You’d think the Cobrapost sting would be the low point for Indian media for the week.
Times Now, which can always be trusted to pull the collective standard of journalism down by a few notches with every programme, decided to outdo itself.
This time, it pulled a stunt which was not simply unethical, but illegal, in playing out evidence from an ongoing court trial, the alleged rape case involving former Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal.
Several times that day, the channel played CCTV footage showing Tejpal and the woman who accused him of sexual assault, walking into and out of the lift at the resort hotel where the alleged assault occurred.
Several times, the anchor Rahul Shivshankar chanted, “You can see the survivor adjusting her underwear”.
In several frames, the survivor’s face was not blurred. Her clothes were not simply shown on camera, but also described in detail by Rahul Shivshankar, with all the enthusiasm of an intern at the Academy Awards red carpet show.
If hearing “adjusting her underwear” made me cringe and squirm every time, I wonder what effect it had on the survivor herself.
It must have felt like a vivisection. It essentially was.
The show not only violated the privacy of Tejpal’s alleged victim, but also had its reporters harassing Tejpal’s family, and cameramen zooming into his house, all of which are illegal. They may have well given Tejpal grounds to claim the case has been prejudiced by the media while it is sub-judice.
Having promoted the show with flash cards that read “Videos will shock India, prompt questions”, “Never seen before video tapes accessed” and “Secrets of a dark night are out on Times Now”, the channel branded it as a “super exclusive”, designed to push their TRPs.
The channel played the footage on loop several times, got a reporter who stammered her way through her analysis to weigh in on whether the videos exposed inconsistencies in the victim’s statement, featured Rahul Shivshankar repeating that the “person was very, very young” and that “it is understandable” that someone who had been through such a traumatic experience would get her facts mixed up. All this with no thought for the fact that the case was sub-judice.
By airing the footage, the channel – as pointed out by several lawyers – has violated Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code, which prohibits the printing or publication of anything related to a rape trial without the express permission of the concerned court. The victim’s lawyer Rebecca Mammen John has since confirmed that the channel in fact violated a court order which said no evidence pertaining to the case should be published.
In this particular case, the trial is ‘in-camera’ – closed to both the press and public, all the more reason, if more reason were indeed required, not to publish evidence being used during the trial.
Just when one thought the programme couldn’t get any worse, Rahul Shivshankar introduced us to an array of talking heads – three men with a legal background to bat for Tarun Tejpal, and two women and the host himself to speak for the victim.
It is not clear what the point of the show was. Rahul Shivshankar all but revealed the identity of the victim, with his various descriptions of her age, position in Tehelka, clothes, and actions. He then sifted through the evidence with the panellists, harping on the victim adjusting her underwear, debating whether her statements were true or false, questioning whether Tejpal could build a defence, and playing the footage on loop with commentary.
The panellists, as the show seemed to have intended, went on to discredit the victim and Tejpal in turns, with Rahul Shivshankar vociferously agreeing with the latter camp and screaming about “misanthropic male chauvinism”.
One of the panellists, Advaita Kala, alleged that “friendly media” had been shown the tapes by Tejpal’s legal team to influence public opinion. Rahul Shivshankar pretended to be shocked and horrified that someone else had been allowed to access the tapes, and had allegedly used it to paint Tejpal in a positive light.
Quite like the show about Sunanda Tharoor on Republic TV a few months ago, all that was aired was obtained without consent, proved nothing except the paparazzi tendencies of the channel in question, and was pointless.
Like Arnab Goswami, Rahul Shivshankar was happy to play the crusading knight fighting for justice for a powerless woman who had dared to take on a powerful man. Like Goswami, he only succeeded in coming across as a vampire who would exploit anyone and anything for a few more eyeballs.
The show was greeted with disgust on social media, and the Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) has taken the channel to task for seeking to “conduct a media trial” in a “salacious manner”.
The channel has certainly violated enough laws to merit severe punishment.
Like most channels which make dubious – or outright illegal – choices, it claims the public has the right to know the truth.
Perhaps we do – but after the verdict in the case, which goes to trial this year, is out. The courts have a job. The media cannot do it for them.
Why, then, did we all watch such a despicable show?
Because boycotting a channel is not enough. It is important to call them out on everything they did. We must take them to task, and ensure that the media does not play jury.
India, for one, has no jury system anymore, because the last case which was decided by jury showed just how easily laypeople can be manipulated. It is precisely this weakness on which the media preys.
More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:
Karnataka: Death of democracy
India shining as ecosystems die?
Tamil Nadu: The land of the lawless
When death does not deter
Power play at a time of crisis
A country in denial
The gods have left the temples
What cricketers' reactions to ball-tampering show
Even Chhota Bheem knows our data was never private
No Confidence Motion: Why is the BJP nervous?
Do we really have the right to die with dignity?
Democracy has no place for mobs
The Sridevi South India lost
Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage.