Prosecuting and Polarising Media
On July 6, 2003, it started off as a normal day in the USA. The subscribers of The New York Times read something amusing. Joseph Wilson, a former diplomat, had written an Op-Ed titled ‘What I didn’t find in Africa’. It was the time when the memories of the ‘State of the Union’ speech were fresh, when George Bush had uttered the 16 words: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” This Op-Ed most brutally punctured Bush’s claim. It clearly stated that his claim had no basis and it was established sufficiently by the time this article is written,. What gave credence to the article was that the author was sent by CIA to investigate into the event that Bush’s had described in 16 words and he found it was all a hokum. He came back, reported it. In spite of the report, US administration decided to go to war against Iraq. And what’s more, they fabricated Intelligence reports to justify that.
Needless to say, the Op-Ed caused metaphorical earthquake in Washington DC, media went into tizzy and administration got into the damage control mode. Soon enough, statements and leaks started flowing, ranging from discrediting author to complete lies (sounds familiar, no?) to disclosing the identity of Joseph’s wife as a CIA agent.
Following that, media started hounding Joseph, driving him to the very brink of insanity, almost breaking his marriage and destroying his life. Media questioned his capabilities, his mental balance, character, motives and what not (again, sounds familiar, no?). What followed was a rigorous legal battle, and by the time this is written, not only the man who played dirty trick of disclosing Joseph’s wife’s identity as CIA agent is prosecuted, convicted and subsequently saved by Bush, but it is also established that Iraq had no WMDs.
When Joseph Wilson took on the almighty white house in 2006, media rushed to listen to him, gave him a platform, even endorsed him. But the moment administration struck back, the same media, without any delay, hounded Joseph. Throughout the entire episode, American media gleefully played into the hands of the administration which deliberately caused selective leaks, effectively distorting the entire picture. It muddied the water so much; no one could say which was what. In such times, it was media’s duty to filter, organise and present the information to present a clear picture. But they exchanged this duty for spice, sensationalism & sadist pleasure of conducting media trials’
Let us come back to India of 2013. The Talwar couple was recently held guilty by the court for the murder of their daughter and the domestic help that day morning. And at night 9PM, Chief Justice-Jury-Executioner-General-Admiral Arnab Goswami on the newshour was thundering like Zeus’ bolt and wee bit away from breaking sound barrier. Amidst all the discussions about the case, Arnab says (I’m paraphrasing him here) “there is a section of media that has taken a different position.”
If those words don’t raise red flags in the minds of every Indian, we are in serious trouble as a nation. These words are serious because they were used in context of Arushi Talwar murder case. Now murder is a crime (in case the geniuses in media didn’t know). And crimes come under the purview of the Judiciary which handles prosecution and subsequently convicts the culprits. So, when there is a crime, media’s role has to be, by both logic and law, limited to reporting what has happened and what is happening. Of course, the extension of brief can be covering the investigation, performance of the investigating agencies and reporting any lethargy by them, if any.
However, in this case, just like in Joseph Wilson case, media didn’t care much about the truth, facts or reasons. In fact they found it is alright to take sides, propagating the guilt or innocence of the accused.
The definition of journalism as per Merriam Webster dictionary (I have full trust in laziness of media, so I’ll make it simple for them) reads: “Writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation”
Every media outlet has an opinion/editorial department which writes on issues and presents its opinion. Then there is something called reporting which is presenting facts as they are, without adding opinion according to their ideological leanings.
What is alarming here is that a big journalist casually speaks on the national television about a certain section of media having taken a different position. If that wasn’t enough, there was another channel which did take another position and effectively campaigned for the innocence of the accused. A million dollar question here is: can media take position here? Does media fraternity have right to opine and propagate guilt or innocence, when there is a constitutionally mandated and fully functioning judiciary in this country?
Yesterday, a court verdict acquitted Kanchi Shankaracharya, exonerated from the charges of murder in a 2004 case. Now, this is an indisputable fact. It is an event that has occurred and there is proof of its occurrence. So, Media’s duty is to report, and say, ‘He’s acquitted of all charges and exonerated’. Seems simple, right? Not for the media. The news broke across all the television channels and two specific English television channel reported ‘Kanchi Shankaracharya is acquitted’ and then added ‘it is a BIG BLOW (you remember?) and BIG SETBACK’ to the prosecution.
What could they possibly mean by big blow and/or setback? Loosely translating to common-speak means ‘temporary detour from ultimate pursuit of justice’. So, it is not justice, but a temporary pushback to the justice dispensation process. Now, I am not as eloquent as Tarun Tejpal, but this seems like they are saying ‘He is guilty, but out temporarily until they got hold of him again’. Factuality of this can be discussed, but the fact is that the casual manner in which media seems to speculate, prosecute and give verdict to anyone and everyone is appalling to say the least.
With both cases of gross impropriety and unprofessional by media still fresh, it is time media fraternity does an introspection, retrospection, and look at the holistic picture (Yes, pun is intended) before peddling opinions, hounding or exonerating people. Media is an important part of any democracy, and failure of which – even if caused by its own folly – will attract negative consequences for the entire nation. It is time for the media wallahs to stop thinking of themselves as influencers and opinion makers and stick to reporting facts.