Media trial in the era of telelitigation

BY B.P. Sanjay| IN Media Practice | 27/08/2007
The media transforms sensational trials, with celebrity defendants and victims, into telemediated forms. How far removed is such telemediation from reality?

B.P. Sanjay

The Sanju baba trial and the media trial of his conviction have now been replaced by media coverage of Salaman Khan¿s conviction. We would want him bailed out fast to spare us.

Riding high on the Munnabhai popularity, Sanju baba and his scripted Gandhigiri cast an eclipse on the judicial processes that led to his conviction. Not to forget the cautious agenda that was built  up whenever he had to appear in court-talk shows, shots of fans, his MP sister and her sibling concerns, celebrity and expert comments as to how he was paying a higher price just because he was famous-were routine and never pricked the conscience of the media. Call it naivety, the explicit Congress hand in projecting his ?innocence?, particularly the secular credentials of the family, could not be missed. In any case his release from the Yerwada jail is now a cause for celebration and the Bollywood economists and commentators are heaving a sigh of relief. The viewers too are relieved. Viewers whose senses were numbed by coverage could have leapt from their couches and given a choice; they would have adopted Gandhigiri a la Munnabhai to stop the coverage.

As we were beginning to enjoy the respite from the same voices, the Salman conviction has come. We got to see how his apartment looks like from the road including a shot of overanxious commuters in BEST buses wanting to have a glimpse.  Guards and maid servants walking in and making their way through a maze of vehicles became the live coverage for charting the journey of Salman to Jodhpur.  No he was not going for a shooting.  Poor Salman was going to surrender in deference to the ?harsh? judgment.

Critiquing the media for celebrity obsession is laced with difficulties and charges by the television industry that armchair critics will never understand the compulsions and economics of 24 x 7 news channels. They call it viewer needs. On what basis is the intensive coverage justified? Apart from a well-articulated defence of the changing media scenario by television journalists and managers, there does not seem to be any other evidence to justify the news agenda in general and celebrity coverage in particular.  Even sound bytes offered by viewers seem to suggest that celebrities cannot mask their criminal actions by their screen images and popularity.  The comments accompanying web versions of the coverage are also critical and do not endorse such hyped coverage.

The missing point in their celebrity obsession is a total lack of sensitivity and ignorance of common sense queries.  How could Sanjay or Salman spend a few days in the Jail is never answered by even cursory responses as to  how other non celebrity convicts or undertrials are spending or contending with harsh realities. How the day begins for the star, his frugal breakfast, etc is a loop that runs throughout. Intervention by the rich, famous and the powerful to provide fast relief to the celebrities is also given due coverage that further mocks at the viewer and lulls them into introspection about how fast track judicial intervention works only for certain people in the country.  It would be interesting for the viewers to know how much money they may have to spend to wriggle out of similar situations. Will Nariman or others appear for similar causes or seek immediate hearing if an underprivileged is affected? The talk of criminal justice system taking a long time to seek a conviction is often repeated in the media and by the intelligentsia. The swiftness with which Sanju baba was bailed out of jail should allow us and them to ponder on many other issues including the special hearing that was sought in the Supreme Court in this regard.

These concerns may appear as unnecessary criticism of the media. Nevertheless they are important. Obsession with politicians and politics as a stock news value was the hallmark of earlier critiques but the current obsession with celebrities is skewed more than its relevance for the viewer or the reader. If media is to be believed, justice after due processes has very little relevance if the stakes for the entertainment industry are high.

In the holy land of media saturation, the US, there have been parallels to high intensity media coverage when it comes to celebrities and their trials. Contemporary media coverage of celebrity trials and their conviction in India make reference to the O.J. Simpson trial both academic and relevant. Janice Schuetz and her colleague in their book, Rhetoric, Media and the law,  aptly use the term  ?telelitigation? to refer to such trials as a process where  the media` transforms sensational trials, with celebrity defendants and victims, into telemediated forms. We need to ask how far such telemediation is away from reality. The fact that it also mocks at the average viewers¿ helplessness in ordinary matters pertaining to mundane rights and privileges and comforts is barely recognised and not even cursorily addressed in such coverage. 

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