IS THERE A NEED FOR A STRICT WATCHDOG TO STOP MANIPULATION BY JOURNALISM?
Author: Pratyasha Dasgupta, I year of B.B.A.,LL.B. from Symbiosis law school, Nagpur
It is evident that journalism acts no more as a watchdog of society; it has conveniently shifted its spotlight from the betterment of society to fulfilling their desire of climbing higher on the ladder of TRP ratings. It is what defines yellow journalism or manipulation of journalism. It is journalism without a soul. Facts are distorted or exaggerated. There is very little truth in those stories. Unethical means are adopted to increase circulation. It is the kind of journalism that lures the readers by any possible means.
Journalism has taken the form of sensationalism where stories are presented in such a way to provoke excitement or public interest at the expense of accuracy. Journalists nowadays rely on the assumption that they are omniscient, that they can do no wrong. Contrary to their patronizing notion, the modern journalists are sensational gossip mongers who have half baked, lack of verified information from unreliable sources that challenges the credibility and authenticity of the news. There is a dearth of objectivity that invades the nuanced perception of the viewers who watch news channels or readers who read newspapers. There is no authorized or articulate information being released by the press that educates or informs its spectators about the actual whereabouts of a particular case.
Article 19(1) of the Constitution of India says that all citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression. The Constitution of India does not specifically mention freedom of the press yet it is implied in Article 19(1). In the case of Indian Express v. Union of India, it has been held that the press plays a significant role in the functioning of democratic machinery. The courts have to uphold the freedom of trhe press and they should have access to all sorts of information and freedom of publication and circulation. However, the media should also be responsible and accountable to public opinion and should not take advantage of the apparent mass hysteria that exists among the people of the society and cease the transmission of misinformation and fake news that stems from the lack of awareness among the laymen.
In India investigative journalism, where reporters deeply investigate upon a single topic of interest such as heinous crimes, political corruption and serious white-collar crimes often take the form of a media trial. Trial by media is a phrase that was popularized during the confrontation of renowned journalist and media personality David Frost’s attempt to aggressively question and badger insurance fraudster Emil Savundra that raised concern from several corporate individuals and executives that repeated accusations that have not been proven against Savundra would ruin his reputation, tarnish his image and possibly end his career as well. A media trail is a form of media frenzy where misrepresentations of individuals, organizations or corporations lead to unnecessary speculation in the minds of the viewers who often act irrationally and impulsively against the person based on media’s attempt to denounce the person’s value, who is entitled to a defence and has the right to a free and fair trial and is innocent until proven guilty.
There have been numerous misinformed and misleading media trials in the history of India that were mere products of sensationalism and yellow journalism that have ruined the character and careers of the accused in general. One of the notable victims of media manipulation were dentists Nupur Talwar and Rajesh Talwar who were held guilty by the press for the murder of their daughter Aarushi Talwar and domestic help Hemraj without any irrefutable and inconclusive evidence. What followed was repeated slandering and harassment of crestfallen parents who had lost their daughter under mysterious circumstances and who were as dejected as Hemraj’s family. The media represented the Talwars as villains, not victims and sold a story that any layperson who had no prior knowledge of the case would easily believe. The events surrounding the death of a minor Aarushi were dramatized and presented a gripping tale of vengeful parents who wanted to defend the honour of their family by killing their daring daughter who was caught in a compromising position with the servant.
The mysterious death of a fourteen-year-old was broadcasted by news channels and several media outlets as an act of honour killing and grisly filicide of a naïve youth. The media had no mercy in projecting the troubled victims as vile and ruthless murderers who were as grief-stricken and drenched in sorrow and pain as Hemraj’s family was. The journalists also manifested the incorrect innuendo that late Aarushi had inappropriate relations with her servant. The high profile media coverage of the death of Aarushi Talwar and Hemraj based on circumstantial information and hearsay evidence promulgated by lethargic journalists who either want to gain TRP without proper fact-checking or a desperate attempt by media persons who repeatedly perjure themselves in front of the camera, not courtroom to revive their fading careers. The verdict delivered by Allahabad High Court had the Talwars not guilty of murder and acquitted them of the crime but what remained was one of the most notorious media trials in the history of the Indian democracy.
The journalists should act as mirrors of public opinion and not go on a rant against glorious intellectuals who are role models and paragons of prudence and nobility based on ludicrous assumptions. An impudent journalist carried out parallel investigations along with police investigations being conducted against politician, writer, and international diplomat Shashi Tharoor for abetting the suicide of his wife Sunanda Pushkar without inconclusive evidence as well. The journalist running the news network masqueraded the mysterious and unfortunate demise of Sunanda Pushkar into a nail-biting thriller where the reporter convicted Tharoor for an offence punishable under the Indian Penal Code before the courts had the honour to do so. Interfering with police protocol and the work of the judiciary does not make their job easier but distorts the man of high demeanour into a pathological delinquent who is a threat to society. Delhi High Court said such journalists should take up a course of criminal trial and then pursue journalism as they are so keen in proving an accused guilty beyond a reasonable doubt without giving law and statutory authority the benefit of the doubt.
The media mogul planted salacious allegations against Tharoor and abused him in a public debate. He was so overconfident that he aired audiotapes that he claimed Tharoor tampered with that could only amount to so many loopholes and the sound recordings could also be fabricated. It is agreed that death of a person under mysterious circumstances will attract public scrutiny but the violation of ethical boundaries can only slap a lawsuit in the faces of media persons in the form of defamation that could seal the fates of such media circuses running via news agencies only for the aggrieved party to be paying lakhs in the form of compensatory damages. Investigative journalism is the need of the hour but being a pretentious know-it-all discarding every other valued interpretation, fact or opinion leaves a trail of illegitimacy and ignorance behind.
Publishing scathing exposes without solid evidence against suspect Rhea Chakravorty who was in a relationship with late actor Sushant Singh Rajput before his mysterious death not only ruins her reputation but also heavily damages her emotional wellbeing. There was not only a demand for her arrest by the news network but also from the entire nation who watched the daily news only to wear a pair of rose-coloured spectacles solely relying upon the information and judgment delivered by the kangaroo court itself. There was a witch hunt to locate Rhea when she was not found in her Mumbai and her parents being treated as criminals. The press slandered her and dubbed her criminal even before the court gave the verdict. The journalists were convinced that Sushant didn’t commit suicide and that he was murdered and Rhea was the scapegoat. A classic case of victim-blaming and presenting a farrago of distortions only to baffle the common man. Rhea found herself amidst a vicious hate campaign that could be a nemesis for an Indian soap opera where she was portrayed as a manipulative gold-digger who stole Sushant’s money and late led him to a path of self-destruction. Although the case is still being investigated by the CBI a report published by the AIIMS said that the actor had committed suicide.
From the Watergate scandal to the most important findings in the Jessica Lal murder case journalism has acted as a pillar of any liberal democracy. In the era of liberalism and globalization, a strict watchdog monitoring the activities of the media wouldn’t be feasible only if the common people are educated and informed of the current happenings of the society. There’s no need for a strict watchdog to stop media manipulation but knowing what to believe and what not to believe.