Thursday, 31 December 2009

Vigilante Justice, Courtesy Media

My revulsion for S P S Rathore - especially the sight of him coming out smiling after the six months imprisonment verdict - is in danger of turning into sympathy. And all because of my profession.

I was watching television news this afternoon and saw the news flash about Rathore being unrepentant. Why? Because while coming out of the court after applying for anticipatory bail, he told the news cameras hounding him: "the day you can satisfy me you are a constitutional power on judicial matters, I will speak (to you)".

What is wrong with that? He is correct. He and other criminals are answerable to the courts where they present their defence. Not to hysterical television journalists.

I completely agree with Abha Rathore’s comment, “There are editors sitting in newsrooms passing judgments on the case, behaving like saviours of law and gaining mileage out of the entire episode.” She also has a point when she says that the media has already started the trial without waiting for them to file an appeal against the conviction by the lower court. The deadline for that was January 4. We may be aghast at the temerity of the man to appeal against the conviction, but, let’s face it, it is his right.

The Rathores have asked the court for protection from the media. And I am ashamed to admit it is probably a valid request. His behaviour all these years does not justify the media behaving like a pack of wolves. (Incidentally, it is only today that I learnt that the Rathores had filed a defamation case against one newspaper some years back. It is typical of the ostrich approach of our profession to our failings that we have kept silent about this).

Though nothing should surprise me any more about the electronic media, I was still aghast at the way they were conducting themselves. "The law is catching up" with Rathore, one channel said. Overlooking the minor point that the law had caught up with him and given him six months jail and then bail (which is also under the law). The point in question is that the sentence wasn't seen as adequate.

Rathore's wife was also the subject of sarcasm for mocking television cameras, saying don't push, take all the pictures you want. But what else can one say when being jostled by camera crew? And when she is being followed by a persistent reporter saying "anything you would like to say? anything about the case?" What is she supposed to say? If she says her husband is innocent (which is obviously what she will say), then she will be inviting further sarcasm on prime time.

There was this other gem on one channel in relation to the Madhukar Tandon case (the Rajasthan police officer who has not been arrested in 13 years on a rape charge): “Two states have either refused to track him down or arrest him.” Refused? Do these reporters/anchors know the meaning of the words they use?

And what has all this media hype resulted in? Things unheard of – like filing fresh FIRs in cases where conviction has been handed out. Legal experts including Ram Jethmalani and K T S Tulsi have pointed out that a person cannot be convicted for the same crime twice. Surely these people know more about the law than journalists do.

I am providing a link to an editorial in The Indian Express editorial, Call off the mob, which highlights the danger of the kind of media-generated public hysteria.

Indeed, the travesty of justice should not become an excuse for vigilante justice.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Media-manufactured Hysteria

Every time I see candlelight vigils for victims of injustice, I wonder how such a disparate group of people comes together. As a nation, we don’t really have a collective soul. Apathy is our first reaction to anything. So how come we turn out in hordes to hold candlelight vigils for Jessica Lal, Meher Bhargava, 26/11 victims. (Not sure if there was one for the Nithari victims, which says a lot about our so-called middle class vigilantes).

I thought the media – especially the electronic media – only disseminated information about the planned event but now am reasonably sure it helps in planning it as well – if not organising it.

The electronic media is setting itself up as the conscience keeper of the nation and the voice of the people. But many of its actions makes one wonder if it has a conscience at all. What it seems to have in the place of conscience is a TRP ticker, which dictates all its actions.

Take the case of candlelight vigils, which first started with the Jessica Lal case (I am not sure if it preceded or followed Rang De Basanti, which also showed a candlelight vigil). That may have been spontaneous but I doubt whether the many others were.

It makes for great visuals – grave faced people sitting with candles under a darkening sky. And it provides great soundbytes. So what if the people ranting in front of television cameras may not know very much about the case or about the law? And then there are the emotional SMS-es scrolling at the bottom of the screen. `Death to Rathore’, went one ridiculous SMS. The sight of a smirking Rathore would make any decent person’s blood boil. But `Death to Rathore’? This, we are told by hyperventilating star anchors of news shows, is a reflection of the people’s anger and distress.

But often this is nothing more than ill-informed hysteria whipped up by the media itself. There are enough examples of how media hype has led to situations escalating out of the control of authorities. Everyone remembers the coverage of the 26/11 attacks but think back to 1999 and the IC 814 hijacking. The relatives of the hostages gathered outside 7 Race Course Road, the television cameras and anchors went crazy getting bytes from them, demanding the government get their relatives out safely. I remember parallels being drawn by emotional relatives with Rubaiya Sayeed (militants were freed to secure the release of this kidnapped daughter of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed) and how that was done because she was a VIP’s daughter. I have no doubt that the hysteria whipped up by the media had some role in the then government’s decision to release the hostages that the hijackers asked for. Should the government have given in to such emotional blackmail is another question. The point here is – should the media have become a tool of emotional blackmail?

