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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 19, May 1, 2010

Media is Amoral, but it Works

Saturday 1 May 2010, by T J S George

Applause greeted the Supreme Court’s ruling that Manu Sharma should spend the rest of his life in prison. The man was a cold-blooded killer. His victim’s only fault was that she declined to pour him a drink after the bar had closed. Annoyed, he shot Jessica Lal pointblank and swaggered out.

Arrogance of this kind has marked many high-society crimes in recent years. This murderer was arrogant because of his money and his pedigree as a former Minister’s son. Spoiled rich kids ran their limousines over pavement sleepers in Delhi and Mumbai because of their social arrogance. Police officer Rathod in Haryana raped an under-age girl because of his arrogance of power. Sons of politicians, police officers and IAS babus across the country have been caught indulging in activities civil society should be ashamed of. They also use their influence to make an ass of the law.

This is where the Supreme Court’s incidental observations in the Jessica Lal murder case call for close attention. It said, among other things, that “trial by media… had the effect of interfering with the administration of justice”. The remark was occasioned by Sharma’s lawyer, Ram Jethmalani’s complaint that his client had faced trial by media. In his enthusiasm for his client, Jethmalani lost sight of the fact that, for once, “trial by media” achieved something good, beyond anything he could have achieved.

The Jessica Lal case is in fact a classic example of how forces in our country conspire to deliberately interfere with the administration of justice. The shooting had taken place in front of many people; so it should have been easy to bring the guilty to book. But the influential culprits managed to ensure that witnesses turned hostile in court. The machinery of the state itself played dirty; the police failed to recover the gun and the prosecution presented a case that was ridiculously weak. The killer and his associates were all set free. Justice was blatantly thwarted.

It was in this situation that the public, to its credit, came forward with protests and demons-trations and candle vigils. The media took up the cause and provided persistent campaign coverage. It may have been high-pitched and less than professional. But it was well-intentioned and the honesty of its purpose persuaded the Delhi High Court to re-open the case suo motu. Under public glare, the police and prosecutors did what they failed to do in the first round. The High Court found Sharma guilty. The Supreme Court ratified that decision
because Jethmalani was unable to hide the truth with his misplaced protestations against the media.

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The media in India today is not exactly a clean entity. It has become, generally speaking, dubious in its motivations, mischievous in its pretensions, and plainly guilty in many of its practices. Large sections of it are corrupt. Amoral ideas have been institutionalised by the biggest players with fancy labels like “private treaties” and “paid news”. The guilty in the media too should one day be brought to justice.

It is a bit of a miracle that a media that has abdicated its responsibility is still able to do some public good. It is the nature of its work that makes this possible. Malpractices, misdeeds and criminalities dot the activities of our governments, our politicians, our businessmen, our film stars and even our sports bodies. A great deal of this is brought to public attention only because the media, by default or otherwise, dare publish information the guilty try to suppress. We only have to recall the numerous scandals of recent times to appreciate the value of this service done by the media.

The Jessica Lal case shows how the media, warts and all, and public spirited citizens and alert judicial authorities can work in tandem to keep at least a few of our influential criminals out of harm’s way. Justice is higher than a lawyer’s interest in his client.

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