It is perhaps symptomatic of the times we live in that a 20-second noisy sound bite will echo far more than a 1,200-word reasoned argument. Which is why a Ram Jethmalani exploding on CNN-IBN while defending his right to represent the prime accused in the Jessica Lall case appears to have set off such an avalanche of comment in the blogosphere.
Unfortunately, much of the debate has caught the wrong end of the stick. Jethmalani is perfectly justified in reiterating the constitutional right of the accused to have the best possible defence. The moral compass of an individual must remain his own, and if the learned criminal lawyer refuses to see the distinction between legality and morality, then that is an issue best left to his own judgment. However, it is not Jethmalani reasserting his penchant for self-publicity that is troubling (an octogenarian who refuses to fade into the sunset is not unusual). What is distressing is the manner in which he chose to heap abuse on the media, while suggesting that an ignorant media, and the pesky 24-hour news channels in particular, had no business to be “interfering” in the judicial process.
Jethmalani is not alone. In recent times, more and more highly influential Indians have discovered a new ‘enemy’: the 24-hour news channel. Everybody hates television news (ah, so superficial, so tabloid, so cliched!). Yet, nobody seems to be able to stop watching television news. From edit page writers to self-appointed television critics, from top politicians to film and sporting celebrities, for a majority of them, the news channel is soft target practice.
Indeed, within hours of Jethmalani’s outburst, Supreme Court Chief Justice YK Sabharwal echoed the lawyer’s remarks, warning the media against playing judge in high profile cases. Only days earlier, Sabharwal had expressed his own concerns against sting operations, which he feared were being “commercialised” and needed to be “regulated”. One has the highest respect for the judiciary (and given the nature of contempt laws in India, you need to be even more cautious), but the accusation that the media are playing judge, jury and executioner is rooted in a misconception of the role of the media in the new technological age.
Take the sting operation for example. Conventional journalists might balk at the idea of a hidden camera recording an ‘off-record’ conversation. But the fact is that in a notoriously opaque society, it is becoming increasingly difficult to access information through traditional methods of news-gathering. If, in the ‘public interest’ — and that must be the defining badge for all journalism — a hidden camera is able to expose the rich and powerful, should they not be held accountable for their actions? Is that not, after all, the ultimate goal of the media? Or are we to see ourselves only as stenographers who simply reproduce banal sound bites? To them enter a prolonged debate on what constitutes public interest and who will define it is simply an exercise at obfuscation that appears to see the viewer — the ultimate judge — as a passive moron.
Similarly, the ‘journalist as mercenary’ — as Sabharwal seems to imply — is again based on a flawed understanding of how the television news medium operates. Good sting operations, well-researched and cross-checked, don’t make money. Instead, they cost money. They don’t even necessarily bring television rating points. Yes, there are fly-by-night operators who might bend the rules, but the presence of a few rotten eggs cannot be reason to damn the entire journalistic community. Moreover, who really is in the dock here: the journalist who is attempting to uncover a dark reality or the ‘stung’ individual who has something to hide? Why don’t those who sit in judgment on the media’s actions attempt to analyse with equal vigour the actions of drug-dealing netas caught on tape?
Which brings us more pointedly to the ‘trial by media’ argument being made in the Jessica and other similar cases. Those who make it fail to understand that the media’s role is not just to influence public opinion but also to reflect it. If candlelight vigils are held at India Gate to demand justice for Jessica or Priyadarshini Mattoo, it isn’t because a media-inspired sms campaign has brought them there, but also because there is genuine belief among a vast number of right-thinking citizens that their sense of outrage must resonate in the face of a blatant abuse of the law.
Sure, there is a danger of the media whipping up a lynch mob but that alone cannot be reason for the media not to play their role as watchdog against injustice. To push for a retrial in the Jessica case, to point out the flaws in the police investigation, to show how the witnesses have lied — why should these be seen as attempts to ‘influence’ the judiciary? They should be seen for what they are: the media exposing the rot within. The media, after all, are not concentrating simply on Manu Sharma, the individual, but on the systemic failures down the line in India’s criminal justice system.
This is neither ‘mob justice’ nor is this a media trial. In a way, this symbolises the ‘coming of age’ of the Indian citizenry, and with it, the resurgence of the Indian media too. For much too long, a substantial section of the media has chosen to snuggle up to the establishment, thereby abandoning its inherently adversarial role. In its own small, and at times maddeningly competitive way, the 24-hour news channel has brought back some of the energy and enterprise of news-gathering. Yes, the camera may seem an ‘activist’ weapon, it may appear ‘interventionist’, but it is also remarkably empowering in its ability to give a face and a voice to millions of anonymous Indians.
The activism needs to be carefully moderated — there must be a recognisable difference between a media campaign against Shakti Kapoor’s bedroom peccadilloes and a campaign against hostile witnesses. But to try and put an end to it, as some within the power elite are attempting, would be most unfortunate.
None of this is to suggest that the mood within the news channels should be smug or celebratory. Far from it. From actively encouraging self-immolations to endless coverage of a local love triangle, there is much that we have to be concerned, and indeed, rather ashamed of. More than trial by media, the genuine long-term worry must be of ‘titillation by media’, of trivia being passed off as news, of an overdose of glamour and entertainment, of a simple news story being converted into a daily soap, of a blind eye being turned to the real tragedies being enacted in the less shining parts of the country.
And yet, while those who manage 24-hour news networks must introspect, the tougher questions must be ultimately posed of those in public life who refuse to be subject to any form of accountability. Ask the questions to politicians who unleash an orgy of communal violence and then blame news networks for ‘inflaming passions’. Ask questions of parliamentarians who take cash for questions, and then claim to be ‘people’s representatives’. Ask them of cricketers who fix matches, and then lecture on ethics. Ask them of doctors who take the Hippocratic oath only to cut the limbs of beggars for a price.
Ask them of the bureaucrats who accept bribes on tape and the police officers who let off criminals. Maybe, one day soon, we will be asking questions of judicial officers and indeed, editors too. In the age of 24-hour news networks, there is simply no place to hide.
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor in chief, CNN-IBN and IBN 7