Trial by media
Sensational, unethical reportage of the Sushant Singh Rajput case must stop and investigative agencies allowed to objectively investigate
Over a decade ago, the nation's attention was captured by the Noida double murder — that of 13-year-old Aarushi Talwar and the household's live-in male domestic help, Hemraj. I was then working in a newly launched news channel and watched the drama unfold first-hand. Even as Noida police and then the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) conducted (and botched up) the probe, every day newer details of the case would tumble onto television screens; each murkier and more lascivious than the previous one. Crime scenes were contaminated, media persons walked all-around freely, reporting live on the murder case. No standard protocol was followed, and most of the media fraternity bid adieu to all rules of journalism in the name of chasing TRPs. Now 12 years later, that media story has turned even more sordid in the Sushant Singh Rajput death case.
We watch with pain how unconfirmed reports and regular leaks from government investigative agencies flood prime time news and entertain a nation openly succumbed to voyeurism. Every night, the country's top anchors sit on judgement and lord over kangaroo courts, ready to crucify equipped with those very leaks. There is conjecture, conspiracy theories, unsupported facts, and an eagerness to play judge, jury, and executioner. The alleged villain is the young actor, Rhea Chakraborty, who was Sushant's girlfriend. She has been called a murderer, witch, and gold digger; the choicest of expletives have generously branding her on television screens and social media. Her family harassed, even security guards and delivery boys being hounded by hungry vultures parading as news gatherers.
If found guilty, Rhea should be punished but to see the rancorous cries for her head even while investigation is underway, reflects the nadir of Indian journalism. Rather than discuss the seriousness of mental illness and urgent need to do away with the taboos associated with it, the Indian media has pounced on the more sellable topic of sex, drugs, and betrayal. Would people stay glued to news channels or browse videos of YouTubers discussing depression and bipolarity? The short answer is no. The inherent voyeuristic tendencies of humans are to revel in private as they are allowed into the bedrooms of others; if it's a movie star or any other celebrity, that's an added bonus.
It's also sexier to have a young, attractive villainess who's purportedly into black magic, controls her boyfriend, isolates him from family, and robs him of crores of money. While the police, CBI, and Enforcement Directorate (ED) conduct their investigations, news channels are conducting their own.
When the unsolved Aarushi murder case was unravelling, thankfully I played no part in its reporting; even if there was an opportunity, I was able to skirt it. Reporters of most news channels today have little or no say in editorial matters; they are puppets to input and output desks and overzealous anchor-editors who seldom follow any journalistic protocol. It's also poignant to mention here that the state of Indian media is tottering at best. With a slowing economy, media has been gravely impacted leading to fewer advertisements and causing greater job cuts. Journalism today is one of the most uncertain professions in the country and the pressure on the low rung reporter to find that 'scoop' is all too real. So high is their pursuance of TRPs and that elusive expose that the controversial 'sting' operation has made a renewed comeback. Perhaps this pressure makes them bypass journalistic ethics; perhaps in today's TV news ironically there is no place for the honest journalist who questions not only news sources, but if needed, even their senior in the newsroom.
There is now a petition in the Bombay High Court seeking to restrain print and electronic media from further reportage on the Sushant Singh Rajput death case citing "sensationalism" by TV channels. The journalistic fraternity doesn't comprehend the enormity of the situation if this order is passed. This gag order would then become precedence even for ethical journalism. Media in India must save itself from falling deeper into the grave it dug for itself; its reputation has been getting steadily tarnished in the last few years. And if not for concern for the media industry, let screeching anchors frothing at the mouths and prying audience ponder — what if there is another side to the story that has been completely ignored? What if, this person who is being vilified is vindicated by investigative agencies and found to be not guilty? What if under unrelenting pressure and harassment, there is yet another suicide or death? Let the investigative agencies do their job; we can hang the culprit later. Remember, 'innocent until proven guilty', and media channels are not courts of law.
The writer is an author and media entrepreneur. Views expressed are personal