Constructing truth for the street

IN Media Practice | 14/02/2013
This difference between limited facts of a particular event, and a set of facts that reveal context, also marks the difference between sensationalism and news,
says PADMAJA SHAW. Pix- Afzal Guru

“Facts are what constitute the objective world, and what make true sentences and thoughts true and false sentences and thoughts false .... Facts, thus understood, are not truths, but truth-makers”, says,Michael Pendlebury, an American professor of philosophy.

Ideally, much of journalistic enterprise is about ‘truth-making’ from facts. Truth in this sense is larger than individual facts. Together some individual facts may shed light on the larger truth. The complexities in the process are many, morally challenging and sometimes, life-threatening.

Take the case of Afzal Guru. Many of us remember his self-incriminating statements at a media conference held by the police, few days after the attack on parliament. That remains the single ‘fact’ that has helped form the opinion on the street about the extent of guilt or involvement of the man in the Parliament attack case. The five who were directly involved were dead. Guru emerged as the conspirator.

Media are prone to using facts to befuddle truth and to ‘frame’ cases to shape popular perceptions in legal cases. Mr N D Pacholi, a lawyer who was Guru’s counsel wrote in protest against the manner in which NDTV was playing up some facts selectively to mislead public opinion. Coverage on other channels has been similar.

Till his end, there remained serious doubts about the extent of Guru’s role, the veracity of the self-incriminating statement he gave to the media under the supervision of the police (for which the courts admonished the police), and the entire trial process where he was denied credible legal support. Senior lawyers like Indira Jaisingh raised many of these issues on various forums, including in a well-argued column in the Hindustan Times.

But early in the life of the case, sections of the media already used ‘their facts’ to pronounce the man guilty of treason that deserved nothing short of death.

Though it is media debates that brought out many other facts that came out in due course, electronic media kept up their relentless pressure –through dramatic graphics, screaming slugs of the stories, frequently airing bites of people on the streets spewing moral outrage and demanding death for Guru and most importantly, opinion of the victims’ families. If the media ever asks the bite-givers what the actual proven crime of Guru was, or if they were following the case in detail, surely they would come up with some surprising answers? Is it not the same media that shows us how young people do not seem to know who Mahatma Gandhi was, but know the pet names of film stars?

If the media was interested in truth-making, they would have told the public all facts of the case with more judicious emphasis; for starters, that a confession with self-incriminating statements made to media while under police custody is inadmissible in a court of law, and therefore, it is good for our democracy to wait for the due process of law before we condemn anyone to death, which after all is irrevocable if any miscarriage of justice occurs. Prof.  S A R Geelani in the same case was sentenced to death by a lower court, the sentence  was later set aside and he was in fact acquitted.

Why did media use the footage repeatedly if they knew the information had no legal validity? If they are interested in truth and justice, shouldn’t media have resisted spreading information of this kind? Did media tell us with equal stridency that the court frowned on this?  And why did they not publicise the fact that Afzal Guru did not get legal support in the early stages when the case took shape? Especially, in the context of the death sentence, shouldn’t media have tried harder to provide context than be a handmaiden for spreading piecemeal information?

Another case in point about selective use of ‘facts’ to construct a popular street truth was the recent jingoistic coverage on English TV news channels about the beheading of Indian soldiers by Pakistani troops who crossed the LoC.  The sheer virulence of the television debates and the muscle flexing by the anchors and their guests was found alarming by many media watchers. There has been a spate of opinion pieces in print media criticising the irresponsible coverage given to a sensitive issue.

Here again, the over-the-top coverage of the incident completely ignored a moving report from the front during Kargil time (June 2001) by Barkha Dutt, which narrates an instance of Indian soldiers keeping the head of a Pakistani soldier as trophy.

Can one believe that the channels like Times Now, known for their strong research, were unaware of this? They created a war-like situation, called for retribution and complaints to the UN, and mocked the government for lacking the combative spirit. They fielded retired and in-service army men and diplomats from India and Pakistan to punch-up in marathon discussions with the anchors airing their dubious patriotism. The anchor’s role was also primarily to restrict the discussion to limited number of handpicked facts. “Did they or did they not behead; do you or do you not apologise/condemn”.

Instead of over-emphasising and repeating the isolated facts of a particular unfolding event,  if the media pause to consider the possible precedents to it, and put it in context, it goes a long way in educating the public. This difference between limited facts of a particular event and a set of facts that reveal context also marks the difference between sensationalism and news, facts used to distort reality and facts used to build truth.

Whether it is rapists or Guru, the street’s thirst for revenge is adequately satisfied if they are hanged. Many comment with satisfaction that this should have been done a long time back; some even imply that they did not deserve a fair trial. Those who harbour such patently undemocratic sentiments do not worry that not all are open and shut cases where evidence is clear. Media, by their stridency and anxiety to milk popular sentiment,  by stoking emotions,  don’t allow any sense of rationality to prevail.

In Guru’s case, none of us are any wiser about who the real sponsors of the attack are.The real culprits are out there somewhere. The only one who may have led us to the truth has been hanged to satisfy the jingoistic sentiments of a few. This is the kind of cover up any enemy would really want from us. The media never pursued this line of argument. Instead, they were busy stoking public sentiments. Shockingly, while awarding death sentence to Guru, the Supreme Court too, as the highest legal authority in the country that is duty-bound to pursue truth, invokes the need to satisfy public sentiment and not the letter and principles of justice. This, at one stroke, endorses the lynch law of the street and its messiahs in the media.

Unfortunately, as consumers of news we too like the excitement of sensationalism and resist nuance. Isolated facts on their own are not truths. Unless facts are used to make truth, we will continue to grope in the dark.


(This is the revised version of an article which appeared in Hans India on February 12, 2013 )

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