Too Low? The News Peter, Indrani Mukerjea Sought

Given the graph even the oomphiest of crime stories follows, chances are that the Sheena Bora-Indrani Mukerjea story is now in its fade-out phase. If you look at that ultimate, if sad, determinant of news value these days, it is already declining, if not disappearing, from the trending charts. Soon something else will take its place. We will suddenly remember again that there is firing on the LoC, the armed forces' veterans fight for OROP still continues and one "casualty" after another keeps reaching the hospital as fasting former soldiers collapse, and finally there will be the election campaign for Bihar. But fade as it might, this story will not disappear, maybe not even for decades, given how long legal processes take in our country.

The next stage will be the inevitable mega press conference some time soon by Mumbai Police Commissioner Rakesh Maria, as he claims the police have put the story together. Then the case will be committed to court, trial, and who knows, shortly after the court verdict, there will another book saying what was wrong with it and how the judge "erred" following the trend successfully set now by Avirook Sen's Aarushi.

The points to debate now, therefore, are not so much in the domain of the crime in all its gory, greed, passion, shame, fame and fear-laden detail. These are points that concern us as a society, a democracy, the way our financial wizards function and the state of our news media.

Let's start backwards on these points, with the situation in our news media. We have all been complaining about trivialisation on our TV channels. Here too, Hindi and other Indian language channels are maligned more. In the coverage of the Sheena-Indrani episode, two TV "Breaking News" headlines have stood out and gone viral on social media as an example of the rot.

The first said "Indrani Mukerjea ne sandwich khaya" (Indrani Mukerjea ate a sandwich in police detention), and the other showed a morphed picture of a smiling Indrani behind bars with the "Breaking News" headline "pinjre mein pari" (the fairy in a cage). Both were used to highlight the terminal trivialisation of our news media. It surely made the tragedy of a family, however complex and mixed-up, look like a joke and the subject of family entertainment.

But I am not sure the Mukerjeas can complain too much about it. And this is why I say so.

Much before Indrani came into the picture, Peter Mukerjea had decided to launch the Star TV news channel in Hindi. This was in the wake of Star's break-up with its news content partner NDTV, which had now decided to go on its own. (Disclosure: I have had a professional relationship with NDTV for nearly 15 years now.) He appointed Ravina Raj Kohli as the Hindi news channel's CEO, and they both met me to ask if I would also be willing to do at least a show, if not more, with them.

They wanted to collect a "star-cast" of serious, senior Indian editors, all from the English world but to appear on their Hindi channel. On offer to me, to begin with, was an interview-based show  called "Shekhar ke Shikar". Sure enough, the other two English editors on their radar, M.J. Akbar and Vir Sanghvi, were offered shows called, predictably and respectively, "Akbar ka Durbar" and "Vir ke Tir".

But that sounds so trivial, I said, what is the point of having us boring old editors and making us do shows that sound like entertainment?

It is just branding, I was told, you have to trivialise to attract attention. Grow younger, Shekhar dear, I was advised. I was also told that headlines, brands, a little twist to bait the viewer here and there was not trivialisation, but necessary.

"Isi liye toh tera akhbar nahin bikta," Ravina chided me. "You start working with us, and we will also help you put some sex in it, phir dekh tu."

The fact is that is the kind of attitude they took to their channel, I was a victim collaterally - though while I did not agree to do that show (sometimes you take decent decisions), Star News lured away a whole bunch of very good young people from my staff. Soon enough, the channel collapsed, and they all were left in the lurch. Maybe India was not yet ready for that kind of trivialisation too.

But more importantly, the channel was ultimately bought by Aveek Sarkar, and is now called ABP News. It is extremely successful too.

In one of those ironies, that "pinjre mein pari" Breaking News headline ran last week on ABP News, which was Peter and his team's own baby to begin with.

The next is the state of the financial world and regulatory environment. Many of the key founders of the fund that made the largest investment in the Mukerjeas' venture, New Silk Route, landed in jail for stock markets fraud in America. These include Rajat Gupta and Rajaratnam. Anil Kumar got probation, and at least two others remained under the scanner. So before you say the Mukerjeas ripped off their investors, ask what were these financial whizkids doing?

Murdoch's Star then merrily played with Indian regulation and with restrictions on foreign ownership of news media, setting up dummy holding structures and benami intermediates. Any investigation into the financial aspect of the Indrani story has to begin there. You will have enough prominent Page-3 people under the scanner to bring the story back in the headlines.

And finally, what does it say for our society? That we enjoy watching muck on our TV, but then love to snigger at it as muck and make fun of journalists who bring it to us. And we take the idea of "honour killings" so much in our stride. Because it is something "poor, uncultured, villagers, ganwars" do to their children. But people like us? No, no. That is why, Aarushi's parents could never have killed their child, no matter what the court says. Only Haryana and Western UP Jats kill their daughters for "honour". And if Indrani did that, she probably did so because she was a glamorous, greedy, power-hungry, small-town girl with ambitions way beyond her station.

We need to understand that in that weakest of all moments, when a human being commits a horrible crime, every human being is the same: fearful, greedy, vulnerable, stupid, classless, casteless and guilty. There are no mitigating factors.

(Shekhar Gupta hosts 'Walk the Talk' and 'Chalte Chalte' on NDTV. His weekly column, 'National Interest', currently published in India Today, is in its 20th year.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.