Backstory: All Media Trials Have a Secret Ingredient

A fortnightly column from The Wire's public editor.

Republic TV has finally done the Republic of India a favour by bringing national attention to media trials and demonstrating how, ultimately, they are all about television rating points (TRPs). Today, the channel is being made to answer tough questions from the judges of the Bombay high court over its long-running media trial on the Sushant Singh Rajput (SSR) death (‘Ignorance of Law No Excuse’: Bombay HC Tells Republic TV in SSR Media Trials Case’, October 21), even as it simultaneously faces a police investigation into the allegation that it has been faking its TRPs.

The courts have, from time to time, expressed concern over these attempts by the media to mimic their functioning, fearing that this would destabilise procedures established by law. As the verdict in the State of Maharashtra v. Rajendra J. Gandhi puts it, “A trial by press, electronic media or public agitation is the very antithesis of rule of law” and can “well lead to miscarriage of justice”. The Bombay high court has now revisited that concern when it asks Republic TV’s counsel why, when a case is under investigation, the channel insists that it is a murder: “Investigative powers are given to the police under the CrPC and you have become the investigator, prosecutor, judge and you also declare the verdict. Then why are we here?”

The Press Council’s norms of journalistic conduct, revised in 2010, are very clear on where the red lines must be drawn: “In a conflict between fair trial and freedom of speech, fair trial has to necessarily prevail” given the centrality of protecting the justice delivery system. It goes on to emphatically state that the “media is not expected to conduct its own parallel trial or foretell the decision putting undue pressure on the judge, the jury or the witnesses or prejudice a party to the proceedings.”

Representative image of what is playing out on Indian news television night after night. Source: YouTube screengrab

News television channels have over the years consciously discarded such normative frameworks. The formula they adopted was simple: increase the studioisation of news, which entails one loud anchor and an assortment of talking heads, endlessly raging, ranting, venting, ventilating, unrestrained by facts, balance, or objectivity. It has proved to be a remarkably cost-effective way to fill television time; wheel in vast numbers of viewers by holding out the promise of yet another spicy episode in an unending saga; and rake in advertising moolah.

I remember, for instance, how on the day after the Delhi woman was gang-raped on December 16, 2012, news channels had already got into the act of scripting the action and reaching out directly to their audiences. Times Now, in its 5 pm bulletin of December 17, had telecast CCTV images of the bus in which the gang rape had occurred, with the headline: ‘Have you seen this vehicle?’ Transforming viewers into “investigators” was an important first step in building a media trial. In an hour’s time, there was News X running the story and exhorting its viewers to call in and share their views on the right punishment for the rapists. With alacrity, people tried to outdo the competition by suggesting the severest punishment possible, creating a list that would have done Vlad The Impaler proud. One caller even suggested placing the rapists in “burning oil in the middle of the road”. As such comments came in, the News X anchor kept the fire burning with comments like, “Emotions running high…something needs to be done.” Pretty soon, a really cracking media trial had emerged, built by the DIY (do it yourself) nature of the discourse.

Also read: TRP Manipulation and TV Channels Propagating Hate Are Two Different Problems

But there have been two transformations in the nature of such media trials over the last decade that needs attention. The first is the manner in which social media aided and widened the mainstream media narrative. It was a phenomenon that was very apparent in the SSR coverage, as #SSRian groups proliferated across social media platforms. An early prototype of this model was the 2006 protests over the acquittal of Jessica Lal’s killer, when NDTV anchored an SMS campaign demanding “Justice for Jessica”, and invited its viewers to text in their outrage. A similar pattern played out when Priyadarshini Mattoo’s rapist and killer had also been acquitted on grounds of insufficient evidence. In both instances, the respective media trials did ensure the reversal of verdicts and the conviction of the guilty. But the question that emerged even at that point was whether media-inspired justice delivery could result in serious errors. There was also a realisation that the process, by its very nature, was patchy and episodic, what one young scholar, Ritesh Mehta, termed as “flash activism” which is by definition is “not organisational but temporal in scope”.

The second major transformation is of more recent vintage, and emerged with the coming to power of Narendra Modi, one of the most media-savvy and media controlling politicians India has ever seen. Unsurprisingly, political sub-texts have now come to inhabit media trials.  One of the impetuses behind the SSR coverage was certainly the Bihar assembly elections, as the thousands of BJP campaign posters bearing the visage of the late actor along with the words “Na Bhoole Hain Na Bhoolne Denge”, made their way into Bihar. The initial screenplay, if you will, was that of a young, good looking, talented Bihari man with ambition, trying to make a career in big, bad Bollywood, rife with nepotism, dominated by the Muslim Khans, and his life finally being extinguished.

