A few days ago, the Unreal Times said: “in the last couple of days, even if the Pakistan army had infiltrated into India, right up to Connaught Place, New Delhi………,” you would not have heard about it because the Indian media was busy giving us all the gory details “on the most staggering event that has hit the nation since Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination: The Indrani Mukerjea case.”
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar took a similar dig at news channels, saying they are so busy covering a complex murder case that they ignored an event held to celebrate the country’s victory in the 1965 war. The electronic media appears to have gone completely berserk in reporting on this incident. After every few minutes, there is a “Breaking News”, sometimes to tell us that Sheena Bora is the daughter and not the sister of Indrani Mukerjea and at other times to inform us about the relationships between the mother and ex husbands. Every minor detail in the case becomes a breaking news that is reported simultaneously by all channels, each one claiming it to be exclusive. The motive of crime is discussed threadbare. The discussions are confined not merely to investigations; judgments are being pronounced too. The media as well as TV audience are taking vicarious pleasure in describing Indrani Mukerjea’s past and her various affairs and relationships.
Investigation is still on, trial is yet to start; but all the TV channels have pronounced Indrani Mukerjea guilty of murder and some other offences. Even if Indrani Mukerjea is acquitted, she will not be able to show her face in public the way she has been hounded, derided and scorned by the electronic media. Mr. Julio Ribeiro’s contention that the media has crossed all limits of decency and requesting the chief justice of the Bombay High Court to restrain the “media trial” in the case makes a lot of sense. It appears the police are also playing their part in this sordid affair by releasing information in tit bits, where ever it suits them. Earlier there used to be a provision in the Police Manuals, asking the police to desist from interacting with the media about their investigation work. This allowed them to do their work without being disturbed by the “experts” we see every day on the TV screen.
The police should particularly abstain from appearing on TV. One fails to understand why the Commissioner of Police, Mumbai is interrogating the accused or witnesses in this case. He is a senior officer and has every right to supervise the investigation. But when he becomes a part of the investigating team, the case assumes a bigger profile than it deserves. It is a murder case. Just because the accused happens to be from a rich and elite class, that does not make it a case deserving of special treatment either from the police or from the media. The need on the part of the police to release information to the media is accepted, but such information should never lead to turning public opinion against the accused in a way that results in denial of justice.
Arushi’s murder case to some extent was spoilt due to police often putting their foot in their mouth. The police must inform the public on matters concerning them, but the media as well as police have a responsibility to ensure that the accused has a right to privacy and a fair trial. The National Police Commission had examined the relationship between the police and the media. They recommended that all police activities should be open, except in four specific areas. These areas are (1) operations, (2) intelligence on the basis of which operations are planned, (3) privacy of the individual citizen, and (4) judicial requirements. It is obvious that the police are crossing this brief, particularly in respect of items (1) and (3).
Excessive exposure of the case on TV channels has the effect of shaping and reshaping public opinion about the crime and accused. There is considerable evidence to prove that “market driven treatment of crime” by the TV channels has the effect of definitely distorting public opinion, often creating excessive fear of crime and leading to demands for harsher punitive measures. There have been some rape cases, where most bizarre and outlandish suggestions to deal with the problem were made, with people demanding chemical castration, death penalty, hanging or burning the accused in public, denying them opportunities to appeal on conviction from the trial court etc. The electronic media played a very prominent role in creating such public opinion.
There is also evidence that public perceptions about crime and criminals affect the professional efficiency of the police. According to a report, commissioned by Rotherham Borough Council, UK, at least 1,400 children were subjected to appalling sexual exploitation in Rotherham between 1997 and 2013 and the police failed to investigate the Asian pedophile gang for fear of being perceived as racist. This fear emanates from continuous bombardment of news that focuses on creating such perceptions, often wrongly.
We are all fascinated with stories of crime, particularly crime involving sex. These stories sell. It is therefore understandable that media’s content to some extent will be governed by marketing considerations. However, the question that media should answer is whether such considerations should take complete precedence over all other events, which are equally, if not more newsworthy and whether they should go overboard in reporting such crimes, which may affect the trial. As the electronic media has enormous reach and power, it is for the media to function according to a code of ethics that serves public interest
By G. P. Joshi
Image Source 3