On these scraps of information, the media

by litepink on November 3, 2015

Now that the most intense convulsions around Indrani Mukerjea have ceased, let take a hard look at ourselves. What was that even about?

So here are the facts former TV executive Indrani, her ex husband Sanjeev Khanna and her driver Shyam Rai are accused of the abduction and murder of Sheena Bora, who was Indrani daughter, but had been socially introduced as her sister. The body alleged to be Bora has decomposed in the last three years, and DNA evidence linking Indrani to the body is yet to be established.

On these scraps of information, the media has fed off for a week. Speculation, malice and moral righteousness abound in reportage and discussions about Indrani. Police have only made preliminary official claims. She is still a suspect, not the mother who ate her own not yet.

Whatever the case against her, this is now an object lesson in what drives media, our larger social anxieties, and our conception of crime and justice.

How does media advance public accountability in a criminal case? By reporting the investigation and providing perspective, and exposing any flaws in the conduct of police and courts. Not by inviting random people and allowing every conjecture in their lizard brains to be aired, and prejudicing perceptions of the case even before the chargesheet has been filed.

As far as TV channels and the digital media and many newspapers are concerned, there seems to be no obligation to respect Indrani privacy. Being declared a suspect is enough, the media now has licence to pry. There have been interviews with former schoolmates, colleagues, friends and acquaintances. Intimate details of her life have been flung about. Her family tree and business dealings have been leading news items, with no attempt made to establish relevance.

What about the presumption that she is innocent until proven guilty? Is it the media job to feed on leaks and funnel sympathies one way or the other, or to leave evidence gathering and motive establishing to the investigators and leave room for a fair trial?

The logic of TV, though, means that it would be near impossible to maintain distance and decorum in the Indrani case. The material is simply too promising to be passed up. When the media is sustained by ratings, news naturally blurs into entertainment and public interest comes to mean what the public is interested in.

Around the world, media trials feature a few recurring tropes the rich the of trust or power the stranger Extra legal facts are routinely highlighted. By that logic, this case is brimming with exploitable angles.

What draws TV and public attention to a particular crime? The algorithm usually involves the social prominence of accused or victim, the exceptional or grisly nature of the crime, and the emotional resonance of the story. TV doesn cover mundane crime or care about conditions that foster crime. Crime is presented as individualised pathology, propelled by things like madness or ambition. Agents of law and order are usually celebrated. And perspective is sacrificed for sensation. But while police may occasionally float problematic trial balloons in their media briefings or through unofficial leaks, as in the Aarushi case, TV takes these up with relish, with staged scenes and leading discussions. The focus is not evidence, but the lurid implications.

Crime fascinates us because it evokes both censure and desire, say cultural criminologists. Conversation around crime speaks to diffuse social anxieties. Just look at the frames that have been used to discuss this case a minxy woman on the make, someone whose ambition has dried up her natural affections.

Most of us have no idea what Indrani is like. The amalgam of fictional characters she is meant to be, though, is only too familiar. Gone Girl Amy Dunne to Lady Macbeth to who knows, La Belle Dame sans Merci, all rolled into one. In the male discourse on crime, women come only in two types alluring and badass, or innocent and vulnerable.

The rawest nerve she touched seems to be how many husbands she had. Her turbulent romantic life means she exerted some agency, rather than being placidly yoked to a bad relationship, and that just plain disturbing to many men. And so, even claims that should prompt compassion, like sexual abuse and teenage pregnancy, are seen as par for the course.

Then there the special hatred we harbour for successful women. Somehow, social mobility is suspect in India; it is assumed that anyone who rises rapidly must have made some pact with the devil, and when it a woman, the titillating possibilities are endless. This paper ran an article called and horror among Assamese women where random people decried her for not submitting herself to family alone, calling her actions monstrous, hurling metaphorical rocks.

No matter how many ways this scandal rivets people, media organisations should worry about passing off their coverage as news and analysis. Guesswork and moralising are okay for yourWhatsApp group or proverbial watercooler, but when that also passes for considered comment on oped pages and TV panels, there a problem. Perhaps we need the gag reflex of reporters and editors, and sharp criticism by at least some consumers, to internalise better norms.

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