Not many might remember but the first ever big television moment in the history of broadcast journalism courted a controversy. The year was 1967 and a young David Frost in his show Frost Programme grilled Emil Savundra, a Sri Lankan black marketer then accused of a major motor insurance fraud. Savundra, who was in news owing to an investigation that exposed the scam, had agreed to be party to the interview believing that it would be an opportunity to clear the cloud of allegations around him. Contrary to this calculation, Savundra’s fragile defence perched on legal technicalities began crumbling when Frost began driving holes through the script. Ten minutes into the interview, Savundra stated the unforgivable on record — that he had “no legal or moral responsibility towards anyone”. When this earned Savundra the wrath of the audience, Frost’s enraged reaction to his shirking responsibility was met with wide applause and cheer. To the public, not only did Frost seem to be a connoisseur of the case, his outrage at Savundra’s answers also made them believe that ‘Frostie’ was one of them. Needless to say, Savundra was found guilty and sent to prison a few months after the interview, while Frost began climbing the ladder to a successful career in TV journalism.
As this historic TV moment found its way to the mind of the public, misgivings within the media fraternity and outside over the television treatment and trial of Savundra made the producers of the show, Reddiffusion, exercise extra caution thereafter. Thus, in tandem with the first ever memorable TV moment, the phrase “trial by television” took birth.
Decades later, the interview that earned Frost the status of a “rigorous interviewer” who pursued a “personal line of questioning” continues to resonate as the complexities of an ongoing debate unravel before us. Even more so when news of the release of Avirook Sen’s Aarushi has once again initiated a conversation around what is widely referred to as India’s greatest unsolved murder mystery.
[egpost postid=”247320″ byline=”false”]
In more ways than one, the mysterious death of 14-year-old Aarushi Talwar in her bedroom had piqued the interest of everyone — journalists, police officers, lawyers and the public — who was invested in the project of whodunnit. For instance, details such as Aarushi’s parents, Rajesh Talwar and Nupur Talwar, sleeping soundly across a wall from the room where her body was found, had all the markings of an Agatha Christie murder mystery. Add to it the late discovery of the body of Hemraj, the domestic help at the Talwar household, on the roof terrace that was apparently locked.
In a few days, headlines screamed bloody murder and pointed fingers at the Talwars. Soon, debates ensued and various experts, including writer Shobhaa De, pronounced judgements on the Talwars. While some speculated over Aarushi’s promiscuity, others went overboard suggesting honour killing and Talwars being members of an exclusive ‘wife-swapping club’ in Delhi. In a channel, in what could be called as a gross violation of a minor’s rights, a mms clip showed a young girl undressing before the camera and it was claimed that she was Aarushi.
While these versions that concentrated on salacious details were shocking, it wasn’t far different from the stories put forward by the investigating agencies. It seemed that the media, which quoted “unnamed sources” to justify the “exclusive” stories, was more often than not, acting as a spokesperson of the investigating bodies. Thus, “Guilty”, our media brethren said. In November 2013, the court, too, delivered its verdict — Guilty.
Though any comment on Talwar’s guilt or innocence could inadvertently lead to the same trap of biases, the possibility of the court being driven towards forming a particular opinion, echoing the public sentiment fostered in large measure by the way the media went to town with the story, is a question difficult to ignore. Avirook Sen, journalist and author of Aarushi, tells Tehelka, “Until Mumbai Mirror commissioned me to write about the trial in 2012, I did not have an opinion on the case, barring the vague notion that the parents must have done it, given that it was the running theme in the press. This could have influenced the public considerably and many of the principal characters, whether in the investigative agencies or in the judiciary, are also, first and foremost, members of the public. So the overall impact of the media on the case simply cannot be underestimated.”
In March 2015, when the airing of Leslee Udwin’s documentary India’s Daughter, based on the December 2012 Nirbhaya case, had triggered a nationwide debate, the Delhi High Court, hearing a petition that argued how banning the documentary would be an infringement of the freedom of expression, had observed: “Media trials do tend to influence judges. Subconsciously a pressure is created and it does have an effect on the sentencing of the accused/convict.”
The petitioners stated that a ban on the documentary could also lead to gagging all reportage on matters “sub judice” and the court agreed, adding how the media, which once had a self-imposed code of not reporting anything sub judice, has now thrown “it to the winds”.
Similarly, in its 200th report, the 17th Law Commission, foreseeing a future of media excesses and trials, had made recommendations to the Centre in an effort to prevent the media from reporting anything prejudicial to the rights of the accused in criminal cases from the time of arrest, through investigation and until the time the trial is concluded. The report also called for empowering high courts to direct an electronic media outlet to postpone publication or telecast pertaining to a criminal case and restrain the media from resorting to such publication or telecast. “Today there is a feeling that in view of the extensive use of the television and cable services, the whole pattern of publication of news has changed and several such publications are likely to have a prejudicial impact on the suspects, accused, witnesses and even judges and, in general, on the administration of justice,” stated the commission.
While the Talwars’ media trial is significant considering how the Press Council of India had acknowledged it as a prime example of the negative impact of the media in moulding opinion, two prominent cases, that of SAR Geelani and of Khurshid Anwar, on the contentious issues of national security and sexual harassment, respectively, became examples of breaking news going awry.