Good article about Sensational Media

Medium Term: Why are we focusing on Maria day after day to the exclusion of other news? (NEW)

Posted By: Vir Sanghvi | Posted On: 08 Jul 2011 10:40 AM

I have been trying to understand the media’s fascination with Maria Susairaj and frankly, I’m a little bemused. It is not that I dispute that the media have a role to play in demanding accountability or campaigning against miscarriages of justice caused by the twin influences of power and money. In fact, the Indian media have often performed a commendable service in these areas.

Let’s take a recent example: the Commonwealth Games scam. We know now that even people in government had serious concerns about the way in which the budget for the Games had multiplied many times without adequate justification and we know also that the then Sports Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar had written to the Prime Minister complaining about the Organising Committee’s spending. (The letters in question were carried by Headlines Today.)

And yet the government did nothing. It was moved to act only after the media exposed scam after scam and forced the authorities to take action. Even then, the big fish may have got away had it not been for the constant pressure from the media.

Or go a little further back in time. When Jessica Lal was murdered, the media explosion had yet to take place. Consequently Manu Sharma’s family was able to manipulate the system so that evidence went missing and the murderer was acquitted. Only after a sustained media campaign was the case re-opened and Manu Sharma convicted.

More recently, it was media pressure that forced the authorities to act against the Haryana police officer who had molested Ruchika Girotra and driven her to suicide while persecuting her family.

In all cases, the media acted on behalf of society so that justice was done and the politically-connected, the powerful and rich did not get away with their crimes. In doing so, the Indian media behaved in a manner that made us all proud.

I’m not sure that the Maria case parallels any of the examples I’ve mentioned. From what I have read, it appears that Maria’s fiancé Jerome arrived at her home in Bombay one day, found her with Neeraj Grover and killed Neeraj in a fit of jealousy. Maria then helped Jerome in cutting Neeraj’s body into pieces. The couple took it to a wooded area and burnt it. Maria later told the police that she had no idea where Neeraj was and continued lying till the Bombay cops solved the case – at which stage she confessed.

It is, by any standards, a horrific story. Maria and Jerome spent over three years in jail while the case was in progress and eventually Jerome was convicted of murder and Maria of destroying evidence.

It is this judgement that is the subject of the current controversy. Critics say that Neeraj’s murder was not a crime of passion but was a case of cold-blooded premeditated murder. They may be right but there is no compelling evidence to believe that Jerome acted out of anything other than jealous rage and the Court, which heard all the evidence, rejected the charge of premeditation.

Maria’s case is a little more complicated. The police were unable to provide any evidence that she planned to kill Neeraj or even, that she assisted Jerome with the murder. What does seem clear – by her own admission – is that she helped cut up the body and lied to protect Jerome. The normal reaction would have been to call the police once Jerome had killed Neeraj. Instead, she helped cover up the crime.

The Court found her guilty of this and gave her the maximum sentence under the law – three years. But as she had already served more than three years, this means that she is now free.

My reaction in hearing of the verdict was one of indignation. It can’t be right that somebody who helped chop up a body should get only three years in jail. Clearly, the law needs to be changed.

But – and this is crucial – I did not believe that the judge had been biased or unfair. I did not believe that political pressure had been brought to bear on the police or the Court. I did not believe that Maria got a three year sentence only because she was powerful and well-connected.

In those vital respects I did not see a parallel with the celebrated cases – Nitish Kataria, Jessica Lal etc. – where the media have run campaigns. This was a judgement and sentence that I found offensive. But it was not – at least if one goes by the available evidence – one that was bought or manipulated; it was not yet another example of how the politically influential can twist the system for their own ends.

So, here’s my question: why has this judgement got the full Jessica Lal treatment? Why are the channels full of this case? Why are we focusing on Maria day after day to the exclusion of other news? Why are Neeraj’s parents being encouraged to weep on TV and demand justice for their son?

I don’t know the answer.

But I do have some theories. Could it be that the sensational elements of the case appeal to the basest instincts in us: a crime of passion, sexual infidelity, a body chopped into bits etc.? Could it be that we find this murder more interesting than most because it seems even stranger than most fictional murders on TV and in the movies?

And then, of course, there’s Maria herself. She was a Kannada actress and a model. She is telegenic and fits the image of the femme fatale who first sleeps with a man and then assists her fiancé in bumping him off.

Could it be that the reason this case has received so much media attention is because it has all the elements of a pot-boiler: film actress moll, jealous fiancé, body cut up and disposed off in the woods etc.?

You’d have to be crazy to deny that if Maria was a hideously ugly middle-aged woman, the media would be less fascinated by her. It is the excitement of covering a story where a glamorous model-actress is at its centre that has really got the media going.

It is the same kind of fascination and excitement that has caused Ram Gopal Varma to try and cast Maria in a movie. And it is exactly the same kind of phenomenon at work when reality shows try and get her to star in their new series.

I’ll be frank. I have no real problem with much of this. We live in a celebrity-oriented age where notoriety and fame are indistinguishable. The media (TV, press, movies etc.) all love sensation. A good-looking girl always helps the ratings. We may not like the sensationalism but it is a fact of life.

What worries me is something else. When the media try and project a straightforward ratings-oriented story as a campaign for justice on par with say, the Jessica Lal case, then I begin to get alarmed. There are relatively few (if any) parallels between this case and the big campaigns that the Indian media have so successful and commendably waged.

My fear is that if we turn every sex-and-murder story (especially when it involves a model-actress) into a campaign for justice – when all we are after are the ratings – then we will cheapen the effect of any future campaigns against real injustice. This kind of energy should be reserved for the fight against the powerful, the politically influential and well-connected. It should not be wasted on sexy blood-and-jealousy stories.

So cover Maria all you want. Just don’t pretend that you are fighting some national battle on behalf of the weak and helpless for justice.

Admit you are doing it for the most basic reason of all: because it sells.

Pic courtesy: Hindustan Times

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