By Manu Pillai

It is with growing dismay that some of us have been watching the deterioration of journalistic standards (particularly of television journalism) in the country, especially with regard to reportage and commentary on the investigation into the death of Sunanda Pushkar Tharoor, the late wife of Shashi Tharoor. Following her death in January 2014, for the past 12 months, certain sections of the media have engaged in an unrelenting campaign of misinformation, full of speculation, innuendos, and the most indiscriminate insinuations.

The campaign fuels not the cause of “Justice for Sunanda”, as its promoters claim, but a media circus built for mass entertainment and consumption, devoid of nuance, depth, and most egregiously, proper research and verification of information.

What was meant to be a professional and thorough investigation by the Delhi Police has been reduced, at the behest of certain television anchors and sensationalist media houses, into an appalling public spectacle, leading to pure slander, calumny, and defamation which is being passed off as “investigative journalism”. Every other commentator and observer, no matter what their credibility, is invited to air opinions and speculate indiscriminately on the substance of the case, with misinformation, half-baked “facts”, and questionable “leaks” forming the basis of loud and assertive declarations on national television.

Image from IBNlive

Image from IBNlive

While media houses are free to determine whom to invite to their panel discussions and debates, the result in this impatient age of social media and in these times of competitive “breaking news” and TRP rivalries, has been the defamation and vilification of Shashi Tharoor, the husband of the deceased, and several others associated with him, including those with no connection to the case whatever.

One need not look too far to cite proof of the failure of practically every TV channel and most print publications to do their basic due diligence in reporting this case. For instance, nearly all channels and publications have been unable to get one basic fact right, i.e. Mrs Tharoor’s age at the time of her death, which has been reported as 51 or 52, when in reality, she was 49.

Another media house, tripping over itself in its haste to “break” fresh updates on the case, claimed recently on its website that “Sunanda Tharoor” herself was going to be called in for interrogation soon. When the media cannot be bothered to verify such basic information and have consistently peddled an assortment of outlandish theories as “facts”, it is no wonder that more serious and damaging allegations and claims are also reported without journalistic rigour or exactness, simply in order to feed the aforementioned public frenzy.

It is difficult to believe that the attitude and conduct of the media has been innocent in handling this case.

Statements and opinions expressed by society friends and socialites who met the Tharoors at parties are given practically all the coverage on TV and in print, while those issued by Mrs Tharoor’s only son, her close friends (who have known her for years and some of whom were with her in the days before her death), and others intimately connected to her are wholly disregarded. This appears to have been for the simple reason that the information supplied by the latter group is considered too sedate and dull (forget relevant to the case), while those of the former, anxious within days of the death to appear on TV, are more sensational and more conveniently fit the agenda of the 24/7 news mania.

The words of a controversial politician, who claims to obtain information from the investigating team (raising, therefore, questions about the integrity of the investigation itself), are given greater screen-time than those of others attempting to introduce reason and moderation into an otherwise baffling exercise in slander. When the statement of the son of the deceased did not fit into the outrageous narratives woven by some in the media, a distant cousin, who happily obliged by crying “murder”, was propped up and his bizarre claims about a relative he had not met in years broadcast as the statement of her “brother”.

All this would be irrelevant were it not for the effect it has had on public perception about this case. A simple search on Twitter or an appraisal of discussions on Facebook and other online forums about Shashi Tharoor or Sunanda Pushkar Tharoor reveal that alarming numbers of people have determined that the death was (a) a murder and that (b) the husband of the deceased (now lambasted online as “shameless”, “disgusting”, and so on) is the “culprit”.

The suspicion of murder is based on the filing of the FIR under a particular section by the Delhi Police, who have, however, pointed out — along with a small minority of lawyers doing their best to be heard amidst the ruckus — that such filing does not actually claim that Sunanda Pushkar was murdered. A critical distinction ignored by TV channels. As for the conviction on social media and elsewhere that Tharoor is the culprit in this supposed murder, the blame for such an impression rests entirely on the media and the theories and stories daily churned out by overzealous anchors and loud commentators, with no care for the consequences of what is to them just another day’s chatter.

In the process of all this, not only has this case become a media football, open for low speculation by all and sundry, it has tarnished, permanently, the names and hard-earned reputations of many connected to it. Shashi Tharoor, who is not even named in the FIR filed by the Delhi Police except as a witness, is a confirmed villain in the eyes of most watching these screeching TV debates and hysterical discussions. More recently a young student, with no connection to the case, found herself harassed by the media and was compelled to plead to be left alone, simply because one of the witnesses named her in passing in his statement to the Delhi Police, which was then selectively leaked (or selectively reported).

Freedom of expression is the hallmark of any accountable democracy. At the same time, however, responsible journalism demands an adherence to and the upholding of at least basic professional standards of ethics. These include, at the bare minimum, accurate verification of facts and the separation of rumour and hearsay and “leaks” from actual relevant information. What one hopes for is not less journalism, but better journalism; a journalistic standard that attempts, at the very least, not to stay enslaved to the compulsions of TRPs, sensationalism, and market rivalries, riding roughshod over the lives and reputations of its victims.

Cases such as this one are a great story for the media, but include, in reality, a bereaved family and their own search for answers and the truth. Their refusal to play out their grief before cameras or to answer to the endless harangue of television anchors and commentators ought to be construed not as an admission of guilt or as a means to bolster wild theories, but as a simple plea to be left alone to grieve in peace until the case is professionally resolved by the authorities, instead of dissected and mutilated at every turn by an on-screen mob baying for blood.

Manu Pillai managed Shashi Tharoor’s parliamentary office in Delhi in 2011-12. He was personally acquainted with Sunanda Pushkar Tharoor and remains associated with Shashi Tharoor


Source : Firstpost