Saturday, August 2, 2008

Need for restraint on Media

Need for restraint
AKHILA SIVADAS, Centre for Advocacy and Research, New Delhi
Will the disastrous coverage of the Aarushi murder case finally pave the way for a self-regulation mechanism?
Responsible coverage can only emerge from some level of self-regulation or making a common cause with concerned viewers and readers.
With the Central Bureau of Investigation clearing the dentist couple Rajesh Talwar and Nupur Talwar in the Aarushi and Hemraj murder case, their 59-day ordeal had come to an end. For the readers and viewers of the media also this has been a well-earned reprieve, for the time being at least. But the news didn’t go off the media focus without some after-tremors. Immediately after their release the media was eager to know what action the couple would take to undo all the wrongs that had been done to them. According to reports, the doctor couple was too dazed to speak. Instead, they chose to implore the media to “leave us alone” and be decent enough to “give us time to mourn the loss of our departed daughter.” This brief statement said it all.
Moment of introspection
Suddenly, the entire complexion of the debate changed. The shrillness of the drama vanished and the media found itself in the dock. It was a rare moment of introspection for them but not without its share of inconsistencies and the usual justifications. Weren’t they acting in the public interest, acting as a watchdog and exposing the ineffectiveness or veniality of the enforcement agencies, they asked.
But this is not the first instance when the media had been overreacting and sensationalising and floating theories and generally going overboard to keep the flock of their viewers and readers. This happened in the Nithari case, in a different way in the Jessica Lal case, when the media sat passively for seven long years, watching each witness turn hostile and give the most flimsy justification to do so and the investigations leading nowhere and suddenly post-judgment decided that enough was enough and went in for saturation coverage. Quite a few other high profile cases that had happened in and around Delhi also experienced the same sort of treatment.
In many of these cases there was the same high-pitched coverage, the wild theories, the showing of gory details from the scene of the crime; every rule of journalistic restraint was thrown to the wind. Can we state with some measure of confidence that many of these unethical practices are restricted to the so-called “unprofessional” media? The answer is probably not. In fact two years ago, many channels telecast news reports and interviews with Kohli, the suspected murderer of Hannah Foster. This was done in the presence of senior Police officers. In one channel the reporter was then asked by the news presenter what it felt like to be face to face with a person suspected to be prime-accused in the murder of Hannah Foster and she replied it was a “chilling” experience and something that brought her no professional satisfaction or comfort.
Intrusive methods
From this manifestation of voyeurism it soon descended into blatant inquisition, with leading channels holding their own signature style trial by the media. No angle was left unexplored in the Scarlett Keeling murder case. All sorts of theories were floated; that it was a conspiracy to malign the tourist destination, that it was a plot to sully the fair name of the people and contrary to popular perception, Goan society was deeply conservative and resented the tourists’ insensitivity to local mores. And from this it was finally surmised that the girl’s mother, Fiona should be held singularly responsible for the tragic happening. Then the media thought it necessary to unleash a collective outrage against the “irresponsible” mother. It is no consolation that this outrage emanated from Britain, where the tabloid press was scathing and grossly insensitive.
And on every occasion, when it seemed that the time had come for the media to set a benchmark and establish restraint, there has been no decisive effort to set strict norms to self-regulate. Consequently when many of these cases were solved or adjourned or disposed in some other way, the media, with the same swiftness, turned their gaze to new exciting events they could highlight or dramatise. Immediately, the media would respond by initiating yet another debate on whether this specific incident could be classified as the worst of the media excesses. The media has its own compulsions. It must debate, make known its non-partisan role, be the ever watchful recorder of the events happening around and give expression to public feelings.
In the final analysis, it would seem, the media lacks the will to apply the correctives or resist the temptation of dramatising the events and extracting all the benefits that go with it. It is equally evident that the much-needed judicial activism or demonstration of public protest is absent in a manner that matters. It is no surprise that the message is that it is possible to get away with anything. The contrast is stark when we look at other countries. Recently in a case almost similar to that of the Talwars, nearly a dozen British tabloids had to apologise and pay a hefty sum as damage to a doctor couple for falsely implicating them in the disappearance of their child in Portugal.
Sober note
In fact, curiously, this time around, in the debates that followed the CBI’s clean chit to the Talwar couple , their earlier confidence was missing. While earlier the media, and in particular television news channels, vied with each other to remind the viewers that they were the first to reach the spot or report the story or discover the much-needed new angle, now they were more contrite and introspective. Some went to the extent of saying sorry the “hardest word” and published an apology for the hurt and pain they had caused to the Talwar family.
But even in these lucid moments, the repentance has not been universal. One anchor even went to the extent of saying that there was “no question” of their tendering an apology to the aggrieved parties. In the hectic pace at which the news was developing it was possible they might have gone slightly overboard in their comments, he admitted. The medium was such that there was no time for thinking. It was like covering a tense cricket match.
Now the question that needs to be asked is how does one get around this problem? The media obviously cannot always exercise control over itself, it works under a lot of compulsions, even if sometimes it reflects the popular mood and in the process in many instances is able to expose the flaws in the system. Having said this, responsible coverage can only emerge from some level of self-regulation or making a common cause with concerned viewers and readers. When our team of researchers, which undertook an audience survey for the National Commission for Women, asked the readers and viewers about this, the uniform response was that such high pitched reporting, deconstruction of crimes, conducting media panchayats and intervening in the lives of ordinary women and gory visuals can safely be dispensed with. This, they felt, was particularly true for sexual crimes. Do not lower the dignity of the survivor of violence by re-constructing the assault or crime in a crude and stark manner, they emphasised.
When readers were asked whether they could cite instances when the media dealt with issues sensitively, they said that such sensitiveness was visible during the tsunami disaster. At this time, TV news shied clear of too much death and destruction and stressed on the relief and rehabilitation process. Similar was the case in the bomb blasts of 2006 in the local trains of Mumbai, and to a great extent, even during the pre-Diwali blast that occurred in Delhi in 2005. In both instances, the news channels stayed with the victims, sensitised viewers to the personal loss and emotional upheaval they experienced.
Another urgent and untapped solution would be to explore legal options and the need to set up robust legal precedence of people’s right to privacy and self-respect. There are enough legal safeguards in the system to challenge excesses by anyone, including the media. Well, like any other court battle, they could also consume time but setting a strong precedence would certainly bring the much-needed consensus on this concern.

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