A media circus says something about us

A media circus says something about us
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First Published: Tue, May 27 2008. 12 58 AM IST

Updated: Tue, May 27 2008. 12 58 AM IST
Because I was out of town with no television access, I missed the first few days of the Aarushi Talwar murder story where a 14-year-old and the domestic help of the house were found murdered in Noida. Yet, even though I came in late, it was obvious to everyone that the story had more holes in it than a tennis net.
Despite the missing links and the questions that seemed to have no answers, it was clear that this story was a best-seller in terms of reader and viewer interest. It had all the ingredients: a shockingly violent crime; a double murder; a bright schoolgirl who had everything to live for, and middle-class, educated parents who seemed as bewildered as we did in trying to understand the motive.
And sell it did. For the next few days, TV channels and newspapers simply couldn’t give us enough of the Aarushi story. Was it a sex crime? Apparently not, said the police; there was no sign of an assault. Was it a love crime? There was some prurient speculation as police released details of calls made some 600 times to a single number in the past six weeks. Was it honour killing? We struggled with the various labels as we tried to sort out the pieces of the puzzle, grabbing the various angles thrown to us by the police.
A day before Aarushi’s father Rajesh Talwar was arrested, we already knew how the story would play out when a senior police officer said that the twin murders could either be the work of a butcher—or a doctor. Yet viewer interest crossed all bounds the day he was arrested in the blaze of a press conference. Television ratings figures aren’t yet in, but on Google India, Aarushi was the hot trend of the day.
As things stand, Nupur Talwar, Rajesh’s wife, and other family members have broken their silence for the first time to affirm their faith in Rajesh’s innocence. And the glaring holes in the police theory have become more obvious.
The Noida investigating team could make chimpanzees look like rocket scientists. On day one, our super sleuths rushed into the scene of crime and failed to notice an entire dead body. Since Hemraj, the Talwar’s servant was missing, he promptly became the prime suspect and a reward was announced with a police party being despatched to find him in Nepal.
But, of course, Hemraj’s body was found a day later. Meanwhile, the police seemed quite content to let crucial evidence like a blood-stained mattress lie out in the sun while an army of reporters and camera-people descended on the scene of the crime, happily marching through, quite possibly destroying potential evidence.
Even the claimed motive seemed confused: Was Aarushi allegedly murdered by her father because he was having an affair as claimed by the police or because she was, again as police claim, found in an “objectionable” state (whatever the hell that means)?
Leaving nothing to chance, Uttar Pradesh’s inspector general of police Gurdarshan Singh said both father and daughter were “characterless.” How convenient.
The police strategy seems clear. When your own competence is questioned, go on the offensive. From day one, they have insinuated that the father is involved. The motive? An aberrant sex life (details of which, mercifully, the press has so far restrained itself from publishing).
But restraint, alas, has not been the distinguishing feature of this tragic story. India TV run by Rajat Sharma played an MMS sex clip which it said featured Aarushi (it did not, but the channel saw no reason to apologize).
Even the more restrained English channels went the way of sensationalism, asking if our social fabric was breaking down (Why? The father’s guilt is not established). And the word “alleged” used in conjunction with “killer” was heard less and less.
This is trial by media of the worst kind because the media is being briefed by a biased and inefficient police. Until Nupur Talwar was forced to speak out, reporting has been largely one-sided with fresh-faced reporters traipsing up to neighbours and maidservants for soundbites.
The events following the murder of Aarushi tell us something about the state of our police force. But,they also tell us something about ourselves as a society.
The more salacious the crime, the more we want to get our fill of it. And an obliging and increasingly competitive media rushes to oblige as all norms are thrown aside and names of minor children (with cellphone numbers) are flashed on our TV screens and married women named as partners in illicit relationships.
In these days of 24x7 news and competing readerships, “The Story” is all that matters. If in the process individual reputations are shattered and the memory of a young girl tainted and her equally young friends dragged through the mire, then so be it.
I am not protesting Rajesh Talwar’s innocence. I’m not saying he didn’t do it.
But after a week of watching the media circus surrounding the devastation of his family, I’m a bit sick—a bit sick of our police, our media, and our own unhealthy interest in the murkier details of this tragedy.
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback at lookingglass@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, May 27 2008. 12 58 AM IST