The story that agitated the TV channels most this week was the verdict in the Neeraj Grover murder case. There was shock, horror, outrage. How could the Mumbai court let off the "killers" so lightly?
The high-profile anchor on Newshour, the prime time news show on Times Now, found it impossible to accept the verdict. He repeatedly questioned the panelists who had been put together to analyse the verdict.
The grilling was sharp and pointed. The panelists were literally given no space to put forth their views.
The anchor, it seemed, wanted to hear answers that matched his views on the subject.
Times Now was not the only channel to question the verdict.
India TV telecast a special report where it tried to put the case in perspective. Here too questions were raised, leaving viewers to decide whether the court was right or wrong.
In fact, all channels, be it Star News, Aaj Tak or Zee News were full of chatter on the verdict.
They were not wrong in doing so. It was a big news story.
The Neeraj Grover murder case had riveted the nation when it was first reported in 2008. It was a crime of passion in which the murder accused were a Kannada actress and a Naval officer.
The report that the accused - Maria Susairaj, and her fiance, Emile Jerome - had chopped Neeraj Grover's body into 300 small pieces had given the case a most gruesome and morbid twist. The Mumbai court verdict that gave three years to Maria Susairaj and ten years to Emile Jerome therefore seemed insufficient.
But then a court looks at evidence and the law of the land before deciding the quantum of punishment. And in this case, the court concluded that Maria Susairaj was guilty of destruction of evidence, and not of murder. As for Emile Jerome, the court held him guilty of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and sentenced him to 10 years' rigorous imprisonment.
The question here is not the quantum of punishment or the merits of the verdict. The question here is how a murder verdict should be reported.
Should it be a trial by media on news bulletins hour after hour or a debate on national prime time television?
The first responsibility of the media is to report facts – as they are. It can then do follow ups and analyse facts, by quoting the views of experts. However, the television channels often mix views with facts. This is especially true of court judgements. Verdicts in high profile cases are discussed in news studios moments after a judgement is pronounced.
This happens even before the anchors have read the judgement. They have no clue as to which facts the judge took into account to pronounce a verdict. Yet they have no hesitation to give their own ruling.
The same happened in the film star Sanjay Dutt case a few years ago, when it seemed that it was the judge and not the actor who was in the dock.
The same had happened in the Ramjanmanbhoomi-Babri Masjid case last year. Every television channel had lined up a panel of "experts" in its studios and had OB ((Outdoor Broadcasting) vans stationed outside the Allahabad High Court. The objective was more than reporting the verdict. It was "to help the viewers understand the nuances of the verdict".
It was touching to hear the anchors pompously telling their viewers to stay calm, and not to be misled by mischief mongers.
However, the channels, and their anchors, had no qualms about analysing the judgement themselves. They had lined up a battery of "experts", most of them journalists or ex-journalists, the usual suspects that one sees on most TV debates.
It is hard to understand the hurry. The television channels have all the right to report verdicts. But they should stick to facts. The job of analyzing verdicts should be left to lawyers and former judges, and this should be done after a copy of judgement becomes available.
It is possible that the prosecution may have erred in making its case or the investigating authorities may have failed to obtain complete and clinching evidence. It is also possible that a judge may have gone wrong in coming to a conclusion. When this happens, the law provides the victim the right to contest the verdict by appealing in a higher court of law.
This is what finally happened in the Neeraj Grover murder case. The state decided to contest the verdict given by the sessions court, and seek life imprisonment for Maria Susairaj and her fiance Emile Jerome.
You can argue that the state took the decision following television reports or the pressure created by candlelight vigils and protests launched by friends of Neeraj Grover.
It is quite possible that you may be right. But then you need to ask yourself what is the role of the media. Is it to play the prosecutor and the judge? Or is to report facts?
Prime time television won the respect of the people in the Jessica Lal and the Priyadarshini Mattoo case when it exposed the way law was being manipulated by the rich and the powerful. It will lose this high moral ground if it indulges in highly opinionated analyses and hurried comments.
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This is a weekly column looking at news coverage in India. The author Sunil Saxena is a career journalist and author with over three decades of experience in Print, New Media, Social Media, Mobile Journalism, Media Education and Media Research. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.