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But can you handle the truth?

When the Minister of State for Home unfailingly points to a ‘foreign hand’ each and every time, without a blink of the eye, do we wonder whether he's lying? Barkha Dutt asks.

india Updated: Jul 05, 2008 13:24 IST

One of the more curious and complex criticisms thrown at the media — for how we reported the murder of 14-year old Aarushi Talwar — was to do with why we had believed the police.

On a recent television debate, participating journalists already knew they would soon be guillotined by public anger. But the question that had them spluttering in angry incoherence went something like this: ‘So what if the UP Police officially declared that they had caught the killers. Why didn’t the media report the police statements with scepticism and disbelief?’ Media representatives argued — weakly, in some cases — that once people in authority or uniform went on record to make an accusation, it wasn’t put through a lie detector before being broadcast. This wasn’t about salacious leaks and whispered, underhand gossip about so-called sexual promiscuity, we argued. This was the Police — ON RECORD! Why were we wrong to tell it as it was being told to us? It took a retired cop to concede — and he did it without a trace of irony or embarrassment — that “public and political pressure” could sometimes compel men like him to embellish, exaggerate and, yes, even ‘fabricate the truth’. He asked for our empathy, as we stared at him in disbelief.

But should we have been so surprised? Was he telling us something that every hard-boiled reporter doesn’t already know? Or were we just stunned at his willingness to be so brazen, and in this case, entirely truthful?

In a few months, the murders of a perky little girl called Aarushi and a quiet middle-aged man named Hemraj will fade from the front pages of our minds. We may never even know who killed them. But the murders have held up a mirror to all our wobbly, awkward, ugly bits — the dimensions we try so hard to disguise. Much has already been said about the sensationalism of a greedy, hyperventilating television industry; about a potential, subconscious class bias in the reportage, and about the idiotic bungling and hideous sexism of the Uttar Pradesh cops.

But what about another disconcerting, inconvenient truth that the murders have revealed: the State can and does lie to its people.

And while this time we have slammed the media for not being more cynical about what the police told us, here’s the truth. As a people, we only permit interrogation of certain institutions when it doesn’t interfere with our pre-conceived notions of fact and fiction. We are willing to be sceptical only if our belief system is allowed to remain intact. We always need and cling to the comfort of some of our collective fables and fairy tales.

So, we are quite happy to demand more of our journalists and police officers when it comes to these double murders. But what if this were all happening, not in Noida, but in Kashmir or Manipur? What if an army officer was guilty of rape and murder or a police officer was caught dressing up a murder as an encounter? Would we still be outraged? Of course not. Instead, chances are that the journalists reporting those stories would get branded ‘anti-national’, ‘unpatriotic’ and unmindful of the struggles of our security forces.

Think about all the times that bombs have ripped through our cities, tearing at our hearts and our sense of safety. When the grim-faced men go on television and release sketches of suspects along with funny-sounding acronyms of the terrorist groups they supposedly belong to, do we ever wonder whether we are being fed fabrications? When the Minister of State for Home unfailingly points to a ‘foreign hand’ each and every time, without a blink of the eye, do we wonder whether he's lying? Do we demand to know how it is that so many details are available with our cops and our sleuths just minutes after a terrorist strike? No, we don’t. Instead, we faithfully and breathlessly report every tiny morsel tossed at us, as if it were a full meal, instead of a mere crumb of information. And I’m pretty sure that if the media chose that moment to question the veracity of what the State was saying-you, our viewers and readers would never forgive us. Instead you would call us ‘irresponsible and sensationalist’ — exactly the same adjectives, you employ to describe our reportage of the Aarushi murder.

As a people we must ask ourselves one question: do we really have the appetite for unvarnished truth? Or is this a selective menu where only some things are palatable to us?

Seven years ago, the mass killings of 40 Sikhs in a remote village of Kashmir caught international headlines. Bill Clinton was visiting India and the government obviously needed to appear strong and in control. The Home Secretary went on record to say that the five ‘terrorists’ who had killed the villagers had been caught and ‘eliminated’. Many months of mass protests later, the terrorists turned out to be innocent civilians drawn at random by a harried security force and then shot in cold blood, so that the case could be closed. Till this date, not only do those security officials remain unpunished; but we still don’t know who actually killed the Sikhs of Chittisinghpora. But to even ask the question is to invite mostly indifference or contemptuous anger in the Indian public.

Yes, conflict zones and acts of terrorism possibly throw up different and much more complex scenarios than ‘routine’ city crimes do. That said, when we demand an ethical code of conduct of the institutions that define our democracy — the media, the army, the police, the judiciary — the moral code must hold, no matter what the context.

We have long known that the camera can lie. Now we must accept, so can the State.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV