Out of the Box 4: How Crime Coverage Becomes Lottery for the Press
A representational image of a crime scene.
A representational image of a crime scene.(Photo: iStock)

Out of the Box 4: How Crime Coverage Becomes Lottery for the Press

Preface: When there was only one government broadcaster Doordarshan, Aroon Purie and Madhu Trehan – in a quest to bring real pictures to people – created Newstrack. Here, a small band of ambush journalists, led by Madhu Trehan, planted the first seeds of independent reporting.Newstrackeventually became Aaj Tak TV channel that we see today.

Writer Nutan Manmohan was part of Newstrack’s first batch of self trained TV journalists who experimented with ways to do investigative journalism at a time when no precedents existed. This series celebrates ‘the unexpected and the unusual’ in that journey.

Read the first three blogs in her series here:

Out of the Box Part 1: Of Reporting and Romance
Out of the Box Journalism Part 2: Be Alsatians, Not Pomeranians!
Out of the Box Part 3: Entering the ‘Neverland’ of Journalism!

With the launch date of Newstrack coming close, dry runs for edits and anchoring started. We all shifted to Competent House building in CP’s middle circle above a car repair centre. On the second floor of this building, were two rows of open cabins encasing a tiny recording room with an equally small edit table set up. The studios‘s heavy soundproof door hardly cut out any noise, but improved our muscle tone and made us all feel like we were doing something very important. The door’s Soviet Era double-glass encased round peep-hole made it look like there was a nuclear reactor inside!

Raghav Bahl, one of Newstrack’s most popular anchors, would drop in on shoot days. He would jam with co anchor Madhu Trehan on stories and both of them would punch out the script in an hour’s time, each intro fitting the story’s spirit like a glove.

As a cub reporter, I was happy being the spare tyre wherever needed. If the production assistant was missing, I would handle the anchor wardrobe – which was really a glamorous misnomer for ironing the tie and the coat lapels. If the make-up person ditched, I would brush in the pan foundation on the anchor’s face.
A photograph of the author in her cub reporter days.
A photograph of the author in her cub reporter days.
(Photo Courtesy: Nutan Manmohan)

Camera person Ajmal Jami once joked to Raghav Bahl that a budding crime reporter now recognised all the special markings on his face and could falsely implicate him in some mess! Raghav looked spooked about the newly apparent internal security threat. I was spooked too, because I was thinking of how TN Ninan – the then editor of India Today would react. I had air brushed his face too a week ago! So, just in case my journalistic career did not take off, I could be a moll – yanee Mona Darling? Well, no harm in having equally lofty and aspirational fall back plans!

Jungles are Kinder Than Cities...

Within days of being seated at the exit, I was told that an orphanage in Delhi had a new curious inmate. I should go without a crew and check out the story. What I saw broke my heart. Tied to the charpoy with a dog chain was the most pathetic and heart wrenching sight – a six-year-old boy with crazed eyes, pointed incisors, claw-like toes and fingers turned inwards. He moved on four legs and made a noise if anyone went too close to him. Left to himself he would howl to be released.

No one around had the expertise to tackle this most unusual being. This was a human child brought up possibly in the company of wolves – a rare half-human half-wolf! He had wandered out of the forest and was handed over to the police by villagers. I was shaken by his pathos and his helplessness. His story reminded me of Mowgli’s, except that this was not a pretty picture.

I choked. My lack of exposure, my inability to step back and deal with human misery that one often encounters in journalism, my utter loss of composure made me abandon the boy and the story.

But, here’s the thing. The projects we do not complete – keep coming back to us. If I had kept my nerve and done the story, perhaps it could have helped reunite the boy with his family or facilitate his rehabilitation, but I failed him. ‘Mowgli’ (as I had begun to think of him) had come to the city but found no Bagheera or Baloo to help him. Jungles are kinder than cities.

No one in the office asked me, nor did I tell them about how I had been ‘bowled out on a duck’ on my first journalistic foray. The learning was, that we reporters would surely be confronted with unhappy, even deeply disturbing sights. But we would have to steady our minds and do our job. That’s our best bet to help the victims.

For almost a month after abandoning ‘Mowgli’, much like a runaway soldier I had mounting uncertainty about my capacity to be a reporter. My confidence was shaken and I was not hoping for another opening. But soon enough there was a need to build a bank of stories that could be used once the video magazine hit the market. Within this month, the most riveting ‘love’ crime episode of that time happened in Delhi.

Indu Arora – a resident of a conservative quarter in Inderpuri was accused of killing her two children, Sunny and Shikha – apparently in a bid to be with her lover Ajit Seth. I had been cutting out clips of this story so I was told to check it out.

My first foray with a full camera crew was to Tis Hazari Court on a day when Indu Arora was being produced in front of the judge. As she got down from the police van, a huge mob of men descended on her, heckling and whistling at the ‘killer mom’. Many made rude kissing sounds and offered ‘their services’ to her.

To a cub reporter – on her first field crew day – it was an overpowering scene. My research clippings played in my head like a slide and I realised that, even before the trial had begun, she had been presumed guilty. She was not being reviled by the public for murder – but for sexual promiscuity.

