Live TV and dubious judicial logic

BY Padmaja Shaw| IN Media Practice | 04/10/2010
Whether a self-proclaimed custodian of God can go to court claiming land in His name and whether Indian courts can endorse such ownership of land was not explored by any channel.
But it is heartening to see self-restrained broadcast media and vibrant English newspapers doing a fair job of one of the most difficult news events of recent times, says PADMAJA SHAW
I have been following the relentless media coverage on the Ayodhya issue over the past few days. I must confess, mostly NDTV, CNN-IBN and occasionally, Times Now.
It was interesting to see the anchors of all the three channels earnestly assuring the viewer that this time around they are going to play it by the book and not fall for unverified information and its spin by interested parties. That was an admission of guilt in itself, and a conscious effort to ‘behave’. One caught the anchor on IBN-7 repeatedly exhorting restraint and removal of the live visuals of the chaos outside the court.
When the lawyers emerged from the court, things appeared to be thrown out of gear. The post-judgement coverage on these channels initially was completely high-jacked by the Hindutva brigade of lawyers who emerged out of the court waving victory signs. The media brethren swarmed them and transmitted live whatever they had to say without any filter. The drama of the court prohibiting people from entering the premises, putting the judgement on the website, etc., proved unnecessary in the end as the events unfolded. Restraint flew out of the window. Studio experts were compelled to give unexamined opinion before they had the time to think or read the judgement, based on the lawyers’ statements amidst jostling media persons.
The large number of politicians, academicians and more importantly, legal experts who were on various channels were perhaps as surprised by the verdict as were the anchors. But none of them, neither the experts nor the anchors, raised the two issues that are problematic in the judgement. The judgement under Issue No. 12. of its brief summary states that the ‘idols were installed in the building in the intervening night of 22/23rd December, 1949’. Every Hindutva lawyer triumphantly declared that the court accepted the thesis of the deities ‘appearing’ there. This happens to be the oldest trick in the book for religious goons of all hues. It is surprising that the High Court takes something like this to be a claim to legitimate enjoyment of a property if enough people devoutly believe it or can be mobilised to use the place for religious purposes. Does the High Court judgement set a precedent for legitimising the innumerable attempts at land-grab by planting deities in the middle of the night and claiming that they have ‘appeared’ there (virajmaan huye)?
It is also fascinating that the Indian courts actually admit cases filed on behalf of someone called ‘Ram Lala’. There are precedents to this cited in the judgement. The court, in all its seriousness, in its judgement summary on page number 18 says, ‘The instant suit was filed on behalf of the deities and Sri Ram Janm Bhumi through the next friend, praying that the defendants be restrained not to interfere in the construction of the temple of plaintiff nos. 1 and 2 on the ground that the deities are perpetual minors and against them Limitation Laws do not run.’ The case is on behalf of God himself, he has the advantage of perpetual infancy and some laws of the land do not apply (No laws should apply, if you ask me). Ordinary petitioners must be identifiable entities.
CNN-IBN anchor, Rajdeep Sardesai, repeatedly attempted to raise some questions through the reporter on location, Bhupendra Choubey, but either the audio failed or the reporter could not hear what the anchor was asking. One could not get any substantive response from the lawyers, other than the triumphalism of the victors, once again rendering the coverage more sensational than measured. The question whether a self-proclaimed custodian of God can go to court claiming some land in His name and whether the Indian courts can endorse ownership of land based on this principle was not explored by any channel.
The judgement by Justice Sharma further says, ‘This court is of the view that place of birth that is Ram Janm Bhumi is a juristic person. The deity also attained the divinity like Agni, Vayu, Kedarnath. Asthan is personified as the spirit of divine worshipped as the birth place of Ram Lala or Lord Ram as a child. Spirit of divine ever remains present everywhere at all times for any one to invoke at any shape or form in accordance with his own aspirations and it can be shapeless and formless also’. While the other justices did not go quite so far, this is an amazing judgement under a secular Constitution. One always believed that the courts arrived at judgements based on hard scientific/historic/forensic evidence. Now we have courts telling us that gods can go to court through ‘next friends’, and ‘holy’ places are juristic persons. Indirectly, the judgement is also endorsing the beliefs in Agni, Vayu and Kedarnath, in addition to Ram Lala, in the process effectively giving more power to the self-proclaimed representatives of the gods!
