On May 8, 2017, Arnab Goswami anchored a show on his new channel Republic TV, featuring an “expose” by his reporter Prema Sridevi, which aired a series of recordings with Shashi Tharoor’s deceased wife Sunanda and their employee Narayan, and somehow arrived at the hypothesis that Tharoor had murdered his wife and moved her to a different room.
Before – or perhaps after – his phone began to ring non-stop from the paparazzi seeking a response to the allegations, Shashi Tharoor put out a tweet scoffing at what was certainly a travesty of journalism. But, because he used the word “farrago”, which apparently is alien to most of India, the internet broke not over the abysmal show that Republic TV put up, but over the word no one in the press seems to have heard before.
Twitter spent most of the night smart-shaming Tharoor, and Buzzfeed India – one of the leading lights of the anti-intellectualism that plagues India’s media and its consumers – made a rare departure from the Bollywood “listicles” that are its regular fare, and compiled tweets from ignoramuses who pride themselves on a poor vocabulary.
Huffington Post India, which seems to target the same audience Buzzfeed does, put up the dictionary meaning of “farrago”, with an eloquent “You’re welcome”.
As if it were not bad enough that the media and Twitterati decided that the event of the night was not Republic TV’s purported expose but Tharoor’s use of this word, a few days later the media went on to make an allegation that Tharoor had lifted parts of his tweet from a speech made by journalist Mehdi Hasan. Because how could an author and orator who is given to using pentasyllabic words in regular conversation have heard of “farrago” when the editors of Huffington Post and Buzzfeed have not?
Through all this, Arnab Goswami and his reporter Prema Sridevi were forgotten until the morning of May 17, when they got sued for criminal breach of trust among other things – not by the people with whom they had held private conversations which were later aired on television, but by Bennett Coleman & Co. Ltd (BCCL), which owns Times Now, the channel where the two were working when they made those (unprincipled if not illegal) recordings.
In his show, Arnab Goswami said triumphantly that these recordings were a “Republic TV exclusive”, despite having been made more than three years before the channel was launched, and perhaps years before it was even registered as a company. He went on to allege that these recordings somehow proved that Tharoor was the murderer of his wife – her death has been classified as “unnatural” by the police, and a murder case has been registered against unknown persons (and not Tharoor).
Now that enough has been said about the vocabulary and intellect, or lack thereof, of the social media, perhaps it is time to pay a tiny bit of attention to the ethics, or lack thereof, of the media itself.
Goswami is not the cause, but a symptom, of a problem inherent in Indian journalism. There is no attempt at introspection or investigation, no interest in the grassroots problems of the country, no magazine programme which looks at issues which deserve attention – such as the problems of farmers, the prejudices against sexuality minorities, the lack of norms for disability friendliness in various modes of transport, child sexual abuse, corporal punishment in government schools, or human trafficking. Instead, we have talking heads popping out of our televisions at prime time, debating the issues that are calculated to draw the highest number of eyeballs.
The effect of this is that the media has appointed itself judge and jury in every case that grabs the headlines, whether it is the murder of Aarushi, the Delhi bus rape, or the unnatural death of Sunanda Pushkar.
To their credit – and detriment – Republic TV didn’t edit the recordings, so the reporter Prema Sridevi’s violations of the most basic code of media ethics and the tactics she employs to lead her involuntary witness are apparent. She does not inform her interlocutor, who is identified as “Narayan, Tharoor’s Man Friday” that he is being recorded, or that everything he says can and will be used on television. She then uses the lowliest of hack tricks, guilt-tripping someone in a more precarious position by saying she will lose her job – “Naukri chale jayegi meri, meri naukri mat khao” (My job will go, don’t cost me my job) – and giggles, before asking for details about which other reporters have been called and pestering him for an exclusive.
The reporter acts as if Tharoor, Pushkar, and Narayan owe her something because she decided to show up at the hotel. Having told Sunanda that she is at the hotel already at Goswami’s behest, she then tells the employee that she has come to the hotel because “madam” had called her.
The channel does not know whether Tharoor has or has not told the police he made a “secret visit” to his wife at the hotel in which she was staying. The reporter decides that he looked “grim and nervous” at a Congress session that day.
Her claims that Sunanda made a gesture that she wanted to speak to the media, that Tharoor was conspiring to prevent her from addressing a press conference, that everyone in the room was sent away for a while so that Sunanda would be alone (and therefore easy to murder, one presumes) are based on hearsay and not backed by facts or testimony. She harasses the man about when Sunanda will wake up from sleep, and why she had not slept all night.
This exhibition of interpreting facts to form theories which are then presented as evidence, of clutching at straws by extrapolating details to distortion, ought to have been called out for its unprofessionalism. Instead, everyone was happy for “farrago” to be the news of the night.
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