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TRIAL BY MEDIA - Television should have no role when criminal cases are in court

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By COMMENTARAO - S.L. Rao
  • Published 25.07.11
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Television channels have substituted for poor governance — in investigation of crimes including corruption, in the hounding of criminals and politicians who may have committed crimes, in forcing impartial police investigation, in pushing for an impartial judicial process and speedy sentencing. This has mobilized public opinion and helped resolve a few investigations.

New private TV channels have made national events of the battle of civil society against corruption, (the struggle for the lok pal bill, Anna Hazare’s fast, and the flamboyant Baba Ramdev’s Ramlila grounds tamasha). Without the TV, these events would not have attracted national attention and frightened the Central government into a semblance of action. The TV compelled an honest investigation of Jessica Lal’s murder, ensuring that the known suspect was tried and jailed. By hammering at the long-standing looting of national resources by officials of the Commonwealth Games and the telecommunications spectrum allocations, the TV media ensured that the Supreme Court monitored an objective investigation. There were also the forgotten Aarushi and Nithari crimes, and the continuing survival of the Karnataka chief minister, B.S. Yeddyurappa. Television news has helped create public sentiment in select instances.

Television investigations have been highly selective. They are big-city centred, focused on the middle class and do little with similar issues in rural or small-town settings and where the people concerned are the poor. Clearly this is because the audiences that affect advertising revenues today are like the reporters, urban, big-city and middle-class.

Maria Susairaj was all these. She was tried and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for concealing evidence in the murder of Neeraj Grover. Media frenziedly demanded stronger punishment. Clearly, this is an interference with an ongoing judicial process.

Media crossed the line between investigation and pushing an opinion. The court had heard both sides and scrutinized all the evidence before sentencing Susairaj and Jerome. She will probably be tried again on appeal. The news channels should have let the law take its course.

Instead, the TV channels mounted a fierce campaign to mobilize people, attack the judgment and the sentence. There should have been a moratorium till the final appeal was heard. The media cannot and should not be investigator, a trial court and court of appeal. This is what they have become in the Susairaj case.

Private news channels have been accusers, investigators, participants in fomenting public agitations, and almost judicial forums in the bizarre discussions they hold, with opinionated anchors pushing the discussions to preconceived conclusions. They have grossly overstepped their role as purveyors of news and opinion. There is a role for the TV on issues of public policy, of which corruption and other such issues are a part, especially when the government is as it is now, a colluder with the violators of the law. But with criminal cases in court, and when the court has passed judgment, the media should have no role till the process is complete.

Of course, our system of investigation, prosecution and trial is slow, many times corrupt. But the process exists, and works. It should have a proper chance. Print media in India, unlike the closed News of the World in the United Kingdom, have rarely crossed the line, though they do express strong political opinions. Tehelka has been a meticulous investigative paper. When in 1959 Prem Bhagwandas Ahuja was shot dead by a dashing Parsi naval officer, Nanavati, his friend for 15 years, after he discovered his wife Sylvia in an affair with Ahuja, Blitz, a tabloid edited by Rusi Karanjia, benefited immensely in circulation from the frenetic efforts of Karanjia to ensure saturation coverage of the case. Blitz depicted Nanavati as the wronged, loving, middle-class naval officer husband, devoted to his wife and children, betrayed by a close friend, and Ahuja as the playboy, openly boasting of no intentions of long-term relationships with the women he slept with. The jury trial acquitted Nanavati. The judge declared the verdict “perverse”, ordered a retrial, and jury trials were abolished. Nanavati was imprisoned, and pardoned after three years. He migrated with Sylvia and their three children to Canada. This was a rare instance, unlike in Britain and the United States of America, where a paper made a prolonged issue of a criminal case.

The Indian print media have reported trials but rarely taken positions on verdicts after they were delivered. Perhaps they should; for example, in cases of fake drugs, rape, especially of children, selling drugs without prescription, stealing entitlements from poor beneficiaries and so on. Print, unlike TV news, is not instant news but passes though editorial hands before publication, and has had a tradition of behaving responsibly.

Print and television have, however, happily given publicity to selective leaks from investigating agencies like the enforcement directorate, the Central Bureau of Investigation, the police and others, tarnishing reputations of accused people before trials. The accused persons might respond but the media give them little visibility (headline, position of the report and so on) compared to what they gave to the original government leak. The media have in this way damaged reputations of many, later proved innocent, and that without significant media publicity. With Central and state ministers controlling investigating agencies, considerable misuse to damage opponents is common. “Paid news” helps the print medium to even earn from this misuse.

The media depend on advertising revenues. That is related to circulation or viewership. In print, circulation does not change from hour to hour. Households purchase newspapers and magazines each day or month. Advertising revenues that depend on circulation are not subject to short-term fluctuations.

The TV brings immediacy to news. If the presenter has a personality that projects sincerity, it adds to his/her influence and that of the channel. Television viewership is measured by samples for various channels over a 24-hour period. The many news channels in English, Hindi and the regional languages and easy switching from channel to channel put TV news channels constantly on trial. The print medium is not. With viewerships changing dramatically as switching takes place between channels, TV news channels have to constantly titillate and excite audiences. “Breaking news” is not the unusual exception; it is the norm. Everything is “breaking”. A new feature is the discovery that mobilizing audiences for a cause also builds loyalty to the channel, at least for a while. All channels now look for causes for which to mobilize public support.

Obviously TV news can sustain this only for a while. Publicizing a cause, mobilizing public opinion, keeping up the pressure for days on end, cannot be sustained. And the purpose is not the cause but retaining and enlarging the growing viewership of the channel. Audiences also get bored and want something different. The channel then finds some new “breaking” news that can excite and sustain viewership.

For years there has been mention of a media content authority. It is now vital that there be one. But the government is now frightened by the concerted response of the media that this would be government censorship. The government has opted for self-regulation by the media. Self-regulation has been ineffective in India in every sphere where it exists (chartered accountants, medical practitioners, architects, company secretaries and national sports associations). Self-regulation will fail in the media as media owners excuse one another’s offences. The UK is now talking of a strong authority to oversee media practices and content. Till we have one, we will continue to see on TV the media becoming investigators and judges, fomenting public action instead of reporting or separately analysing events, and the growing depiction of obscenity, opinionated content, and illegal practices like phone tapping and bribing. Hopefully, India will follow the UK.