Politics continues to mark the case, as the rather intriguing decision of the Uttar Pradesh government to try and inveigle its way into the TRPs case against Republic TV, which is being heard in Maharashtra (‘Is Adityanath Government in UP Going Out of Its Way to Bat for Republic TV on TRP Case?’, October 22). It is once again made apparent a Zee News’s telecast makes public the alleged confession of a person accused in the Delhi riots case, when the matter is clearly sub-judice. What is becoming apparent by the day is that the Government of India is pretty cool with the media trials conducted by its pet media houses. As for justice, it can go with the wind. Government interest, you could say, is the secret ingredient of today’s media trials.

Are journalists safe in Chhattisgarh?

Goons are goons, no matter what their political affiliation may be. Politicians are violently provoked by media exposes of their wrongdoing, no matter which party they may belong to. The manner in which Chhattisgarh-based editor, Kamal Shukla, was roughed up and dragged on the street, when he rushed to the aid of another journalist who had been assaulted by municipal corporators of the Congress Party, is utterly condemnable (‘Journalists Physically Assaulted in Chhattisgarh, Action Sought’, October 10). As Shukla explained to The Wire, “This has been done in a very planned manner as we have been raising a voice and reporting about the wrongdoings of local politicians belonging to the ruling Congress.”

Representative image. Photo: Reuters/Arko Datta

While the state government has been prompt in trying to defuse an ugly confrontation that casts the image-conscious Bhupesh Baghel government in a bad light, it appears to be a public relations exercise and little else. As a group of journalists and media watchers have observed in their letter to the Baghel government, “It is deeply shocking that the Congress government that came to power promising a law to protect journalists and assuring Freedom of Speech and Expression should now turn away from its responsibilities in such a brazen manner.” The group wants criminal charges to be initiated against the accused; district authorities to be held directly accountable for the assault; and the immediate institution of the ‘Protection of Media Persons Act’.

Also read: How Caravan Journalists Were Attacked While Reporting in North East Delhi

The vulnerability of Indian journalists to attack has now attracted international attention. Recently, two global journalist bodies, the International Press Institute (IPI) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), wrote a joint petition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, demanding “immediate steps to ensure that journalists can work without harassment and fear of reprisal”.

Congratulations, Arfa, Rohini!

What’s distinctive about the two women journalists who have been awarded this year’s prestigious Chameli Devi Jain Award for an Outstanding Woman Journalist — The Wire’s senior editor, Arfa Khanum, and the Bengaluru-based Rohini Mohan — is the courage they have both displayed in chasing the difficult, often discomfiting, story.

While Mohan’s distinctive work has set new benchmarks in long-form journalism especially in the field of human rights, Khanum’s multi-dimensional professionalism – straddling languages, media and subjects — has brought sparkle and depth to The Wire’s homepage.  Both women are helping, each in her distinct way, to stem “the gradual erosion of one of our most precious fundamental rights — the inalienable right to freedom of speech and expression”, that Justice Madan Lokur, the retired Supreme Court judge, had highlighted as one of the major crises of our times, in Media Foundation’s Verghese Memorial Lecture delivered at the awards ceremony (‘Justice Lokur: Our Fundamental Rights to Free Speech and Protest Are Being Eroded and Mauled’, October 12).

Corruption and India’s economic woes

Sonali Chakraborty, responds to the interview with Kaushik Basu (‘’India’s Divisive Politics, Intolerance a Major Obstacle to Economic Growth’: Kaushik Basu’, October 20): “Sir, I believe India’s economic misery is directly related to our tooth and nail corruption. It has nothing to do with manufactured intolerance.”

Chatrapati Shivaji image distorted

Anup Kadam’s responds to the piece, ‘By Attacking the Mughals, Adityanath Is Erasing the History of His Own Nath Sampradāy(October 8): “I have been an avid reader of The Wire and really enjoyed the journalism it does. However, the article cited above misunderstands the role of Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and your editorial team has no comprehension about the struggle waged by the people of the Deccan plateau during the Mughal period. Women and small girls were abducted in broad daylight by Muslim soldiers and Mughal sympathisers, religious conversion and taxes based on religion were rampant. The rise of Ch. Shivaji Maharaj gained us our independence from the Mughals and elevated Indian society as a whole, regardless of religion. Ch. Shivaji Maharaj had a more liberal outlook than even Akbar. The sheer number of Muslim commanders and courtiers in his army and advisory staff is a testament to this. Terming him a ‘Hindu militant’, as this piece does, is to do very grave disservice to this legacy. You may disagree with me, but I am left with no choice but to stop reading The Wire.”

