The press as judge

BY krishnamoorty| IN Media Practice | 05/11/2006
If public opinion were the criterion to convict or acquit a person, the courts might as well put advertisements in the media inviting it.





Dasu Krishnamoorty



I have read Prof. B.P.Sanjay’s Ram Jethmalani ko gussa kyon ata hai. I am concerned with things he had not mentioned. I am referring to some of Sagarika Ghose’s illusions about the press, broadcasting them as irrefutable truths and inventing norms of jurisprudence without the academic support to do that. I am reminded of Shekhar Gupta’s Walk the Talk with the late Ustad Bismillah Khan that showed unfamiliarity with the subject-matter of his interview. Ghose deserved what she got when she dared to face the cameras without understanding the first principles either of journalism or jurisprudence. She was not aware that she was talking to a vulpine legal luminary and a former law minister like Jethmalani. More shocking is Jethmalani agreeing to be interviewed knowing the case is sub judice.


Her very first question spelt her nemesis. She asked, "In defending Manu Sharma, are you in some sense defending the indefensible?" She must first be clear whether she is contesting the case as morally indefensible or legally indefensible. If morally, she must tell us who sets moral norms and who polices and enforces them. In the absence of any such mechanism, the question sounds imbecile, especially when the TV media have begun acting as courts of first instance. If legally, she must know that all the legal remedies have not been exhausted yet in this case. It is only uninformed judicial charity that encourages media to tread on its toes. 


How did Sagarika Ghose arrive at the conclusion of indefensibility? The legal process ends only after the highest court in the country has said the last word and that too for the last time because the last word itself is open to the possibility of a review petition. Asked Jethmalani, "Have they (the press) read the evidence? Have they heard the witnesses?" Even if the press has done both, what validity has such evidence unless produced before a court? Obviously, there is no one in CNN/IBN to brief her about the niceties of law.


"Aren’t you worried that you are going against public opinion," she asked. Do you remember that the Supreme Court using the words "the collective conscience of the civil society" in sentencing Mohammed Afzal to death and creating a public outcry? If public opinion were the criterion to convict or acquit a person, the courts might as well advertise in the media: "We are trying a case in which Manu Sharma is the principal accused, accused of murdering Jessica Lal. Please let us know your opinion by ordinary post, e-mail, SMS message or by any other means. By order of the Registrar, Courts of Judicature." Bangaru Lakshman can collect public opinion as well as Lalu Prasad Yadav. The fact is: public opinion comes before the courts in the form of witnesses, sworn by oath and on pain of perjury.


Ghose then embarks on a self-adulatory trip, telling the viewers how the press reflects public opinion, how it speaks for the underdog, how she herself is a voice of the public and so on. In short, bullshit in Jethmalani’s language. A casual look at the letters to the editor columns would  tell her how pompous and shallow are these age-old clichés about the press. The press represents itself and in countries like America it represents the shareholders as Arthur Sulzberger will tell you. Sometime, it represents only the editor or publisher. The truth is you (TV media) want to rake in eyeballs and the print press wants to herd readers into malls and groceries. It arrogates for itself the role of a public spokesman even while working for private interest. The history of the press today is as salacious as that of the country’s politics.


She  interrupts Jethmalani, ‘Here is someone who in the eyes of the public is seen as someone who has committed a heinous crime." Yes, murder is a heinous crime. Have the public seen Manu Sharma committing murder? If they have seen, all of them are free, even today, to offer themselves as witnesses for the prosecution. Anyway, what business is it of the press to collect evidence of crime when the prosecutor does it for the State and the defence counsel for his client? If you believe that the prosecution has failed the State, tell the courts according to a procedure laid down by law. It is not that "some people believe the evidence," as Sagarika tells Jethmalani. It is the courts which have to believe or not believe.


Jethmalani has asserted every lawyer’s right to defend a person, to refuse which is violation of Bar Council norms. Not only that, if Ghose and her supporters blame Jethmalani coming to Manu Sharma’s rescue, how do they criticize lawyers who refused to defend accused in 1993 Bombay blasts? Unless a lawyer is convinced that his client is innocent he cannot proceed with the case at all. If you are convinced Manu Sharma is guilty, his parents do not think so. So, they engage a lawyer and he happens to be Jethmalani. Why have you decided to take Manu Sharma as your client, Ghose asks. The answer is a counter question in Morarji Desai’s style, "why should he not?"


The Hoot surfers wonder how Ram Jethmalani is so dismissive of the press, forgetting that he had sought and obtained the hospitality of the Times of India (judiciary)’, treating it as a parallel tribunal to hear his plea to expedite a petition of his clients, the Hindujas, before the Supreme Court. Examples of parallel tribunals: The Indian Express asks its browsers, "Is Jethmalani right in asking for a change of court in Jessica’s case?" Hindustan Times posts this question in Surfers’ Corner, "Is it fair to ask Ram Jethmalani not to contest Manu Sharma’s case?" When will the press stop assuming judicial powers and begin addressing problems of the millions? If the media have the right to skirt judicial process, what is wrong in Moulvis issuing fatwas?


Jethmalani has been too harsh on Ghose who pestered him with pedestrian questions. He used some vocabulary unbecoming of a person of his stature. Some of them: "Recognize your limits,’ ‘That’s nonsense (used twice),’ ‘Silly question,’ ‘Bullshit (used twice),’ ‘Stupid (used twice),’ ‘Lay women,’ ‘You don’t know a word,’ ‘Don’t waste my time (used twice) and ‘Ignoramus.’ Sagarika declared her dignity by silence and not thanking him at the end.  


At the end, one cannot but be overwhelmed by Sagarika’s claim that she is just a voice of the people. The only problem is that it is a claim that every media person makes. 



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