Media as neutral observers of events are expected to raise the questions that are central to any debate. But live television has its own dilemmas to face. More so, when covering incendiary issues like Ayodhya judgement. The commercial news channels have made a conscious decision to provide sober coverage and therefore seem to have treaded lightly.
When one contrasts the coverage in the next day’s newspapers, The Times of India, The Hindu and Deccan Chronicle, have all given more well-rounded coverage. The Times of India’s headline, “2 Parts to Hindus, 1 Part to Muslims” has already invited some criticism, enough for the paper to give a rejoinder asserting the accuracy of its headline. But the ToI coverage had several features, both pro and con, and opinion pieces. Notable is the piece by Dileep Padgaonkar, “The Muddle Path”, taking a critical look at the judgement and incisively addressing both the issues raised above. The Hindu also carried an accurate banner headline, much like the ToI and carried a well-argued piece, “Force of faith trumps law and reason in Ayodhya case” by Siddharth Varadarajan. The Deccan Chronicle, while putting a positive spin on the judgement with its banner headline, “Judges divide land to unite India”, had the unique item that gave brief profiles of the three judges on page 2, “Men who delivered the ruling”. The profile of Justice Sharma helpfully tells us that, “The judge, who can always be spotted in a white dhoti-kurta or white shirt and trousers, is a vegetarian who cooks for himself – and occasionally for colleagues and friends. He stays with his elder sister.” All three papers carried security stories from all over the country. All the papers also carried chronology of the issue in different ways in addition to curtain-raisers all the papers ran in the run up to the judgement. The print media had the advantage of time lag to do more varied coverage. The question is, whether the coverage was fair.
And should fairness mean that the media be neutral in every news report, or should they reflect the broad spectrum of opinion in the country? If the later is true, then the print media have successfully reflected the various shades of opinion. The news reports largely gave news and the opinion pieces reflected opinion on Ayodhya judgement.
In the case of broadcast journalists, the distinction between news and opinion is constantly blurred. Broadcast newspersons are too eager to take a position, infuse emotion, express their personal opinions and worse, to exhort the viewers on how to or how not to respond to the events.
The viewers of English news channels also see other channels like the BBC and CNN and find the exhortations on Indian news channels condescending. It is an insult to the intelligence of the viewer to assume that s/he needs guidance from the anchors on issues of the day. The experts on the panels ought to be the vehicles for this. However, an impression of neutrality deficit comes from two strategies of the anchors. One is the long-winded, opinion-laden questions that are shot at the experts; the second is the cosiness of the relationship between the regulars on news channels and the anchors. These two lead the viewer to believe that the debates are an elaborate web to frame issues in a certain way. The regulars like Ravi Shankar Prasad and Swapan Dasgupta have a mind set and world view which gets a free hand on the channels. There is also a temptation among channels to bring in people of polarised opinion to create an environment of inevitability to certain arguments and ideologies. After the Ayodhya judgement, one had the renewed good fortune of seeing Uma Bharati, Shahabuddin, Sheshadri Chary and to be enlightened by their opinion on the judgement. How many Hindus and Muslims accept these figures as representatives of their community’s aspirations?
In a 21st century emerging India, the completely unscientific/theocratic framework of this case was debated by the media, the politicians and the legal community. The English print media were able to raise these issues first this time because of the admirable restraint shown by the live broadcasters. Irrespective of what else the court has used as the basis for its judgements in this case, the question of whether a court defending a secular Constitution can invoke Agni, Vayu, and Ram Lala also needed public scrutiny.
It seems somehow more incendiary for the broadcast media to debate the issues of whether the mobs who demolished the Mosque should be punished, whether it is desirable for a secular democracy if the higher courts endorse the dubious logic of faith and belief being superior to legalities. It is the nature of the beast – it has this problem of immediacy, and impulsiveness. It comes in too soon after an event. It sometimes needs to stand back and let reason take precedence over emotion.
It is heartening to see self-restrained broadcast media and vibrant English newspapers doing a fair job of one of the most difficult news events of recent times. 
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