I jostled my way through the crowd to look at the lead cast. Indu Arora seemed to be in a numbed daze – barely aware of her surroundings. Her husband Harish Arora bore the look of a man ashamed of his wife. The most interesting face was that of Ajit Seth, alias Aji – the so-called lover. He had a smile on his face! Would a man who so loved a woman, have no remorse now for her suffering? I wondered.

How a Woman Accused was Treated by the Press

I came back to the office and rearranged my clippings in chronological order. I noticed that from the first day of the crime itself, the police had briefed the press about the mother being the ‘prime suspect’. From then on, there was no stopping the press. The latter were having a field day flying muck about a ‘crime of passion’. There were detailed descriptions of how Indu used to meet Ajit on the sly and how the children were an obstacle to their love sessions. Who was witness to these so-called ‘love sessions’? Who was the source? No one. But this, and other explicit material were flying off the shelf with Indu Arora’s face on the cover page.

(It is important to mention that the mob scene that we had witnessed at Tis Hazari on our first field visit was not an exceptional event. We saw a replay of it every time Indu Arora was brought to the court. On one particular day, someone even spat on her face. This had much to do with the frenzy whipped up by the press.)

We decided to begin at the beginning. We visited the school and chatted up the staff, coming to know that the kids used to either walk home or take a ride home with a ‘Babulal rickshaw-wala’ every day. Scouting around, we finally found our man getting his shoe repaired. Our camera person Bharat Raj and sound person Uday Simha set up the camera at a discreet distance as we began a relaxed conversation about his life.

Soon, he was at ease and began to chat about the children. What he said next gave me goose bumps. He said that Ajit would stop the rickshaw and treat the children to an orange bar ice-cream on various occasions. So obviously, Ajit was tracking the kids and trying to befriend them. On the penultimate day, Ajit had asked the kids to accompany him for a ‘special treat’. This was the last time the kids were sighted.

We then proceeded to follow (all the while tracking our proceedings on a camera) the entire crime, including the spot where the kids had been tied and burnt to death. Remains of half-burnt clothes, hair and body parts still remained... What kind of person would tie little children and burn them alive? It was clear – this was not a ‘love‘ crime. It was an act of ‘hate’.

Thanking Babulal, I asked him if he had given a similar testimony to the police and other reporters. He told me that no one had asked him his version until now! Babulal’s inputs were, in fact, a game changer. Visiting the key sites and talking to the people related to a case is not rocket science. It’s just basic reporter protocol.

If the kids had not even reached home and were last seen with Ajit Seth, he was as much a prime suspect as Indu Arora. But there were no mobs heckling him. There were no accusations of immoral sexual behaviour. It was a stark lesson in the patriarchal strains that often taint criminal investigations.

My subsequent interviews confirmed that alternative tracks had to be investigated by the police. One assumption was that, perhaps Ajit was stalking Indu and had bumped off the kids when she did not respond. This might even have been an abrupt end to an extramarital affair.

Whatever be the truth, as a citizen, Indu Arora ought to be treated innocent – until proved guilty. This was her legal right. But every newspaper, magazine and TV report had used her mug to write salacious gossip.

This revealed less about the accused and more about the press. No, not just the reporters on the beat but about the women and men who sit in the corner offices of newsrooms, using every trick in the trade to create erotic crime content to get higher sales and TRP ratings. Converting ‘presumed innocent’ into ‘presumed guilty’ is a financial lottery for the press.

Today, the top five television shows have explicit crime content that actually coaches the audience, step by step, on ‘how to commit sexual crimes’. For every Nirbhaya, Chhoti Nirbhaya and Chhutki struggling in the intensive care unit with their stories written of, revealing the most salacious details, we have much to thank the current crop of commissioning producers and CEOs in their silk blue suits and tan leather shoes. They make sure that their highly provocative content is shared as short clips across India on WhatsApp – transforming age-old kinships of extended families and neighbourhoods into predatory behaviour.

Back to the Indu Arora Story – Newstrack’s coverage of this case created a contrarian buzz and may have helped in the bail that she got soon after the release of the story. After a three-year trial, Ajit Seth was granted life imprisonment for the pre-meditated murder of two minors. Indu Arora was acquitted.

But did she ever recover from the psychological lynching that she, as an undertrial, suffered from the press? I think about that every time new incidents happen and I see how women victims and accused are treated so very differently by the press.

(Nutan Manmohan has been Vice President Star TV, India Bureau Chief Focus Asia, Star World, HK, Contributing Producer National Geographic Channel, USA. Her 26 part Children’s Jasoosi series V3 will release on Facebook this year.)

(The Quint, in association with BitGiving, has launched a crowdfunding campaign for an 8-month-old who was raped in Delhi on 28 January 2018. The baby girl, who we will refer to as 'Chhutki', was allegedly raped by her 28-year-old cousin when her parents were away. She has been discharged from AIIMS hospital after undergoing three surgeries, but needs more medical treatment in order to heal completely. Her parents hail from a low-income group and have stopped going to work so that they can take care of the baby. You can help cover Chhutki's medical expenses and secure her future. Every little bit counts. Click here to donate.)

(Participate in the second edition of The Quint's My Report Debate and win Rs 10,000. Write an essay on how to fix India and Pakistan's relationship. Submit now)

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