Media trial

In today’s world of 24×7 media coverage of events – good or bad – happening daily around us are bound to be, not just brought to our attention in a relentless manner, but highlighted, discussed and analyzed threadbare. Sometimes this appears to be like a collective voyeuristic tendency of a society in flux and confused about its needs and values and which is well served by a technologically empowered media that find nothing unethical about identifying a source of commercial benefit in feeding to this apparent mass craving. At other times, it is the media, which seem to provide great support to the truly democratic aspirations of a populace weighed down by a fairly corrupt and insensitive government administration, an opportunist, venal and exploitative political party system.


It is impossible to think of the massive financial corruption cases that came up during last three years relating to the Commonwealth Games, 2G spectrum and the Coal block allocation without relentless media exposure, scrutiny, investigative journalism unearthing (using the RTI provisions if required) and wide dissemination of information otherwise tucked away in inaccessible government files or argued by lawyers in abstruse legalese in various law courts. At a superficial level this development can and has been looked upon by the people, especially in urban areas of the country most exposed to the television and the print media, as a sort of democratization of the news medium that allowed them not just to consume as readers, listeners and viewers but also participate by way of interactions between the news broadcasters and the TV audience, phone-ins with and setting up questions for the anchors and expert panelists at the TV studios, apart from the traditional letters to editors in their print versions. I am deliberately keeping out the so-called ‘social media’ and the on-line commenting on articles and blogs published in the electronic versions of all major newspapers and magazines in the country, which are not only of even more recent origin, but because of their method of dissemination and interaction being based on internet are still limited to the educated and young middle class in metros and urban centers and hence less representative of the masses than the TV audience.



An important part of this democratization is an apparent bridging the gap between the patricians and the plebeians, the high and mighty on one side and the lowly proverbial ‘common man’ on the other in the discussion arenas (e.g. TV studios) characterized by this ambience of irreverence. Any body can ask any critical or damaging questions of any body else, mix languages and metaphors, cross swords with and lampoon the rich and the powerful and tear down the carefully cultivated façade of lies and hypocrisy built by them over the years to hold down the masses of voiceless people.


One such lie is that in a polity like ours people’s democratic rights virtually begin and end with electing periodically (say after every five years or so) a person affiliated to one or the other political party for the post of a municipal corporator or a MLA for the state assembly or a MP for the country’s parliament. That what these elected personages (‘people’s representatives’) do or don’t do during the period intervening between the elections should not be people’s business, least of all should not come under their scrutiny since their right as members of these hallowed institutions (euphemistically even called the “temples”) of democracy, like the parliament or the assemblies is sacrosanct. And that the minor matter about the rights of those who elect them every five or odd years may be allowed to take a back seat. One of the most important positives to have emerged out of these, often raucous, argumentation is the demolition of such myths.


An unfortunate fall out of this upsurge of democratic sentiments among people, partly whetted by the media, is the uncritical acceptance and even popularity of what has come to be known as ‘media trial’ among those lapping up the products of the media, both print and electronic. One can understand the impatience and sympathize with the eagerness of the ordinary people to participate in the process of exposure of apparent misdeeds and misdemeanors of people in high places, those wielding considerable political power and social influence, flaunting wealth. However, media sometimes overdoes its crusading role ostensibly on behalf of people with publicistic writings in the form of OP-ED/ LEAD articles and the editorials in the newspapers sporting a predominantly accusatory style pointing fingers to one or the other side.


And especially most TV discussions and talk shows have this inquisition format where the channel anchors ask tendentious leading questions to trap selected participants and extract ‘confessions’. These belie the expectation of calm and objective deliberations with appreciation of the facts of the case (which are often only partially known, sometimes based on selective leaks by ‘sources’ which are never identified) and the details of the complex economic, financial issues and their political significance. In the heat of the high decibel argumentation, often degenerated into ugly slanging match, hurling of slanders and innuendos, it is forgotten that the alleged misdeeds, criminal offence and moral turpitude on the part of the ‘accused’, if any, will have to be decided, according to the accepted legal protocol with full access to the facts, by the law courts, admittedly a slow meandering process. Nevertheless that process can and should never be bypassed by a shadow ‘trial’ at a TV studio or by tendentious and slanderous print articles trying to make a case against a perceived offender.     


Among the worst examples of this lynch mob mentality of the media mention must be made of the coverage of the now-off, now-on long-running Aarushi-Hemraj murder case and the more recent trial and verdict by a CBI court in Ghaziabad. The very recent case of sexual assault/harassment of a junior colleague by the Tehlka Editor-in-Chief Tarun Tejpal provided another opportunity of a media bloodbath. Unlike the typical political one-upmanship and dramas, economic wrongdoings or financial corruption cases, in the cases of murder and sex-related offences, despite the pretence of caring about high-minded principles and the legal and moral issues, it is the common weakness of the people for titillation these cases provide that energizes the media entrepreneurs’ sense for the profit. The salaciousness of the sordid details of the cases forms the first and the basic bait. Later, saturation TV coverage include startling sound bytes, snatches of conversation in and out of police vans, press briefings by the police, the prosecution and the defense lawyers, interviews of the legal luminaries, inevitable politicians, social workers, intellectuals and of course the round the clock and breathless reporting by the correspondents about the latest state of the victim(s) and the attacker(s), the place of crime, the detailed recreation (‘thought experiment’) of the crime and the getaway, if any, and of course postulation and interrogation of various suggested motives.


Pandering to the primal fear, loathing, instinctive attraction to sex have always been a formula for box-office success for the moviemakers. Newsmakers cannot be blamed for adopting a close clone as their business model. What pains one is that even respectable mainstream media have been staging their own trials in their prime time programming, sometimes on a daily basis, bringing to people’s drawing rooms often unnecessary lurid details of the cases. It is difficult to understand how the excruciating and intimate details served up during such discussions will either help find clues to any mystery or motivations triggering the event(s) or make the audience or the readers any wiser for that. What we are guaranteed to get, however, is a freestyle and unorthodox parallel investigation based on leaks, half-truths, biases, surmises and suggestions followed by or simultaneous questioning of either the alleged ‘accused’ (in or out of police or jail custody) and those ranged for and against him or her. A vigorous ‘TRIAL’ by the media.  ‘Paisa Vasool’ as they say.

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