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All out in the open

The police are not the only ‘guilty’ party to be blamed for story leaks. They may be the first accused for this lapse but the media also deserves a substantial share of the blame, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Nov 21, 2009 23:17 IST

Do you ever feel the Indian police speak too much? Does it rankle or even rile you that whenever they think they have the suspect of a crime in hand, police officers start holding press conferences, making loud and boastful claims, in total disregard of the fact that they could be damaging the image of a person who may be innocent and, at that point of time, certainly hasn’t been proven guilty? And if this is not done in public, they resort to whispered leaks. Those mysterious sources you learn of on television are nothing other than police officers feeding piranha journalists.

Quite frankly, this appalls me. In fact, it disgusts me. And what’s worse, I believe it’s completely wrong.

Think back to the days of the early Arushi Talwar investigations. The police had a field day sharing their theories with the press. With great aplomb and without even the smallest shadow of doubt, they would pronounce on the girl, her father and the family servant. Day after day we were regaled with their accounts of what had happened, how and with what motive. The only problem is that it was unproven, unfounded and wrong.

By the time the police were done the standing of the three was damaged, possibly irretrievably. Because when you throw mud some of it, sadly, sticks. And that’s all it was — mud, or, if you prefer, hogwash. Of course, the case remained unresolved. In fact, it still is!

In the last few days Mahesh Bhatt’s son Rahul has been subjected to similar treatment. Drip by drip the police have leaked information that has been lapped up by a media hungry for sensation or even suggestion. But, unless I’m mistaken, they did not reveal that Rahul had himself contacted them to share what he knows. They did not summon him; he approached them.

This time, however, even the Home Secretary had a role to play. For reasons that only he can explain, he told the press Rahul Bhatt hasn’t been given a clean chit. But should the Home Secretary be imparting such information? And did he realise that the media would use this to suggest Rahul has a case to answer? Indeed, since when have home secretaries become part of the machinery of justice?

Actually, you don’t need specific instances to accept my point. Watch TV news on any day you choose and you won’t miss the police-planted leaks or their brazen press conferences giving details of ‘admission’, ‘guilt’, or whatever else they choose to call it. Even video-footage of narco-analysis is handed over to the better-connected channels and broadcast without compunction.

Alas, the police are not the only ‘guilty’ party. They may be the first accused for this lapse but the media also deserves a substantial share of the blame. After all, why is it that a media that boasts of its maturity, objectivity and fairness can’t resist the lure of such obviously one-sided and unproven ‘stories’? Could it be it values sales and profit far more than its image and credibility? I suspect that the pursuit of popularity rather than principle is, more often than not, the real driving motive.

The saddest part of it all is I can’t see this deplorable situation ending any time soon. Yet all it would take is a little sensible restraint by both the police and the press. But are either capable of it?

This time, I’d like to be wrong.

The views expressed by the author are personal