Media trials for fun and profit

Wherever the legal system is perceived as being unable to deal with something speedily or fairly, the media can and will step into the breach, for better or for worse


Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

The next time you really want something covered by the media, save the money you would spend on a public relations agency and get a lawyer instead: it could work out to be much cheaper, faster and more effective.

Our legal system is regularly a contender in competitions for being one of the slowest and most inefficient ones in the world: India’s civil justice delivery system came 88th out of 102 countries in a “rule of law” index released by a US non-profit this month.

But while we might agree that the Indian legal system might by and large be terribly ineffective at that whole speedy justice thing, counter-intuitively, it also seems to be one of the most widely used.

Court cases are filed about everything under the sun and seem to be the default course of action if you espouse a cause or whenever anything happens that anyone is remotely upset about.

On Saturday, for instance, a case was filed by an activist and his lawyer against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his right-hand man Amit Shah and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat for “defaming yoga” by giving it a “religious colour that has hurt the sentiments of people”, whatever that means.

It was well-timed—coming a day before Modi’s national yoga day pet project on Sunday, few newspapers could resist carrying that story, irrespective of its odds of success.

That case is not alone and, at least several times a month, cases are filed that will make lawyers wonder exactly how they are filed. One public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court in April wanted India renamed Bharat, while another petitioner tried to (apparently in all earnestness) get US President Barack Obama summoned to Allahabad for having “tarnished the image of India” for suggesting religious intolerance seemed to be on the rise.

Is there anywhere else in the world where these kinds of issues make it anywhere near the judicial system, and if they do, where petitioners and their lawyers wouldn’t be slapped with an order to pay the court’s costs for having wasted its and everyone’s time?

That happens very rarely in India and there is a strictly logical imperative to filing such petitions: how else could the average citizen or activist almost certainly guarantee that newspapers and wires would write about your opinion that the name “Fanny” offends you and shouldn’t be used in a movie title, if not by instructing a friendly lawyer and filing a few pages of your thoughts in a court?

The wheels of justice in India run so slowly that they often appear to be standing still, but the wheels of the media run 24x7 with at least 365 rotations per year in its news cycle, and that beast needs constant feeding.

There are few things easier to report on than the fact that a petition has been filed about an issue that’s currently vaguely in the news, with someone allegedly claiming such and such, giving journalists the convenient cover of being able to simply report what happened in court when those allegations are dicey.

For the newspaper-reading audience, such stories are guaranteed to evoke reactions (ranging from shouts of “I agree with the petitioner”, “I disagree”, to at least a chuckle with a resigned sigh of, “only in India”).

The media is not just complicit but the raison d’être of such petitions, where success can be measured in column inches rather than in legal remedies or damages won, because the vast majority predictably get dismissed by courts outright or linger forever in court without ever getting a proper hearing.

Where the legal system can fail due to its glacial pace and unpredictability, the media’s prime-time grindstone can pronounce a judgement after a few minutes of debate, which would take a court months if not years to settle. But even then some cases might seem farcical, such as the Food and Drug Administration threatening a criminal case against Bollywood star Madhuri Dixit for endorsing Nestle’s Maggi noodles in advertisements.

Indeed, the Maggi noodles case was a perfect storm of law and media: mix iconic rehydrated foodstuff that everyone’s had in their mouths at least once in their life, the spectre of your kids’ health and an enthusiastic but probably mostly unqualified regulator (see The questions raised by the Maggi crisis) and bring to the boil under an incompetent internal communications strategy, et voila, you have an instant noodly mess.

The appeal against the food regulator’s decision in the Bombay high court and the fact that other labs have seemingly not been able to corroborate the original findings of adulterated noodles will be a footnote to market panic and a wide recall of products that has no doubt caused the economy and brands crores of rupees of losses.

Done, next story, we’ll let the legal system sort out the rest of this in its own time.

Wherever the legal system is perceived as being unable to deal with something speedily or fairly, the media can and will step into the breach, for better or for worse. The responsibility for that abdication of jurisdiction should lie squarely with the courts and the regulators that operate as they do.

And while the Maggi episode may have a longer-term positive effect in ensuring food-producing companies take public health more seriously, it makes it painfully obvious why India struggles to compete internationally on the rule of law front.

Kian Ganz is publishing editor at Legally India.

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