Sex-obsessed hacks and the harm they do

BY SANJAY AUSTA| IN Media Practice | 10/02/2016
Hacks use sex to tarnish and malign the accused. The coverage of the Arzoo murder is a case in point,


One of the many books I ordered from Amazon to read in the new year was journalist Avirook Sen’s book Aarushi though, frankly, I  had no intention of going anywhere near it until I had ploughed through books on my current passion - astronomy and evolutionary biology.

So Aarushi, with the rather unimaginative cover (embossed blood drops) lay buried under E.O. Wilson, Carl Sagan, and Jared Diamond for most of January. It was rescued from the heap when I attended a panel discussion at the Jaipur Literary Festival where journalist Madhu Trehan remarked that, had Sen been in America, he would have won the Pulitzer.

Being a sucker for phoren validations, I quickly put away big-bangs, worm holes, gene pools, and natural selection for the hurly burly world of crime, cops, and hacks.

The book is deeply distressing. You come away thinking that, God forbid you are in a soup one day, there may be no hope. The police are incompetent and will screw you if they want to. Our so called forensic experts who can harness the wonders of science to silence conjecture are either bumbling fools or can easily be tutored to present their findings anywhere the strings are pulled.

And the courts, the last bastion of remedy and redress, can sometimes arrive at a judgment even before the defence has completed its arguments. (Judge Shyam Lal, presiding over the Aarushi-Hemraj case, began typing out the judgment before the Talwars’ lawyer had begun making his final arguments, claims Sen).

But what really got my goat was the behaviour of the media. In every whodunit case like this, the media has been held by the scuff of its neck as it were and made to sniff any shit the police shove its way.

Covering crime is a rite of passage for any reporter. I too have had my brush with the crime beat. It usually goes like this. Someone is murdered. You go to the scene where the cops officially tell you one thing. You talk to the relatives, neighbours and other players and they each give their versions. But you also have some ‘source’ (who conveniently goes unnamed in all your stories).  The ‘source’ usually calls you up with a leak. Even if it is freakishly absurd, you feel privileged to have received the information and go to town with the ‘exclusive’.

In the recent murder of  the 21-year-old Delhi University student Arzoo Singh Chauhan allegedly by her boyfriend Naveen Khatri, 23,  it was again some ‘source’ that told the media that Arzoo was pregnant. The media did not name the source of course but went ahead with the pregnancy angle even though they were aware the autopsy on the victim was yet to be performed. Arzoo, as it turned out, was not pregnant. So first, attributing it to the invisible 'source', the victim's pregnancy becomes news. Later quoting the police, the victim's not being pregnant becomes the news.

You would have to be a nincompoop not to know that the scurrilous stories of orgies and wife-swapping in the Talwar household had nothing to do with the twin murders, even if they were true. But they were served up that way by the police and the media faithfully presented them as facts, insinuating by extension that the Talwars were guilty.

Why is the media so obsessed with sex? Writing about the blundering policemen, Sen quotes senior journalist Vir Sanghvi: “This is not a sex crime So why is the Noida police going on and on about sex, ruining the reputation of the dead and the living without a shred of evidence? My guess is that they are not just incompetent, they are also sex starved. Perhaps the IGP needs professional help”.

Sanghvi could well have been talking about his own reporters on the case or about journalists at large. Journalists, like policemen, are sex starved and any whiff of sex will get them into a mad frenzy. And the police know this only too well. After all, they both feed from the same dirty dish.

Spend any length of time with a group of journalists and the topic of sex always wafts up like the putrid passing of wind that everyone at the table wants to acknowledge. It will be gossip about the sexual proclivities of the rich and famous and has the usual cast of characters including Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai, Deepika Padukone, Sachin Tendulkar etc. etc. Stories of their sexual escapades are presented in lurid detail and embellished with each retelling. These stories, mind you, are not offered as light hearted blather but as facts, as ‘first hand’ information, and delivered in a tone of journalistic authority.

Most journalists, unlike Sanghvi and other Mayo or Doon School products, come from the middle class and represent middle class values and obsessions. They like to believe in the salacious exploits of others because these stories make them feel better about their own sexually repressed lives. Nothing makes the middle class feel more moral than when they discuss the sexual immoralities of others. Outrageous sex stories about celebrities bring them down a peg or two and make them look more human. And this is helpful because journalists brush shoulders with the famous but can never actually be one of them.

It would be all right if journalists stopped at being prurient purveyors and went no further but they don’t. If you end up being accused of a crime and have happened to have had an extramarital fling or two or kept a stash of Sunny Leone porn on your laptop, your sexual shenanigans will be paraded as proof of your guilt. Never mind if the narco analysis does not suggest it or if there are no eye-witnesses or if your finger prints are nowhere near the scene of the crime or - as in the case of Moninder Singh Pandher, co-accused in  the infamous Nithari serial murders - you are not even in  the country when the murders take place.

The Pandher case is another sad example of a miscarriage of justice brought on by a sustained media trial that careened out of course because of sex.  Pandher was made a villain by the media after his appetite for prostitutes came to the fore. The dots from debauchee to murderer were joined quickly even though the CBI admitted it had not a shred of evidence linking him to the murders.

A job of a journalist is somewhat like that of a scientist. You claim something only if you have the facts. Aristotle asserted as far back as 340 BC that the world is round. But he did so only after painstaking calculations and observations like for example how one sees the sails of a  ship on the horizon long before one sees the hull. Journalists spot a convict even before they survey the crime. In the 21st century India we journalists need to banish ourselves from the flat world we inhabit. More importantly, while reporting, we must keep at home our middleclass morality so we can see not in blinkered binaries but in multi shades of grey.


(Sanjay Austa is a writer and photographer in New Delhi. I FB profile FB page Twitter)


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