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Breaking noose

In the Aarushi-Hemraj murder case one thing is clear: nobody — English or Hindi, tabloid or broadsheet, print or TV — has come out smelling of roses, writes Namita Bhandare.
By Namita Bhandare | Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON JUL 15, 2008 11:50 PM IST

On national networks, TV anchors and editors Deepak Chaurasia and Ashutosh are clear: the media have nothing to apologise about in the Rajesh Talwar case. Now that the doctor, once accused of murdering his daughter, is out on bail for lack of evidence, you’d imagine that he’s trying to pick up the pieces of his life and get on with it. No such luck. The murder of Aarushi Talwar continues to make news. On the day of Dr Talwar’s release, more than a hundred camera crews waited outside jail, followed his car to the temple where he and his wife went to pray and then set up camp outside his father-in-law’s house.

It’s been high season for the media for the past two months since 14-year-old Aarushi and the family’s servant, Hemraj, were found murdered in Noida. In the days that Dr Talwar was in jail, charges of sexual aberrations, intimate, personal details (much of it baseless), SMSes received and sent, and emails between Aarushi and her parents have flown fast and furious. Nothing has been sacrosanct — though some newspapers and channels did restrain themselves from publishing the more salacious leaks. Others, however, did away with such niceties. If one channel ran an MMS that purported to show Aarushi undressing in the presence of an unknown man (it was not Aarushi), others had anchors painting their hands red as they spoke solemnly about the “khooni baap”.

This sort of coverage led to some introspection. One channel removed its OB van from outside the Talwar residence, although temporarily. But it was not enough. Just days before Dr Talwar’s release, at least one newspaper and a couple of channels chose to run a story that claimed that the Talwars were at a party in a hotel, where 12 rooms had been booked, on the night Aarushi was murdered. The story was denied the next day by Nupur Talwar and the CBI but the damage had been done.

On Barkha Dutt’s We the People, Ashutosh, Managing Editor of IBN 7, clarified that his channel was not guilty of the more lurid reporting. Fair enough. But in the Aarushi-Hemraj murder case one thing is clear: nobody — English or Hindi, tabloid or broadsheet, print or TV — has come out smelling of roses.

Ashutosh and Star News’ Chaurasia point out proudly that it was the media that focused attention on the ‘Jessica Lall’ and ‘Nitish Katara’ murder cases. And it was media attention in the Aarushi case that resulted in the investigation being moved to the CBI. Point taken. So, what of the thousands of innocent people languishing in jail, who are not People Like Us? Who will tell their story? And, more important, is there a market for it?

Public memory tends to be short. And the media's collective memory is sometimes just as brief. Only two months ago, the media seemed convinced enough of Dr Talwar’s guilt to go and get sound bytes from young girls on whether they felt safe in the presence of their fathers. Today, the trio of Krishna, Ram Kumar and Vijay Mandal — the new accused — stand just as guilty.

There is some talk about defamation suits against the police and the media. But it’s early days yet. I’m not sure that the Talwars, already traumatised, want to go to the courts for prolonged litigation.

So, what happens now? In the months to come, the Aarushi case will fade from public memory. Till that happens there will be much hand-wringing in the media about its role and responsibility. Politicians will bleat and shed tears about the role of police and media. There will be some talk about setting up self-regulation mechanisms and ombudsmen. But in the end, self-regulation always fails because there will always be rogue channels and papers who’ll defy norms.

The Talwars can never get their life or reputation back. But an apology by the media that has wronged them is at least a beginning.

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