For the last few weeks most of the electronic media is following the developments in the investigation and the associated activities in respect of the death of the budding star of Indian cinema, Sushant Singh Rajput (SSR). The revelations and the discussions that are telecast incessantly have divided the TV watching people into two distinct categories – those who are ‘Crime Patrol’ and ‘Savadhan India’ kind of viewers and want the SSR death mystery resolved before they get up to make tea for themselves, and others who have found a reason to refrain from news watching because they believe that an impression is being created that the issue is more important than the colossal health and economic crises that the country is currently facing. His death is, indeed, very tragic and most of the people who had seen him in the memorable roles that he played are particularly disturbed about the way he died and the mystery about the possible reasons of his death – which seems to be getting increasingly complicated to understand with every passing day.
SSR’s case needs to be handled in the best possible manner and the culprits, if there are any, booked and given the maximum punishment prescribed under law. Politicians and the police need to be kept under watch and the media needs to ensure that there is no act of negligence or manipulation that comes in the way of a fair investigation and trial. But, the media cannot, and should not, get into the business of conducting parallel investigations to change the direction of or even support the official investigation that is underway. Media as a ‘watchdog’ is not only welcome but desperately desired. But, a watchdog, by definition, is supposed to act on behalf of the public to see if something illegal or unethical is happening. In the SSR case, it would be prudent for the media to find faults in the way in which the investigation is being carried out but it cannot carry out its own investigation, conduct studio trials and accuse people of murder or abetment to suicide.
Institutions in India are going through a huge credibility crisis. It is important for the media to work on building institutional credibility and for doing so it needs to put together investigative stories, expose the flaws in the way processes are manipulated by people with vested interests and keep these people under constant watch. But, running down an institution that is responsible for the law and order of a state as large as Maharashtra just because their investigation was not carried out in a manner in which some news channels wanted it, is not only irresponsible but malicious. Finding faults is the job that the media has given itself in the larger than life role that it has assumed but, it should understand the subtle boundaries that need not be crossed under the cover of the freedom that it enjoys as a result of the ‘self regulation’ that it has managed for itself. For a State to function effectively, building up of and retaining institutional credibility is as important, if not more, than the activism practised by the TRP hungry electronic media.
Policing and investigation of crimes are specializations that people take years to acquire. There is no doubt that the police could be under some political pressure to take an investigation in a particular direction and the vigilant media can take the political dispensation and the police force to task by exposing them and asking them embarrassing questions. However, it is inconceivable that a disparate set of people – scientists, chartered accountants, political analysts, aspiring politicians, women right activists, et al can sit together in a media studio, discuss whatever information is available in public domain, show an emotional outrage, howl down the smaller ‘other view’ group, declare who the guilty is and, in fact, even announce the kind of punishment that should be meted out. And, in doing so, they also blame the local government for their involvement. It is difficult to believe that it is sheer coincidence that the TV anchor turned owner of a popular national channel that is spearheading the SSR campaign holds nothing against the state government for the harassment that he went through, very recently, for his rather irresponsible statements about the chief of the party of one of the coalition partners in the state government. The passionate and ruthless campaign that this person has unleashed against his tormentors has created an opinion amongst people that the campaign has only two objectives – settling a personal agenda with the state government and police authorities and taking the attention of the people from the multiple crises that the country is faced with.
Does the media have to play the role of the police and judiciary in its endeavor to resolve a death case. It is unfortunate that the media has started behaving like Khap Panchayats and the TV anchors acting as its Sarpanchs and even more unfortunate is the fact that increasing number of people are finding it an interesting and expeditious method of identifying and targeting the alleged accused. The media houses and their star TV anchors, obviously, know of this phenomenon and leverage it to generate the required TRP for increased advertisement revenue. With the level of professionalism that is practised across sectors, it is quite likely that media houses would be forecasting possible issues and events -, based on historical data and emerging socio-political trends – that can be taken up and defining the scale and manner at which it could be telecast and discussed and work out the potential increase in TRP and which would define marketing strategy and the resultant revenue model. The viewers have to realize that the passion and concern for an issue displayed by an anchor in debates has nothing to do with the issue per se. It is nothing but attention seeking and is very close to the technique adopted by a beggar at the traffic signal who is able to invoke our emotions.
The nexus between political parties and the media is an open secret. This mutually beneficial cosy relationship is extremely pronounced and large scale between the party in power and most of the media houses. Is the media supposed to act as the PR agency of the government or does it have to act as a watchdog? Interestingly, it is acting as the PR agency for the government and is made to act as a watchdog for the opposition. Most of the media seems to be an extended arm of the Bureau of Outreach and Communication of the Government of India. The role of media in governance should be like the role of independent directors in companies. While most of the companies appoint independent directors based on the reported or perceived pliability of the persons to make sure that the promoters can continue with this agenda of mismanagement and loot, some of the progressive and professional companies appoint people who ask them embarrassing questions to help them become more efficient. Unfortunately, the government of the day is behaving like the unethical corporate entity that needs the support of spineless independent directors. The fundamental requirement for developing the capability of promoting someone who is vigilant and who would keep you under check and on your feet is having a value system that is based on honesty, fair-play and respect for the laid down and practised rules and norms. The government of the day does not believe in being open to facing questions and criticism and, in the process, has nurtured a network of media houses who are loyal and committed to their loyalty and these are very aggressively supported by the unacknowledged but effective fake news industry.
Back to SSR case. A TV news channel runs a campaign for a CBI probe and celebrates the Supreme Court decision for a CBI probe and even goes on to the extent of boasting that it is because of their efforts that the Supreme Court directed the CBI to investigate the case. Given the controversy that had emerged between the Police Departments of Maharashtra and Bihar, it was the most appropriate decision, but is the common man supposed to believe that the Supreme Court decides cases on the basis of public outcry and the outcome of mindless and noisy media debates. Thanking the Supreme Court for listening to them and transferring the case to the CBI in an extremely presumptuous and irresponsible act on the part of the particular TV channel and its celebrity anchor as it generates the impression that the apex court is driven by the narrative played by the media. TV anchors cannot behave and project themselves as self appointed amicus curies operating from their studios. Public opinion can influence law making but, certainly, not judgments.