Monday, 14 July 2008

Media under trial for media trial

On Saturday morning, as I watched the just-released Rajesh Talwar and his brother Dinesh Talwar plead with the media with folded hands to let them walk to their car and later to leave them alone for some time, I was filled with a sense of dread. Something I've felt whenever I've seen television cameras hounding private citizens, intruding on their grief or troubles. What if, I thought, tomorrow something similar was to happen to me or to my family? Will I have TV cameras hounding me like this, stationed outside my house, catching every private moment? I recall reading about Praful Durani saying his father, a heart patient, is not able to go out for his daily walk because of the cameras parked outside their house.

Maybe there will be some leniency towards me because I'm from the profession and some friend or ex-colleague or ex-boss will talk to someone. But I cannot be absolutely certain of this and feel secure.

The first time I was really shocked and enraged by this was several years back when a Noida girl got her groom arrested for demanding dowry. Aaj Tak cameras barged into the groom's house along with the police, into his bedroom and showed us visuals of the man being woken up by the police, putting on his T-shirt in a sleepy daze and being arrested. I thought some sense would prevail. It hasn't.

Shouldn't there be some law/regulations/norms to protect the privacy of ordinary people? Or at least not have the scenes we witnessed with the Talwars?

That said, I am, however, quite irritated with the question that is being posed - should the media apologise to the Talwars. And my immediate reaction is, why? And why just the Talwars? There are so many cases where the media conducts its own trial and declares people guilty. Why hasn't this question been asked before?

Sure, there have been a lot of unsubstantiated stories about the Talwars. One of the first ones in print I saw was – not in a tabloid – but in the very respected The Telegraph, which carried a story on the second or third day about the parents’ partying lifestyles. How is that relevant, I wondered then. I was also angered by some of the bizarre stories the television channels aired, including one by Aaj Tak which reconstructed the night of the crime on the basis of CBI sources, giving Krishna the clean chit and raising questions about the parent's claims that they slept through it.

But I cannot believe that the media sat and concocted these stories on its own. The stories always come from somewhere. In this case, it was the Noida police and the CBI. The question then arises, shouldn't the press verify? I have never covered crime, so don't know how such information can be verified. Is there a way of cross checking? If there is I would like to know.

The first day when Rajesh's release was announced, this question – should the media apologies – was asked of former Delhi Police Commissioner Ved Marwah on either CNN-IBN or Times Now. And he said, hold on, this is not a clean chit, the CBI is only saying they have no evidence `as of now' and he is only out on bail and `walks free’ is the wrong term to use. But that point was overlooked completely.

The media is supposed to apologise for believing the Noida police's bizarre theory and every sickening insinuation it put out about the Talwars as well as those selective leaks from the CBI about their conduct. That's a valid point. But then why are we now expected to believe everything the CBI is saying about the three servants? Okay, Rajesh Talwar was framed by the Noida police under pressure to solve the case, but why couldn’t the same have happened in the case of the servants? The CBI could well be framing them because it is also under the same pressure to crack the case? If the trio have confessed, then why aren't they telling the CBI about where the murder weapon is or where Hemraj's cellphone is? Once Vikas Yadav was arrested for Nitish Katara's murder and confessed, he took the police to the spot where the murder weapon was hidden. So why are we - who are so quick to believe Rajesh Talwar's innocence - so reluctant to believe that the servants could also have been framed? That the real murderer may still be out there? If tomorrow, the servants are let off for lack of evidence, will there be similar demands that the media apologise to them? Will they get the same outpouring of media sympathy that the Talwars got, especially on NDTV?

I think there is a class issue here. Rajesh Talwar is one of us; the servants aren't. People like us can't do something like that (I'm not even remotely implying that Talwar was involved) or shouldn't face what he did. But servants? Oh, they're quite capable of doing that and a spell in jail is no big deal (the sight of Krishna being pushed on the floor to sleep while in CBI custody made me uncomfortable). That is probably why the Talwar's relatives and lawyers were invited to television studios during the days he was in jail. But not Krishna's articulate niece who is proclaiming her uncle's innocence or his lawyer.

What does amuse me is the holier-than-thou taken by the English channels, blaming the Hindi channels and English tabloids for the sensationalising. I remember this gem from a Headlines Today anchor before Rajesh Talwar's arrest. He was wondering why the parents are refusing to speak to the media. The channel kept airing a clip where the couple are going up the stairs to their flat, and just as Rajesh is about to speak to a microphone thrust into his face Nupur tugs at his kurta to stop him. The anchor mentions Nupur's action and says in an incredulous tone, `and why would she do that?' The implication was clear: they must be having something to hide or else why won't they come and bare their souls to a voyeuristic media.

I rest my case.

The fall of standards

I got this comment to my post on The Hoax Follow up. Sunil Varma was one reader who got taken in by the news reports on the arrest of the former Nazi. “I do wonder what mechanism "responsible" publications follow to check the veracity of stories they carry.” Another commenter, Som, wants media to have a self-regulating mechanism. We used to have these mechanisms at one time. Our bosses would ask us difficult questions. What happened? Where have they gone? It’s a question many of my generation are asking. Even as others of my generation have presided over the decline in standards.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

The hoax follow up

Please do read the follow up penpricks did on the hoax it carried out. on www.penpricks.blogspot.com.
It is a really sad comment on Indian journalism today.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

What a hoax

On Monday, all the papers went to town about a former Nazi being arrested, rather dramatically, on the Goa-Karnataka border. Johann Bach, who reportedly managed a concentration camp, was hunted down by Berlin-based German chancellor's core office (GCC) and Indian intelligence agencies. The information seems to have come from a Goa-based organisation called Perus Narkp, which is said to be the intelligence wing of the GCC. One paper even had a map detailing Bach's various places of stay - Argentina, Bulgaria etc etc.

But the next day only Indian Express reported the Karnataka police as saying that they didn't know anything about it and it could well be a media hoax http://www.indianexpress.com/story/329584.html.

Strangely enough, DNA carried the first story about Bach's so-called arrest the day after everyone else did and when questions were already being raised about it.

The hoax was carried out by a Goan media blog - www.penpricks.blogspot.com. Go to the site and read all about how it was done. Absolutely brilliant! And hilarious, but what a tragedy for the media, to think that everyone swallowed this.

This is lazy journalism at its worst. The trend of relying only on press releases for stories has worried a lot of us who came into the profession 20-25 years back. Shouldn't what Indian Express did the day the story broke been done the day the press release landed in every newspaper office? And shouldn't all newspapers have done this checking (late though it was) that Express did? Or did Indian Express do it after realising that it had been, well, had? Uncomfortable questions for which there will be no answers, unfortunately.

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