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|June 13, 2001||
Trial by Media
I have nothing against the law enforcers. They are doing their job the only way they know. It may not be the best way. It may not be the way you and I want them to do their job. But then we are not their masters. Their masters are those in power. Those who can transfer them, promote them, sack them.
I have nothing against the bureaucracy. You and I may believe that they are crawling before the political establishment when they were only asked to bend. But that is the only way they know how to work. Years of colonisation have broken their back.
I have nothing against the political establishment either. No one expects much of them, in any case. They are seen as venal, corrupt, inept and extortionist and, irrespective of who comes to power, nothing ever changes much. That is the tragedy. It is not only the tragedy of India. It is the tragedy of every political establishment wherever. They stink.
But the media? The media can afford to be different. We have a rich tradition of fiercely independent journalism. In fact, all the big scams were busted by the press. The law enforcers merely followed them up.
What the huge vigilance machinery failed to notice, poorly paid journalists effortlessly dug out. That is how HDW and Bofors hit the headlines. That is how we found out that Narasimha Rao had bribed the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MPs and Satish Sharma and Buta Singh had brokered the deal. At every juncture of our political history, the press did us proud.
Where has that pride gone? Today, the media parrots what the law enforcers say and the bureaucracy puts out. It repeats what politicians claim, often falsely. As a result, if the police say Bharat Shah connived with the underworld to try and kill Shah Rukh Khan, the media carries that verbatim without making the slightest attempt to check the veracity of that ostensibly absurd claim. If SEBI alleges that Shankar Sharma of First Global hammered the entire market down by selling 100 Wipro shares, the media prints it blindly. Even though we all know that it is impossible for any single individual to alter the course of an entire stock market for whatever purpose.
If the political establishment tries to swing public attention away from its own scandals and points towards some silly and preposterous charge against someone else, the media is the first to give it legitimacy.
I can give you many recent examples. Let us start with Bharat Shah. I do not know the man and met him only twice socially. I found him vain and rich, neither of which I guess endeared him to lesser mortals. But vanity and wealth are not criminal characteristics. Many people I know have them. Yet the entire media has jumped to the instant conclusion, on the persuasion of the police and the political establishment, that Shah is guilty of playing footsie with the mob. In the process, they have ignored the actual evidence before the courts.
Answering a mobster's telephone call is not exactly a crime. It was just another way of staying alive. Yet the media has deliberately chosen to present the facts of the case in an unfair and prejudicial manner.
I have no idea if Shah is guilty, but, till the courts decide, I believe that we must, in the best traditions of justice and fair play, presume his innocent. We cannot, in fact we must not prejudge him. Unfortunately, that is exactly what the media has done. Making it virtually impossible for him to get a fair trial.
Look at the case of Nadeem Saifi. The British courts have actually admonished our investigators for the inept job they have done and yet the media, slavishly parroting the establishment, persists in painting him guilty.
Look at Shankar Sharma, accused of trashing Yashwant Sinha's dream budget. Look at Ketan Parekh, charged with rigging the stock market. Look at Fardeen Khan, caught with a gram of cocaine for his own use. Look at Salman Khan, accused of diverting his local earnings into foreign exchange.
Look at all the people we put through hell to make headlines that can sell our newspapers or lure viewers for our news shows. Is this what the media has finally come to? Selling instant justice so that more people buy newspapers lured by hot headlines? So that more people watch the news and TRPs go up, more advertising revenue comes in? Is media only about making money?
There was a time when the media was more sedate but more responsible because it was not trying to hawk its wares in a competitive market where the shrillest shriek draws the most attention. It was trying to bring us the truth. The truth as it honestly saw it.
Journalists were not under pressure to push up ratings or sales. So they did their work with serious intent, with conviction, with courage and integrity. They did not pronounce people guilty without making a serious attempt to study the charges, investigate them, come to their own independent conclusions, without fear or favour. They did not blindly print what law enforcers claimed, what the bureaucracy said or what politicians planted on to them. That is why people trusted them.
What you get now is trial by media. Everyone manipulates the media to serve their own interests or hurt their rivals. If they cannot do this on their own, they hire spin doctors. In the process, justice is compromised, fair play is lost, truth is injured. What we get are doctored facts and convenient conclusions. We get planted stories that influence the course of justice and compromise our rights as citizens of free India.
In fact, if the media is not careful, it could destroy the very foundations of this civil society.
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