The Indrani Mukerjea case saw the media indulging in wanton sensationalism and kite-flying in the mad race for TRPs. Why were the basic tenets of journalism not followed?
By Ajith Pillai
YOU could call it a TRP and readership-driven news blackout. For days on end after Indrani Mukerjea’s sensational arrest on August 25 for the alleged murder of her sister, Sheena Bora (later revealed to be her daughter), the media has been on an overdrive. Undoubtedly, the drama that unfolded in Mumbai had a formidable Page 3 star cast. Indrani was the second wife of former Star TV CEO, Peter Mukerjea. Not only were the star couple part of the swish party circuit of Delhi and Mumbai but were in the news in 2007 when they launched the high-profile INX Media Network with Indrani as the CEO. The couple later exited INX after it ran up huge losses in 2009. The glamorous Indrani, to use a popular description then, was as much a media tycoon as her celebrated husband.
It needs no elaboration that a multi-layered murder mystery that involves the rich and famous holds tremendous public interest. But the coverage that was unleashed, raises a pertinent question—should one murder case have been given such undue focus that it virtually eclipsed —for days together—all other news? And was the media allowing itself to be consumed completely by one story? Was it inventing new angles, drawing its own conclusions and labeling Indrani as an evil murderer, a bad mother and using words like debauched without any proof?
It was not as if news of the murder surfaced in a silly season where there was a dearth of stories. The violent Patel community agitation in Gujarat calling for reservation and its immediate ramification on Bihar waiting to go to the polls was an issue that needed to be urgently addressed at length by the media. There was also the long-term national impact on caste and Mandal politics that could well be the fallout of the Hardik Patel-led flare-up. And what about Modi’s much-touted Gujarat model of a peaceful and orderly state? This was by any stretch a news development that needed top priority but it was bypassed for a murder mystery.
On August 24, a day before Indrani’s arrest, the Sensex tanked 1,642 points as a ripple effect of the Chinese stock market crash. The impact on the Indian and world economy was perceptible even ten days after the fall. However, once the murder came to light, the state of the economy was edged out of the primary focus, at least in mainstream papers and news channels. So too was infiltration from across the border, rising onion prices and the ongoing One Rank One Pension agitation by the armed forces veterans.
Journalists of the old school would have found the media coverage of the Sheena Bora case flawed on various basic counts. The press was moving heaven and earth to keep the coverage going. In doing so, it resorted to reporting half-truths, untruths and speculation. It interviewed anyone who knew the Mukerjeas professionally and socially. In fact, once reporters began tapping into Indrani’s family in Assam, there was no end to the living and dead skeletons tumbling out from her cupboard—ex-husband and live-in companion who claimed he fathered Sheena and her brother Mikhail, Sheena’s acquaintances and classmates in school and college. All were tracked down by TV cameras. The fact that Sheena was in a relationship with Rahul, Peter’s son from an earlier marriage, added a new twist that had to be explored. Theories galore, some conveniently manufactured in the newsrooms by armchair detectives, were paraded as news. Had journalists forgotten the basic ethics of their profession?
MILKING THE STORY
Manika Raikwar Ahirwal, editor (Integration) with NDTV, has blogged about many in her channel who wondered why full capital was not being squeezed out of a sensational story. Manika was among those who were quick to point out to colleagues that though it was sensational, the case should not be the “only story we covered”. Though she claims her view prevailed, it surprised many. “In a newsroom full of television sets beaming every movement of the Mukerjeas and anyone remotely connected to them, many wired youngsters on the desk simply couldn’t fathom why, like many others, we didn’t spend every second of every minute devoted to it,” she observed.
A commissioning editor of another channel contacted by Views On News admitted there was no question of giving any other news priority when orders from the top were to leverage more and more from the Sheena murder saga. “It was a mad race for TRPs,” he said.
Indeed, it was this mad race which pushed the media to explore every angle possible. Even the “Jab They Met” moment when Peter was first introduced to Indrani was recalled by the loquacious Suhel Seth for the benefit of TV viewers and in an “exclusive” column to The Telegraph, Calcutta. It was at the Library Bar of the President Hotel that Seth was ensconced with friends—including the late Murli Deora—on that fateful evening when ad guru Alyque Padamsee walked in with the glamorous Indrani. Peter was floored. Three months later, he announced his wedding to Indrani.
This critical input and other insights into Indrani’s character (“She didn’t look like someone capable of killing her daughter.”) were offered by those who knew her. From Vir Sanghvi we learnt that the lady had talked about a troubled childhood and that she was molested by her step-father. There was even a suggestion in some channels and social media that Sheena was perhaps born of a forced incestuous encounter with her father/step-father. This was later refuted but it dragged Indrani’s 80-year-old father into the sordid story.
With so many falsities and kite-flying, not only did the basic facts (Sheena’s body had yet to be identified and no motive was found for the murder in 2012) get obscured but whodunit conclusions were dished out every evening at prime time and in newspapers, adding to the confusion. The coverage soon reached a point where any intelligent reader/viewer would have simply given up. The story twisted and re-twisted by the media became too complicated to keep track of.
Unable to keep the story moving forward, TV anchors resorted to dishing out banalities with as much authority as they could. However, there was a false ring to it. Sample this: “Someone must certainly be lying”; “There is a murdered body or the remains of it—we presume it is Sheena’s—if Indrani did not commit the crime, someone else must have”; and “The truth has to surface sometime. It will be our endeavor to hasten that process.” Then, there was the loaded question to Peter Mukerjea by Arnab Goswami on Times Now: “Do you believe your wife is the murderer?” The answer was an exclusive: “Certainly not, at this point I find it impossible to believe that. She certainly never indicated to me that she’s got some kind of a murderer’s instinct in her character.”
So why was the media so obsessed by one story? The simplistic explanation being given is that it was only delivering what readers and viewers wanted. Senior journalist Shekhar Gupta summed it up in his column: “Waiting for a story to unfold, for you to be sure of facts and fairness, is now passe. But that isn’t because journalism has now moved away from old-fashioned values by itself. It is because our audiences, the paying ‘janata’ as Bollywood calls them, are not complaining. Our hypocrisy is not just matched by our audiences’—it is, in fact, a response to it.”
But can wanton sensationalism to attract eyeballs justify the blacking out of news or low priority being given to important news events? If newspapers and TV channels are seen as just another product like, say toothpaste, this level of reasoning is perhaps applicable. But media owners as well as editors also happen to don the mantle of responsible journalism when they find it convenient. But they were obviously wearing their marketing bi-focal once the Indrani virus took over. There was nothing level-headed or balanced about the news coverage for days together.
This is not to say that the murder mystery should have been ignored. It couldn’t have been since there was bound to be interest in it given the people involved. But to bombard the readers and viewers with fuddled theories and half-baked allegations amounted to disseminating misinformation. When you have no story to tell, you should have the courage to stand up and quietly admit it. Fake news is, after all, not Breaking News. In fact, it is not news in any sense of the word.