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Stars in one’s eyes

Did HT’S coverage of actor Shiney Ahuja’s case come across as being sympathetic to the actor?

india Updated: Oct 25, 2009 01:54 IST
Sumana Ramanan

Sumana Ramanan,
Reader's Editor

Did HT’S coverage of actor Shiney Ahuja’s case come across as being sympathetic to the actor?

Two weeks ago, I promised to respond to a reader’s contention that Hindustan Times’ had given too much play to what Shiney Ahuja’s wife has had to say about her husband both when he was arrested on June 15 for allegedly raping his maid and later when he finally got bail in October 1.

“Your interviews with her and the photos published seem to be your correspondent’s way of building up support and sympathy for Shiney,” he had written.

The reader seems to be attributing motives to the reporter, which I think is unfair because it has no basis. But I think what he is trying to say is that the newspaper’s coverage ended up portraying the Bollywood actor’s situation sympathetically — whether consciously, sub-consciously or inadvertently.

Shiney Ahuja, an actor best known for his nuanced performance in Sudhir Mishra’s 2005 film Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi, has been saying and his lawyer has been arguing that Ahuja and his maid did have sex but that it was consensual. His wife, Anupam, has gone a step further, claiming that her husband is innocent and has been framed.

Just after he was arrested, Anupam called a press conference to protest her husband’s innocence. When he obtained bail, she was there to escort him home, and did not shy away from reporters’ questions. In both instances, Hindustan Times reported what she had to say.

Before I proffer my opinion, let’s hear what the head of the newspaper’s crime and legal reporting bureau, Stavan Desai, had to say to the reader’s criticism.

“We were not at all trying to garner support for Shiney Ahuja,” he said. “First, we must remember that Shiney has not been convicted. Both our legal system and the principles of journalism dictate that we present both sides to the story. “Second, rape is a crime against humanity so we attempted to understand the man who was charged of perpetrating it — we spoke to members of the film industry, friends and family.

“Moreover, the man charged with rape was married, so there was another human being, his wife, whose life was directly tied to the case. It was natural for us to find out what she had to say. In this instance, she was the one who reached out to the press, so it made it that much easier.”

Desai also pointed out that his reporter had approached Anupam the second time, when Shiney got bail, because by then the forensic evidence clearly indicated that he had had sex with the maid (her vaginal swab tested positive for his DNA). Would she still claim that he was innocent? She did.

Overall, I thought the newspaper’s coverage was very straight, neither sympathising with nor demonising Ahuja. The coverage merely laid out the facts as the case unfolded.

I also agree with Desai that since Ahuja was married, it was natural for reporters to ask how the wife would react. What would have been problematic is reporters badgering her. But far from clamming up, it was she who first sought the media out.

Of course, it is true that the case as a whole has hogged more space than it would have had not a film star been accused. This raises a much larger topic, which I can address at some later point.

But it is true that when someone well-known, powerful or highly accomplished is accused of such a crime, public interest is much higher, as we see also in the case of Roman Polanski, the Paris-based director who faces charges in the US of having raped a minor.

Not all of this interest is, however, rooted in prurience. Many people, I would think, are keen to know how the law and the media will treat such a case – will the person’s position influence the case or the coverage?

I think such scrutiny is good because the media then have to take that much more care to be balanced, ensuring that they neither take pleasure in nor feel sorry for the fall of the mighty.

What do other readers think?