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The developments since August 25, when the Mumbai police claimed they had solved a sensational murder case, would make any media watcher feel dizzy. Like a crime thriller that unfolds in deliberately calibrated detail, the Sheena Bora murder case has unraveled, holding the media and through it “the nation” in thrall. Apparently.
Who cares if the Patidars of Gujarat are screaming murder, drawing comparisons to Jallianwala Bagh in the way the police attacked participants at their massive demonstrations across Gujarat to demand reservations. Or that representatives of the Indian army continue to protest and demand One Rank One Pension, one of many promises that the prime minister has failed to keep. Or that apparently another Pakistani has been caught sneaking across the border. Or that the Chinese have successfully shaken up the Indian stock market. All this separately or together counts for little when we have a story of a gory murder committed three years ago that neither we nor the Mumbai police knew anything about until now.
And what exactly have the police found? There is no body, only remnants of a burnt corpse found three years ago. Some samples, we are told, were sent to the forensic laboratory in Mumbai. Then we heard that these samples had been misplaced. Now we hear they have been found and some more discovered at the same spot. And these have now been sent for DNA testing, a process that takes some time. Until this is done, no one, not even the Mumbai police, knows for sure whether these body parts belong to the missing woman Sheena Bora.
Apart from this the police case has been built on the confession of a man who says he was the driver of the main accused, Indrani Mukherjea. The confession, on the police’s own admission, was extracted through extreme pressure. We can only imagine what that could be. And we also know that such confessions can be retracted.
A good story
Of course, such minor details are immaterial when there is such a good story to report. Or to distract the media from generous amounts of speculation and conjecture. Or the all-too-familiar character assassination considered appropriate, one presumes, as we are discussing murder.
So we are informed, thanks to the endless debates on television, that the main accused is a heartless mother, a “social climber” from a “small town” (people in Guwahati ought to be really offended at this). Arnab Goswami informed us that Indrani is “a crazy and evil genius” and “maverick murderer” but not a “psychopath”. An employee from NewsX, the channel that was set up by Indrani and her husband Peter Mukherjea, was quoted in the Times of India saying that there was something diabolical about Indrani Mukherjea's eyes. And actor Rishi Kapoor tweeted that Indrani Mukherjea is “a real weirdo”.
NDTV has boasted that it is against tabloidisation of the news. But in this instance, it has done precisely that. In a programme titled “The Indrani Files”, Barkha Dutt asked: “Do we have to reserve judgment? How deep are we going into the lurid details of this saga?” But then, she proceeded to do precisely that. The others on her panel liberally dissected Indrani Mukherjea’s character and refused to even consider that she has not yet been proven guilty. Barkha Dutt asks one of her panelists, Anil Dharkar: “Is this a murder that the media must investigate?” He replied: “This is a murder that the police must investigate.”
Yet as in the past, the media is all set to investigate this case, and thereby help the Mumbai police crack a case that it claims it has already solved. So India Today TV went into Indrani Mukherjea’s former husband Sanjeev Khanna’s Facebook page and tried to read all kinds of meaning into his posts on the days before and after the alleged murder. Khanna has reportedly confessed to abetting in the alleged murder.
The media are interviewing everyone from the grandfather to Sheena Bora’s friends to Peter Mukherjea to Bora’s brother Mikhail. Arnab Goswami asked Peter Mukherjea, “You believe your wife is the murderer?” “Certainly not," replies Peter. What did he expect the man to answer?
Even Karan Thapar, otherwise considered one of the more balanced anchors, cannot resist the running strip under his programme “To The Point” on India Today TV that says it all: “Femme Fatale Indrani’s many truths.”
This, of course, is only a small part of a story where there is romance, deceit, cover-ups and a hundred unanswered questions.
Should the media pay so much attention to this one case? One cannot argue that it should not because it has everything that people like to read. Crime is popular reading; note the growing number of pages devoted to crime in most newspapers. A high-society murder case like this is automatically page one material. The murder of a dalit girl in the backwaters of Maharashtra is not.
But what about proportionality? Is that something worth discussing? How much space and attention should you give to one story at the cost of others? Indian TV has never been the best example of either balance or proportion. And here you have another example.
Given this, it is amusing to watch media persons on TV channels trying hard to justify the over-the-top coverage of this story as a “duty” of the media to keep pressure that the case is solved. Really? By repeating what is already being revealed by family members or leaked by the police, by sweating over conjectures, is the media really helping to solve this case? Some commentators have even drawn comparisons between this case and the Jessica Lal case to justify media hyper activism.
Instead, is it not our job as journalists to ask the police some difficult questions? Why is Mumbai Police Commissioner Rakesh Maria not asked to explain why he has gone public with a case when even the DNA analysis on the suspected remnants of Sheena Bora’s body has not yet been done? What was the hurry? In any other country, would a police team rush to the media before it had a watertight case, particularly when the people involved are well-heeled and can employ smart defence lawyers? Instead of asking questions, the media is devouring every morsel that is thrown out by the police or anyone willing to speak about the case.
There have been innumerable discussions about trial by media. Each time something like this happens – Arushi, Sunanda Tharoor, others – there is a little bit of contemplation, and then business as usual. Norms or the ethics of reporting on crime have never been seriously addressed.
The media’s obsession with sensation, with news that sells, with whatever feeds the bottom line, has ultimately won over any notion of proportion or balance.