‘Court’ing Trouble
‘Court’ing Trouble

‘Court’ing Trouble

T.K Thomas

Conflict between the judicial system and the media is not a new phenomenon. Nor is it something peculiar to our country.Media coverage has been blamed for being an impediment in the process of the criminal justice system.The process of dispensing justice would also comprise the police and other investigating agencies trying to establish the truth about offences. The media of course have a watch dog function to ensure that there is fairness and impartiality in investigations and delivery of justice. In a democracy people have a right to know. However this right is mostly based on what academicians call the cathartic effect. People want to see that those who commit crimes are punished. People’s interest in coverage of courts is largely confined to criminal cases. If celebrities and leaders are the accused,popular interest would be even more. Media’s job is to inform the public about the facts of a case, details about the investigation and finally the trial in a court and the judgment.

The number of crime serials, films based on crimes and news bulletins carrying the minute details of investigation, eye witness accounts, expert comments, scenes of crime, court or jail where the accused are being takenall prove that there is a large segment of our population keenly interested in such stories. Obviously in order to garner more readers and viewers, media organizations often sensationalize coverage of crime stories; truth and fairness may be casualties in the process.

There have been plenty of instances where the media was blamed by courts and inquiry commissions. The coverage of the assassination of the U.S President John F Kennedy on 22 November 1963 is worth mentioning. This probably was for the first time that the power of television became visible as TV crew vied with the print media to cover the event. When the accused Lee Harvey Oswald was being taken from the prison to the Dallas Police Head quarters there was complete ruckus and media persons heckled Oswald. Police personnel were unable to control the crowd in a narrow corridor.This confusion helped the Dallas night club owner Jack Ruby to whip out a 38 revolver and gravely wound Oswald. Ruby escaped jail and later died of cancer in a hospital.

There were rumors galore about a conspiracy behind the assassinationof Kennedy.PresidentLyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s successor appointed a commission under Chief Justice Earl Warren. The Warren Commission dismissed the conspiracy theory and attributed the killing of Oswald to the rage of Jack Ruby for the Kennedy killing. For the shooting of Oswald the Warren Commission in its report castigated the media for its ‘negative and overzealous role’ in showing live visuals. In fact an entire chapter of the report was dedicated to the role of the media. The report blamed the media for the Oswald killing .The report further pointed out that the media must share responsibility with Dallas Police Department for the “breakdown of law enforcement.” The media had actually committed Oswald even before the trial had commenced by calling him the ‘assassin’.[the New York Times banner headline used that word in its headlines the next day.]

Another major problem witnessed during the Johnson presidency was the passing of the Voting Rights Act on August 6 1965. This created deep schism in the American society that led to racial riots in which large number of people died in New York, Los Angeles, Detroit and several other cities. Johnson appointed Otto Kerner, Governor of Illinois to inquire into the riots. Effects of the mass media on the riots were one of the terms of references of the Kerner Commission which submitted its report in 1968. In its report the Commission came down heavily on the news media and blamed the media for the racial divide. The Kerner Report gave journalistic bias as the main reason for racial misunderstanding.The Commission wanted the media to” improve the coverage representation and employment of minorities”. The report by the Milton Eisenhower Commission that studied the violence that rocked U S cities following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Senator Robert Kennedy in 1968 also blamed the media.

The 1994 O. J. Simpson case again exposed the deep division between the White and African American media. Everyone knew that the celebrated footballer had killed his former wife Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman. But the motivated coverage by the media had divided the nation and it was feared that conviction of Simpson would lead to an African American backlash. Finally the jury pronounced O.J.Simpson‘not guilty’!

Back home after the 26/11 attack in Mumbai, there was a hue and cry about the media’s role in jeopardizing the lives of security forces. One of the channels had even shown an interview with a Pakistani terrorist. A new set of guidelines were proposed by the government which was rejected by the media. Finally self regulation by the media was chosen. There was also an attempt in May 2012 to bring in guidelines by the Supreme Court on how to cover cases. The Editors’ Guild, National Broadcasters’ Association, Indian Newspaper Society etc opposed such a move.

There have also been instances of conflicts between the lawyers and the media. We have seen attacks in Delhi courts and what happened in Kerala in July last year had attracted national attention. It all started when a lawyer, implicated in a molestation case was supported by the Bar Association as some media reports inimical to them had enraged them. So the Media Room in the High Court in Ernakulam was locked up andmedia persons were attacked. There were brawls involving the lawyers and media persons.

The Fourth Estate in India has often courted trouble covering courts. It is essentially on account of the poor understanding of the judicial process and its importance of those who cover courts. A cursory look at the media curricula and the time earmarked for various types of reporting in a lot of media training /teaching institutions proves the reason for this. One’s interaction with large number of media students especially during viva voce has led to the conclusion that most of them are blissfully ignorant about court proceedings,difference between trial courts and appellate courts. Normal legal terminology and jargons like subjudice, SLP, Amicus curie, sine die etc. are indeed Greek and Latin to many of them.

So the latest move of the Delhi High Court Acting Chief Justice Gita Mittal to form a committee to frame guidelines for reporting of court cases is a welcome step. In a note entitled “Media Reporting in Courts-Balancing Free Press,Fair Trialand Integrity of Judicial Proceedings”, made available to the public early last week,Justice Mittal emphasized the importance of the role of the media and its capacity to mould public opinion. She has however stated that media trials have emerged as an alarming consequence of such power. The Acting Chief Justice adds that the ”current state of news reporting in India is such that often several news organizations succumb to the pressures to report in a manner that sensationalize news. There is a growing tendency to selectively report isolated court observations without reference to context”. [Such observations come in the category of ‘Obiter dicta’ a Latin phrase and may not even be materially relevant to the case.]

The recent instances of legal battles involving powerful media houses and celebrities; the competitive nature of reporters from two rival channels flashing observations from the Bench in their respective channels to suite their ends would probably have resulted in the appointment of sucha committee by the High Court.

Justice Mittal further observed that ”With court cases in particular, even slightly erroneous reporting can seriously affect the fairness of court proceedings and the lives of those involved, disproportionately influencing the opinion of the public. It can have disastrous outcomes particularly true of criminal trials. It may be equally true of other cases where lawyers and judges together seek to serve the ends of justice”. The note also clarifies that “this exercise is not one to regulate or control the media. On the contrary it is a participatory endeavor by which certain principles can be evolved which ought to guide media organizations in their coverage of court proceedings and cases”.

A seven member committee will go into issues involved, study international best practices, evolve training modules for court reporters and prepare the coverage norms, according to media reports. It is heartening that a training component is being worked out. The universities with media courses would tremendously benefit if the proposed media training modules are relevantly appropriated.