‘Yadavs humiliated’ 

 Kundan Kumar from Hajipur, Bihar, writes: “While going through the article ‘The end of the road for Nitish Kumar’ (October 10), I came across the following sentence: “The new middle class would not want the marauding Yadavs swooping down Patna, grabbing upper-caste property and women.” I am sure that the author has no evidence or factual proof to back this statement but his casteist perception, fully loaded with a high dose of casteist opium (perhaps upper caste privilege), maligns and criminalises the Yadav community. Is it civilised to talk about “marauding Yadavs”? What kind of adjective is this? Who are the Yadavs of Bihar, are they some kind of criminal tribe who grab upper caste women? This kind of purposeful attempt to malign the image of Yadavs cannot be accepted. It is very painful that The Wire provides a platform for such casteist views to be expressed. We demand an apology from the author for this offence or he must provide a reason why he had chosen to target the entire Yadav community. We also want this casteist remark to be edited out and hope that the editor of The Wire takes this complaint seriously and that the news portal refrains from publishing such casteist remarks in future.”

Thank you, Kundan Kumar, for drawing our attention to the offending sentence. The intention of the writer of the piece was in no way to disparage the Yadavs as community but to paraphrase BJP propaganda vis-a-vis Lalu Yadav. The piece has now been edited suitably to remove the ambiguity.

Caste doesn’t exist for upper caste Indians 

Alpesh Mittal, in response to ‘Watch: For Dalit Families in Hathras Victim’s Village, Caste System Is Alive and Thriving’ (October 11): “I am writing to you after watching the recent videos on the Hathras case. No one has tried to show the harsh reality of caste the way you did. The situation in the US, where I live, was somewhat similar to India until the early 20th century. The civil rights act of 1965 changed things. Today you see crowds of white men, women and children shouting for equal rights for non-whites and against any kind of discrimination. Why don’t we see Indian upper castes communities fight for the equal rights of the oppressed castes and classes? Why don’t Indian upper castes get enraged when Dalits are attacked? The biggest reason for this, I believe, is that many Indians don’t perceive the caste system, or see it as their issue. They don’t see how the caste system has harmed India over the millennia and is still doing it. What we can really use is education and diversity training programmes, like in the US, starting from primary school to college and the workplace.”

‘Tanishq ad withdrawal justified’ 

Srinivasan Iyer on the Tanishq ad: “The withdrawal of the Tanishq ad has been justified on the grounds of protecting employees and saving property from being destroyed. This does seem a good enough reason to me. In a deeply divided society such as ours, our otherwise energetic and hardworking PM takes recourse to silence instead of urging stern action against those who threatened the store employees. Cases of violence pile up in courts with no closure. Our media, flush with advertisement money, prefer profit to principles. Gone are the days when corporates promoted their civic role and not just their products. It is hard to believe that Burmah Shell had once advertised that they were ‘In India’s life and part of it’.”

Distressing unemployment levels

Sushanto Mukherjee writes in to express alarm over unemployment figures and its impact on young Indians: “To fathom the cruciality of the unemployment situation, consider some recent data put out by the Centre Of Monitoring Indian Economy. In August the rate of unemployment increased to 8.35% which is higher than July, which stood up about 7.43%, but lower than 10.99% that prevailed in June. This year an estimated 122 million people have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, with most of them either small traders or workers. Projections suggest that those in the age group between 15 and 25 are more likely to suffer in comparison to those over 25 – which really mean that the youth of India, comprising 34.33 % of the population, are facing a jobless future. The government, however, doesn’t seem to be paying attention to such evidence, and is not doing very much about this sorry situation. As a young person, I appeal to the government to address this concern. It’s a matter of our future.”

Expand the scope of The Wire’s coverage

Nikhil Shobhan has a suggestion – and an offer: “I am a big fan of your team’s journalism work. Your political articles deeply resonate with me. However, I was hoping that you would widen your areas of coverage and expand your core readership. You could, for instance, start a section that reviews the Indian car market. In fact, I am willing to submit pieces, pro bono, on this subject, should you be interested. It’s an area in which I have some expertise having been in the business for over 12 years now.”

Word of caution for COVID times

Finally, there is this word of COVID-19 caution from Hari Gowthem G, who is doing his doctoral studies at the National Institute of Plant Genome Research:

“I’m a subscriber of The Wire @ YouTube. The lockdown is OFF but the pandemic is still ON. It alarms me that the general public doesn’t take the necessary precautionary measures and are contributing to the rise in COVID-19 cases/deaths in India. Take The Wire video (‘I’ll Be Back to Struggle Against CAA When We’re Done Fighting Corona, Says Bilkis Bano | TIME 100’, September 25). The interviewer is not maintaining sufficient distance from the interviewee, Bilkis Dadi, and both are not wearing their masks properly. I request you to spread the word among your team to encourage the general public to take the mandated precautionary measures.”

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