnestly set about the job of working out the case. That is the standard practice. And they should also have handled the media with tact, understanding, and taken them into confidence.

Thin line

But what happened was exactly the opposite. In their defence, the media insist that the police was the only source for all their reports. According to the media, some police personnel even began to provide the desired leak and again it was only natural for the media to use this off-the-record information to take the “case” forward and even provide exclusive newsbreak for the viewer.

This, the media says, they did to go beyond informing the viewers about the case and to expose the convoluted mind of the police and their desperation to fix the blame in three days flat.

Here again human rights experts are clear that there is a thin dividing line between exposing contradictions and inconsistencies and legitimising them as the best possible explanation in the given circumstances. Sections of the media were guilty of many such indiscretions and unethical practices.

So the media are constantly on the look out for events that would fit in with this stereotype. This has happened earlier and, despite the outrage and shades of emotion and indignation, the act is repeated again and again. If the authorities do not learn their lesson, the media, for short-term gains and unable to resist the excitement it provides, plunges in with rare vigour.

There is the rule by the mob, and there is the rule by the media. With the proliferation of news channels, and the newspapers going on the overdrive to capture markets, to draw as much attention as possible, all regulations and legal boundaries are considered unnecessary. And the regulatory bodies — whether the Press Council or the industry-led bodies to strengthen self-regulation or laws such as the Child Rights Convention or the Juvenile Justice Act or the citizen’s invasion of privacy — watch helplessly.



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