Friday, November 17, 2006

The Fourth Estate Trials

Sometimes, real TV can be so much more thrilling and entertaining than “Reality TV”. So, forget Rakhi Sawant’s attempts to milk a bovine and watch Ram Jethmalani’s performance on CNN-IBN as he makes mincemeat of a hapless Sagarika Ghose during a Jessica Lal case interview. He raves, rants and goes berserk in a no holds barred performance which would do any octogenarian proud and get him to replace Big B as the “Angry Old Man”. Though he is known to be a controversial lawyer and a rabble-rouser, this time, his outburst attracted a fair deal of publicity, especially among the blogging and journo world (Who else would discuss?)

Ram Jethmalani, in the course of the interview, raised a few pertinent points, albeit in his own inimitable whiplash style. He pounced upon Sagarika’s lack of legal know-how and ridiculed her claim of going against public opinion. He also blasted the media for passing pro-active judgments and undermining the judiciary.

We all, probably, believe that Manu Sharma deserves to be punished but can we advocate that he does not deserve the best defence available because of our opinion. Whether he should stand for the accused or not is his prerogative and not the press’s. The strength of the Indian judicial system is in its ability to provide a free and fair trial to both the accused and the victim and not discriminate on the basis of “informed” public opinion.

The now forgotten ISRO spy scandal represents in many ways the worst example of a case that was created and sustained by an overzealous media. What started of as an innocuous arrest of a Maldivian woman, Mariam Rasheeda, went on to become the biggest spy scandal in the history of independent India. The media (especially the vernacular one) in association with the police and political class weaved a thriller script, adding dollops of sex, money and flesh to make it a scandalous affair. A few top scientists, an IPS officer and few others were implicated without any iota of evidence until the case was eventually handed over to the CBI.

After its report and the subsequent Supreme Court judgment, the matter was finally laid to rest and everyone was acquitted. But the tattered reputations and the mental agony of the people involved can never be restored. No one has ever apologized to the people whose dignity was stripped in the public and all this from the “educated free press of Kerala”.

Remember the arrest of His Holiness Jayendra Saraswathi, where the press hauled his reputation across the coals without any evidence at all to support the accusations hurled upon him. He was accused of being a womanizer, a corrupt god man and so much more that would have put any self-respecting man to shame. While the Tamil Nadu Government was vindictive about the entire affair, the scribes went all the way exhibiting their “secularism” by making a villain out of him. Can you imagine the Pope being subject to such abuse? And where’s the case now? The Andhra Pradesh High Court had remarked in its judgment that there is no prima facie evidence against the accused despite malicious attempts by the press and the Tamil Nadu Government to do so. The press continues to be silent about this.

Of course, it’s no one’s case that the Indian press plays only a “super-judicious” role in our democracy. For years the media snuggled upto the State and ignored its primary role. After the Emergency, L K Advani had famously told journalists “You were asked to bend and you chose to crawl”. But times have changed and a free global economic order has also seen the media get down and ask questions – some relevant and some which were hitherto considered as too sacred to touch.

The Jessica Lal, Priyadarshini Mattoo and Manjunath cases are there in the judicial space thanks to the active role of the media in bringing these issues to the public domain. A running democracy requires an active press that highlights issues and brings to focus all things hidden from public view. In fact, Amartya Sen says that a Free Press can play an important role in the mitigation of natural disasters by their active reporting. The RTI Act was not amended largely due to the role played by the media in highlighting the government’s intentions and attempts in sabotaging the law.

But what happens when the press decides to arrogate many of the State’s powers to itself. Many of us fed on a regular diet of news bytes do not question them and go by what is told to us by news anchors. We all know that there’s a thin line between bringing out an exclusive story and playing to the gallery. With so many channels fighting it out in the broadcasting and newsprint domain, there is always a temptation to go one up for exclusive “breaking news” at the expense of genuine news. Like various blogs, each channel carries its own subjective interpretation of facts and the casualty is the veracity of the news item. While everyone wants a well-researched story, what do you do in case it’s too tiresome to do so? Probably come up with “confidential leaks” or “reliable sources” and present it as “Flash News”.

The horrendous massacre of Dalits in Kherlanji went unreported for about a month till they took to the streets and lead massive protests in Nagpur. Is it that their stories do not carry the same shock value or they are not worth reporting? Sanjay Dutt has been accused of a very serious crime like possession of weapons but he gets a lot of sympathy in the media – recollect his visit to the Siddhi Vinayak temple and his “reformed” existence- but there are many others like Prof. Geelani (represented by Ram Jethmalani in the Supreme Court) who are subjected to the piercing eyes of media because they represent “no one”.

A vibrant democracy requires the media to act as a watchdog for the 3 legs of policy in India – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. But it is tempting for the Fourth Estate to go overboard and try to dictate terms because of the unbridled power it has. This restraint is difficult to come by because at the end of the day, it is not answerable to anyone except maybe its shareholders. In defence of the press community, it must be stressed that is not enough to be fair but also important to appear to be fair, which is where many of our journalists have failed. Journalism should not be treated as an exercise in blogging where any smart alec who has an opinion (like me) decides to express it without checking out the facts of the case.

Tail piece: The sadistic streak in me enjoyed the Ram Jethmalani interview despite his haughty behaviour. I recommend it to people to watch it and judge for themselves the “entertainment” value in it, especially those tired of “Big Boss” antics.

Also watch the video of Ram Jethmalani's interview conducted by Karan Thapar in CNBC-TV 18 posted on Nov 19th for another slice of the action. The action never stops!!!


  1. Hey Pradeep...very well written. Bigg Boss may be trivial...but even discussing how much you supposedly hate it... is fodder for canteen conversation....wat say? But this does not mean that I will not watch the Ram Jethmalani interview recommended by ya....

  2. dude ...very well written...u have hit the nail on the head....unfortunately sensationalism is what sells today....

  3. superb one...sir... think u r honing yr blog-skills day-by-day...