As the Indrani Mukerjea story plays out over the next few days, a most fashionable – and politically correct – thing to say would be how a voyeuristic media has made so much out of what is, after all, just another crime, maybe of “honour”, as we call it, or of greed and fear, or all of the above.
But it will be said that the media is so obsessed with celebrity crime and sensation that it forgot bigger more important ongoing stories, from the Patel agitation in Gujarat to rising onion prices.
There will be wide public agreement with this opinion. Never mind that most of those who will abuse and curse the media for dining out on a family’s tragedy, and ignoring “more important” issues concerning millions of ordinary Indians, will continue to lick at every drop of sensation and exaggeration that boils out of this pot.
We in the news media are steeped in hypocrisy for sure. We have no compunction exploiting other people’s tragedies and travails for what is, ultimately, a commercial purpose. We are desperate for larger audiences, higher TRPs, or as I learn the new determinants of media power and glory four decades into journalism – and not particularly unsuccessfully, if I may add immodestly – clicks, likes and “shares”.
There is too much competition now. Our consumer has the option of more platforms than a journalist can master in a lifetime. News breaks so fast, and now mostly in your palm (on the phone); attention spans are so short, you can take no chances. You wait to check facts, get the other side’s version, and the story has already moved on.
That is why a leading news channel feels constrained to run a “big exclusive” saying Indrani and Sanjeev Khanna, her ex-husband, “were planning” to murder her son Mikhael next. No attribution, no sourcing, just a stunning, emphatic statement of “fact”. And the use of old style “allegedly”? Oh, come on, give me a break, uncle, don’t bore me with sanctimonious nonsense.
Waiting for a story to unfold, for you to be sure of facts and fairness, is now passe. But that isn’t because journalism has now moved away from old-fashioned values by itself. It is because our audiences, the paying “janata” as Bollywood calls them, are not complaining. Our hypocrisy is not just matched by our audiences’ – it is, in fact, a response to it.
I will give you a test for this evening. Every news TV channel will dedicate its entire prime-time, or most of it, unless Mr Hardik Patel decides to do something really stupid to wrest headlines back, to the Indrani-Sheena, etc. story. Some will still stay close to the old values of journalism. Or rather, some will still do journalism. But some others will run a court.
I am tempted to say a kangaroo court, but am avoiding only because I do not know how this metaphor, maligning such a lovable wild animal to represent a summary trial by the mob, originated. On some channels, some questions will be answered, but many more raised, some dots joined, but the jigsaw left incomplete, for the story to unfold.
On some, on the other hand, a guilty verdict will be pronounced. Many salacious details will be tossed around judgmentally without utmost certainty to their veracity, without a qualification. There won’t be any uncertainty to the whodunit, and what should happen now. You are a rich, attractive, audacious, ambitious woman – it equals slut, social climber, guilty of murder. And hell, our judicial process is just so slow when all it needs to do is put its rubber stamp on the obvious.
Two weeks from now, though, check out the ratings for various channels for prime time this manic Thursday. If you find that channels that followed the latter approach drew several times the audiences of those that were still doing journalism, you will know that we in the media are not the only ones to blame for everything that you the people see as having gone wrong with us. Since you enjoy and pay for it too, you too are responsible. And then, as any marketing intern in any commercial organisation will tell you, never be so foolhardy as to fight with the customer.