“We are busting Shashi Tharoor tonight”, anchor Arnab Goswami loudly proclaimed on his alleged news channel in 2017. Accompanying his commentary were big banner headlines on the screen, “Tharoor’s Lies Caught”, “Sunanda Murder Tapes”.
This was the tone and tenor of Mr. Goswami’s vicious media trial against the Congress MP since his wife Sunanda was found dead in a luxury hotel room in January 2014.
Even when the Delhi police charged Tharoor, it was for cruelty and abetment to suicide, but Goswami kept insisting it was murder. His reporters harassed and hounded Tharoor, who eventually had to seek the court’s intervention to get Goswami to dial it down.
This week, Tharoor was cleared of all charges surrounding the death of his wife. A Delhi court ruled that “there was nothing to demonstrate that Tharoor had subjected Sunanda to physical cruelty” and that “the accused cannot be compelled to face the rigmaroles of a criminal trial”.
With that, another sorry chapter has been written on the state of the Indian news media, where TV trials have gone on to ruin reputations, lives and disgraced the profession of journalism.
A history of sensationalism
In my own experience over the last 22 years, I saw this first happen with the Arushi Talwar murder case in 2008. TV news channels went hysterical, after the body of 13 year old Arushi was found in her own home in Noida, and a day later, the body of the domestic help, Hemraj, was discovered on the roof.
TV channels and newspapers regurgitated all kinds of gossip and random police theories about what had happened. The coverage was wall to wall; reporters walked all over the crime scene; while Arushi’s mother, Nupur, was vilified because she appeared on NDTV a few days later and did not break down on national TV. Apparently there is a code of conduct on how to grieve for your dead child.
For years, the Talwars were at the receiving end of a nasty media trial, but after spending 4 years in jail on circumstantial evidence, the parents were eventually set free by the Allahabad High Court and CBI, India’s premier investigation agency, has now closed the case.
Hate-filled media campaign
Fast forward to 2020 when actor Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide at his Mumbai flat. The TV lynch mob immediately went after his ex girlfriend, actor Rhea Chakravarty, who was slandered and maligned on national TV night after night.
A hate filled social media campaign accompanied this coverage, which painted Rhea as a scheming, gold digger who drugged Sushant and basically killed him. None of this was based on any solid proof.
Rhea spent one month in jail on flimsy drug charges which, while granting her bail, the Bombay High Court dismissed saying “Rhea is not part of drug dealers” and did not deserve to sit in prison.
But the damage was done. Rhea’s demeanour also came under nasty scrutiny, with a famed socialite cum journalist even writing “Rhea played every card in the book, and went from vamp to victim in ten easy lessons. She discarded the sati-savitri, head-covered, white salwar kameez, grieving girlfriend look for a more contemporary and casual girl-next-door appearance.
Her meticulous recreation of any and every turning point of the tragedy, complete with dates and an assurance that she can produce proof to substantiate her stories, made one marvel”. Appalling.
Do we scrutinise men for how they look? As I wrote at the time, what is wrong with Rhea remembering dates and incidents so carefully? Her life was on the line.
No lessons learnt
No lessons have been learnt from the Arushi murder case to Rhea. Indian TV news channels, or most of them anyway, run amok with very little accountability. The bodies that govern their ethical practices, like the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA), have no teeth to strictly penalise them and court processes in India are akin to a punishment.
When more and more complaints came in against Arnab Goswami’s Republic TV, he just walked away from the NBSA and set up his own federation.
Until existing regulatory bodies do not get statutory powers, this simply will not stop. Meanwhile, real journalists with even a shred ofconscience would have apologised to the Talwars, to Rhea and to Shashi Tharoor.
But that is too much to expect from a section of the media which is a complete disgrace, dancing to the tunes of its master, manipulating ratings, and fuelling hate for profit.
Only viewers can make the right choice.