The Talwars and Tehelka: Both cases of media excess?

"On 25th, the Aarushi Talwar verdict is going to come out. The media has done so much harm to the Talwars by coming to this presumptuous, premature judgement. If you assume this is rape. And I'm amazed that a man of Arun Jaitley's stature and legal standing should assume rape before something has been investigated," said an angry Shoma Chaudhury during one of the many odd moments in her CNN-IBN interview.

Minutes later, she evoked the Talwars again to underline the presumption of innocence, "You have not allowed me to say what was done to the Talwars. I think some of that is happening again. It is not to put myself on some high ground."



The inappropriateness of such a comparison aside, it marked one of the many ways in which the Aarushi-Hemraj murders have become entrenched in popular imagination and discourse, and become a kind of cultural short-hand for media excess.

Each time a sensational crime hits the headlines, the Indian media head right down the proverbial slippery slope, sliding from rightful outrage to prurient excess in a matter of headlines.  As Rajdeep Sardesai noted during an IBN-live chat,

The Aarushi case is one where both the print and the TV media have much to answer for. Let me also be honest: the Aarushi Talwar murder case was a great news story and a great TV story. A father was accused of murdering his daughter, so naturally the media was excited. Where we failed was to understand that the bigger the story, the greater the need to exercise restraint.

But in practice, the other principle holds true: Bigger the story, weaker the self-restraint.

Sobriety goes right out of the window in the heat of a feeding frenzy, when any detail, however trivial or unsubstantiated, can be held up as a 'scoop.' In the case of the Talwars, the media went one step further by treating the trial as "a mere formality, perhaps even a waste of time," as noted by Shohini Ghosh in a Hindu op-ed which argued "The presumption of innocence till guilt is proven is a cardinal principle of criminal justice. Those who genuinely want justice for Aarushi and Hemraj should insist on a fair trial as well as ethical standards from the media."

The flip side, of course, is that the media lynching of the Talwars also now offers a facile accusation to lob at news anchors. While the reporting on the Tehelka case is showing signs of devolving into voyeurism (more on that later), the news organizations cannot be blamed for either a) basing their reporting on what is publicly available, which is the alleged victim's testimony; or b) giving the benefit of doubt to the alleged victim, much as Chaudhury herself claims to have done. But for better or worse, the Talwars have now become a magic mantra to be invoked by all those claiming to be the victims of media propaganda.

That said, there is one very real parallel between the Talwars trial and the Tehelka scandal: the violation of the victim. In both cases, moral outrage became an excuse for the egregious and shameful exploitation of the victim's personal life. In the case of Tehelka, graphic details of the alleged assault taken from a private email were circulated online and even published, all in the name of calling Tarun Tejpal to justice. Arushi's correspondence with her friends also became fodder for news coverage, but in her case, the media reached an all-time low in their rush to prove unsubstantiated allegations of an 'affair' with Hemraj, as Ghosh writes:

This narrative was first floated by Inspector General of Police (Meerut) Gurudarshan Singh, who had ‘solved’ the case even before investigations could begin. In a widely publicised press conference he declared that Rajesh, who was as “characterless as his daughter” had committed the murders after discovering Aarushi and Hemraj in “an objectionable but not compromising position”. Singh was transferred for his defamatory utterances but his ‘story’ gathered momentum across the media. On May 25, 2008, Zee News telecast a show called Crime File where anchor Manoj Raghuvanshi doubling as mind-reader authoritatively claimed that Aarushi had sought comfort in an affair with Hemraj because her father was having an extra-marital affair. 

Given this sorry state of affairs, it is perhaps a mercy that no CCTV footage available of the alleged assault in Goa, as it would be inevitably leaked and circulated in the guise of moral indignation.

Shoma Chaudhury may have had no luck wielding the Talwar analogy, but their trial will long be remembered as a shameful chapter in Indian media history. "A botched-up investigation, flip-flop by witnesses and forensic labs, and a voracious and often irresponsible media have ensured that doubts will persist on whether justice has fin­ally been done, no matter what the verdict on November 25 is," writes Uttam Sengupta in Outlook. There are no such doubts, however, about the guilt of we the media. That verdict is already in.

Updated Date: Nov 25, 2013 17:35 PM

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