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How Not To Report A Murder: The Aarushi Talwar Case Is A Textbook Example

The ugly side of media.

13/10/2017 7:37 PM IST | Updated 13/10/2017 7:41 PM IST
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The Aarushi verdict has been overturned. For now. Nupur and Rajesh Talwar have been freed. The court has ruled there is insufficient evidence to prove them guilty and they must get the benefit of the doubt.

All over social media the commentariat have taken sides. Some feel that the original guilty verdict on the parents was a gross miscarriage of justice in the first place. Some believe that this overturned verdict was the real miscarriage of justice, the law moved to act by the outraged of media, books and films that had taken up the case with crusading zeal.

All it means, however, is that in the eyes of the law we do not know who killed Aarushi Talwar. But one thing all of us do know. And all of us should agree upon.

It brought out the worst in us as media –- half-baked, trigger-happy and happy to sensationalise.

This is not new. As the recent book In Hot Blood by Bachi J Karkaria on the Nanavati case showed, everyone loves a juicy murder scandal, especially one with sex and adultery. In that case even as the prosecution asked why the fresh-from-his-shower Ahuja's towel did not fall off if there was indeed a scuffle and an accidental firing of the weapon, Bombay hawkers sold Ahuja towels and Nanavati toy pistols – "Nanavati ka pistol! Bang, bang, bang! Ahuja ka towliya. Marenga toh bhi nahin girenga. (You'll die but it won't fall off)."

When police allowed media to tramp through a crime scene, up those famous 17 steps to the terrace and destroy evidence, just for two minutes of fame on the evening news, it did the cause of justice no good. The investigation was botched.

Russi Karanjia's Blitz whipped up public interest to hysteria. rode that trial and tried unapologetically to direct its outcome. Karkaria writes that Karanjia co-opted even his cinema critic, his astrologer and his Letters to the Editor to column to fit his agenda, printing letters comparing Nanavati to Lord Ramachandra who killed Ravana for abducting his wife. He was determined to win the "battle for men's minds and women's hearts". It was probably that media blitz that helped Nanavati be pardoned even after being convicted.

Yet Karkaria writes that while Nanavati was a big media trial, it was still not a trial by media which is a different beast altogether. That's what the Aarushi case became, fanned by competing 24x7 television channels jostling for every scurrilous detail. In Nanavati, she says "there was no savaging of the accused which became the lot of the Noida dentist-couple parents of young Aarushi Talwar."

That is the ugliness that was laid bare by the Aarushi case.

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The Supreme Court warned us about it. In 2010, the court cautioned that irresponsible reporting was affecting the honour of the crime's victim. Advocate Surat Singh filed a PIL in 2008 seeking restraint because of wild allegations levelled by the Noida police. Telecast after telecast cast aspersions on the characters of all the principals from the Talwars to their daughter to Hemraj, the servant who was first suspected of the murder and then found dead the next day. An Inspector General on Police went on television to call father and daughter, people of loose character. With sources in the CBI leaking information constantly and media lapping it up without check or balance, senior advocate Pinaki Mishra said, "It is virtually a trial by a voyeuristic media presenting an incident in an extremely malicious manner."

The Hoot reports that the day Rajesh Talwar was arrested, the TRP for that coverage was higher than the IPL match.

Of course the media's job is to cover the story. But when police allowed media to tramp through a crime scene, up those famous 17 steps to the terrace and destroy evidence, just for two minutes of fame on the evening news, it did the cause of justice no good. The investigation was botched. But the media coverage was even more horrendous.

The media as an instrument of outrage can do good as proved by the Jessica Lal case. But the Aarushi case showed what damage it can wreak as well when it operates with no scruples other than TRP.

We saw the media not content with facts of the case. They dug out every semi-scurrilous detail they could find about the alleged lifestyles of the Talwar whether or not that had any bearing on the case. One channel aired an MMS clip of the murdered girl. A 17-year-old friend was named by the police and his mobile number was flashed on TV screens. An "other woman" was unveiled on live TV as reporters went hunting for stories of marital infidelity. Domestic staff and friends were trapped with insinuating questions. Recounting all this Vandana K Mittal writes in Merinews "What if any of the currently accused of marital infidelity and covering up for the main accused turn out to be innocent? Who will patch up the many broken lives that this case is likely to leave in its wake?"

Now we are in fact at that moment. And of course there will be no mea culpa from the media for the devastation they left in their wake. We cannot single out the media. We get the media we deserve. We kept those TRP ratings high because we were hungry for every sordid detail.

The Aarushi case showed us the collision between, as Madhabhushi Sridhar of the NALSAR Center for Media Law & Public Policy (http://www.thehoot.org/media-watch/media-practice/maligned-by-police-and-media-4750) points out, "the victims' family's rights, journalistic ethics, the police and the media's liability for defamation and the people's right to know."

The media as an instrument of outrage can do good as proved by the Jessica Lal case. But the Aarushi case showed what damage it can wreak as well when it operates with no scruples other than TRP. One could hope that in retrospect it would serve as a cautionary tale for all of us. But it's a slim hope.

As the Indrani Mukherjea -Sheena Bora or the Sunanda Pushkar case showed as soon as we smell TRP gold investigation becomes all about digging up dirt, the more lurid, the more personal the better. Just as in Aarushi media was happy to be rely on anonymous sources and believe what they heard and rush to print it before someone else beat them to it. We focused not on the crime but on the sordid dark lives of the players as television channels lined up bit players who could come on TV to call Indrani Lady Macbeth or describe how Peter Mukherjea dumped his girlfriend for Indrani. Even sometime actor Rahul Roy showed up on TV as a "celebrity of 25 years". This was punishment often for being perceived as rich and entitled, comeuppance by media.

The Aarushi case should become a textbook example of how not to report on a murder. Instead the fear is it's become the prototype.

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