The media does have a role in highlighting inadequacies in the system. But this has to be done by well-researched stories, shorn of drama. Not by organising vigils and soliciting angry SMS-es.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Verdict 2009 and the Media

Why was Verdict 2009 such a surprise for most people? Till the exit polls results came in, all the newspapers and television channels were predicting a completely fractured mandate. The Third Front, practically everyone asserted, was going to form the government. Newspapers and channels were anointing prime ministers – Mayawati, Jayalalitha, Deve Gowda.

And then came the exit poll results, which showed the UPA getting a clear edge over the NDA. The Third Front was hardly in the picture. The results were described as a surprise.

But should it have been a huge surprise? Especially for the media, which is supposed to be able to read the pulse of the nation?

This takes me back to Verdict 2004. The defeat of the NDA was also completely unexpected. Nobody, but nobody, believed that. Not even the Congress.

Now that probably shows that party leaderships are not in touch with the grassroots. That is a problem of the political parties which they need to address themselves. But should that also be true of the press? Shouldn’t the media, which is supposed to go out into the field and get a sense of what’s happening on the ground, be so divorced from reality? How could it not get a sense of such an overwhelming sentiment – the desire for a stable government?

This shows, quite clearly, that journalism is no longer about arduous legwork, about going out into the field, talking to people and sitting down and connecting the dots. Sure, every paper had sent people out, done features on key constituencies, factors at work in particular areas etc. In some cases, their prediction was also right. Some papers did predict the defeat of Ram Vilas Paswan and P Chidambaram (he almost lost, but won in a recount). But they all missed the larger trend that was clearly shaping up.

My guess is they looked at the parties forming the Third Front, took their party positions in the last Lok Sabha and decided that they would get the same number of seats. Nobody obviously thought that they could fare much worse. Just as in 2004, they preferred to go along with the whole hype created by BJP strategists in Delhi.

I think this is happening because it was only during elections that journalists really hit the roads to the interiors. Or that Delhi-based journalists were in most cases catapulted into the field during this period. But the mood of a nation is build up over months. If the press had really been doing stories from the grassroots (urban or rural), I doubt if they would have missed this trend.

Or it could be (and that is a far more distinct possibility) the people out in the field did get a sense of what was going to happen, but the editors, sitting in their ivory towers, blinkers firmly on, and hobnobbing with the political biggies in Delhi, didn’t take what they reported seriously.

This lack of field reporting also showed up in the obsession of election coverage with what L K Advani said about Manmohan Singh, what Manmohan Singh said about Advani, what Priyanka Gandhi wore and what she felt about Rahul’s marital and political prospects, what Sonia Gandhi said about Advani and Manmohan. Surely there were other things these leaders (barring Priyanka whom I don’t consider a leader) said in their speeches. Did we ever get a sense of that? No.

And then there were stories about which Third Front leader met which Fourth Front leader, why this UPA leader nod at that NDA leader. I have never come across such drivel masquerading as election coverage. And then television channels have the nerve to tell us this was an issue-less election!!! If it was issueless, Verdict 2009 wouldn’t have been what it was. If it was issueless, it was because the media reported it so.

Verdict 2009 only reinforces what Verdict 2004 showed – that the media isn’t doing its job properly.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Showcasing Rabble Rousers

As the print and electronic media continue to fulminate over the Mangalore mayhem, one small questions is getting overshadowed – what role did the media play in the whole affair?

Remember that few people outside the sangh parivar had heard of Pramod Mutalik. No one had heard of the Sri Ram Sene. Now suddenly Mutalik is all over the papers and television news channels. There are fierce debates on television on the pub culture and cultural vigilantism, reams of newsprint have been devoted to the subjects. Given the kind of media mileage both Mutalik and his obscure organisation got, I am unable to shake off the suspicion that this was a carefully orchestrated publicity-seeking event and the media has willingly gone along with it.

How is it that television cameras were able to capture the violence that the Sene members unleashed? Were they at the pub or in the vicinity? Did anyone from the pub or any of the bystanders call them? If that was the case, could they have reached so fast as to record the violence before it ended? Even before the police could reach? Or had someone tipped them off that something was going to happen?

Maybe my suspicions are wrong. For the sake of my profession, I wish they are. But I need answers to these questions. This is not the first time that obscure rabble rousers have been given undue publicity by a sensation-seeking media. Isn’t it time the media sits down and discusses its own role in encouraging such loonies and the impact on society and the country?