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Headline hunters

The unspoken class bias may explain both the English media’s failure to ask the Talwars awkward questions and also the fact that the second murder has fallen off our front pages, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Jul 06, 2008 09:45 IST

Two stories haunted the headlines this week. And in an ironic — even tragic — coincidence of timing, they held up a mirror to our own schizophrenia as a people. If one was about hope and the promise of change, the other reflected a deep, despairing sickness of thought and action. The stories had two protagonists in common — the media and the police. But, seen together, it’s almost as if their roles were written for entirely different characters; especially the media that have brought out a deeply conflicted, Jekyll and Hyde-ish caricature.

In one case, an ordinary schoolteacher wrestled with the combined muscle of money and political power to make sure that the men who killed her son by cracking open his head and burning his body till his brother could barely recognise him, got the punishment they deserved.

Neelam Katara’s portly, cheerful optimism and understated strength, made us believe that if she could fight and win, so could we. In her battle, the media were happy, even determined to be the ammunition. Journalists hunted down witnesses and exposed how they were under pressure to turn hostile; photographers were slapped with impunity by Nitish’s killer in full view of policemen and court officials; and television talk — for once — was sincere and heartfelt in its protest and anger. The media braved defamation notices and strong-arm threats from the mafiosi henchmen of D.P. Yadav — a man who has served tenures with almost every major political party — but were buoyed on by the possibility of the truth prevailing. When the verdict finally came, the media could step back with some pride and add it to the tally of two other passionately fought campaigns for justice: the murders of Jessica Lal and Priyadarshini Mattoo.

But then there was Aarushi, and our moment of shame.

By now, we have seen her pictures so often on telly, we feel like she is one of our own. Looking at her photographs — struggling to feign primness in a school uniform in one; bright-eyed, perky and naughty in another; self-conscious and almost womanly in a third — she reminds us of the tempestuous teenage years that have marked all our lives.

It’s harder to know what we really feel when we see her parents. Some days, watching her dentist father being shoved around in court, looking bewildered and blank, as random folk peer down salaciously from their balconies, I have the urge to pull back the jostling camera crews and place them firmly behind some yellow ribbon. (In every civilised country, the police mark security ribbons at scenes of crime. Do our cops permit a media frenzy because they want to be part of the publicity blaze? But more on the police later.) On other days, the mysterious contradictions in how the Talwars tell their side of the story leave most people I know distinctly uncomfortable.

Here’s the bottomline: we don’t believe the police, but we can’t be sure the parents are innocent — not yet, at any rate. And so, to that extent, it’s perfectly legitimate that the media are obsessed with the story; and so is everyone watching it.

But what should have been an opportunity for tough, hard, investigative reporting, has instead turned into a spectacle, where countless journalists have substituted slander and tardy gossip for reportage. We are all aware of how badly the police have bungled. The first batch of cops on the spot didn’t even find the body of Hemraj, the domestic help killed along with the little girl. Aarushi’s computer was seized more than a week after the murder. The motive was served up with contradictions too, described as either an ‘honour killing’ or a ‘passion crime’. And then, to top it all, what had been a whisper campaign started by the police (hints at sexual promiscuity, wife-swapping, extra-marital affairs) became official. An Inspector General of police went on record to brand a 14-year-old girl to be as “characterless” as her father.

This should have been the media’s moment to ask him what the hell he meant and what gave him the right to be the moral arbiter on the life of a little child. Frankly, whether the dentist-couple had a monogamous marriage or not had precious little to do with who killed their little girl. And if it does turn out that the parents were complicit in the murder, it still doesn’t explain, how a senior police official can be permitted to get away with a horrendous, ugly, indefensible statement as the one he made, without a shred of embarrassment.

Not just did we allow him his crassness, but we also continued to lap up leaks and crumbs thrown at us by the same police force. The latest travesty is a 10-page document of text messages sent by Aarushi to three boys she may or may not have been dating, and one email written by her to her folks. Once again the police subtext is clear: floundering to find a motive, the not so-subtle suggestion is that a girl who was chatting up three boys must have been sexually promiscuous, making her father angry — angry enough to kill. In other words, the police want us to know that what the Inspector General said was accurate after all.

All this should be enough to make anyone sick. Yet some honourable exceptions aside, many news organisations published or broadcast the content of what should have remained private, with alacrity. Some channels broadcast MMS sex clips, supposedly featuring Aarushi (for the record, it wasn’t her). Others dressed up their anchors as characters from the sordid drama and subjected us to role-playing, instead of reportage.

There, media reporting has reflected the by-now well-known divide between the universes of Hindi and English language journalism. But some words of caution before the English news channels assume the moral high ground. The past fortnight has made me wonder whether the instinctive, perhaps subconscious, sympathy that we have seen in the English media has anything to do with the fact that we see the Talwars as ‘people like us’. Newsrooms across India would have participated in a debate that goes something like this: “Hey, come on. They are educated doctors. My friends go to their clinic. My daughter studied at the same school. They seem ‘normal’ people. ‘just like us’.”

In other words, we are too terrified to even contemplate that the Talwars may be guilty. The social identification and the unspoken class bias may explain both our inability and failure to ask them awkward questions and also the fact that the second murder has entirely fallen off our front pages and headlines. It is almost as if 45-year-old Hemraj never existed, other than as a detective’s tool to crack the murder of the little girl whose house he worked in. The story of his family’s grief is tucked away in the inside pages — irrelevant, unmourned, unnoticed.

This should have been a week in which the media could have patted itself on the back. Instead, it needs to step back and wonder: have we done what we should have done? Or have we joined the police in maligning the memory of one life, while barely noticing that another life too is gone.

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, ndtv 24x7