Of judicial standards and media responsibility

Published : Aug 05, 2000 00:00 IST


SUSPICION is the upas tree under whose shade reason fails and justice dies, said Ingersoll. Some journalists who 'stoop to conquer' abuse their power and sprinkle noxious suspicion over half-truths and fob off as final conclusions what are unsustainable verdicts. This prurience-persiflage-populism syndrome afflicts rags, not great journals. The gullible public, for whom reading time is short and masala material is morning's pleasure, consume as truth such fact-fiction concoctions without serious reflect ion. News reporters and columnists, at times unwittingly, indulge in exaggerations and even inventions, if the prey is important enough to generate sensationalism or occupies commanding heights of power. Character assassination, cleverly disguised, is al lergy to standard journals and any blend of veracity and mendacity, even if such a touch may capture circulation, is anathema. Tennyson rightly versified the injustice of half-truths being served as whole truths: "That a lie which is all a lie may be met and fought with outright,/ But a lie which is part a truth is a harder matter to fight."

There is another class of media literature, sensitive to high standards of journalism and sterling values, progressive perspectives and causes promotive of humanity's tryst with destiny. Such journals are few in number and Frontline is in the fron t line of this class in India and abroad. Thoughtful articles, radical presentations and lofty streams which elevate the human mind and defend the new world democratic order are the hallmark of N. Ram's fortnightly. Frontline has commanded my resp ect because every page I read makes me wiser and more reflective. This response of mine, poignantly written, is designed to bring home my humble view of one 'investigative' article in Frontline (issue of August 4, 2000; page 44).

THE author has transformed available material into journalistic serendipity while it is virtually a rehash of what was published earlier by a weekly called Kalchakra in Delhi. Journalistic grace and media ethics insist on minimum natural justice i n the sense of lending an opportunity for explanation to the target of the article affected by a seeming exposure of something unworthy. She may have a plausible reply. It is not fair to the victim, more so if he/she is available in Delhi (where the arti cle was written) and happens to be the wife of a high functionary.

I have no special brief for the robed brethren, some of whom are guilty of hubris, bias and venal traits. Judges too, like Caesar's wife, must be above suspicion. Their pontificatory ipse dixits and intimidatory contempt power should not silence < I>truthful disclosure. But the Press is indubitably accountable to society. When great journals, maintaining high principles, jettison restraint and responsibility and walk into the market of popular circulation one wonders whether Oscar Wilde's pres cription has fascinated them: "Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess!" Winston Churchill told the House of Commons that judges "are required to conform to standards of life" and conduct far more severe and restricted than that of ordinary people.

In lesser measure, editors and reporters of noble media may have to abide by this Churchillian prescription. "No public institution, or the people who operate it, can be above public debate" (Warren E. Burger). Press freedom is felonious while abusing pe n power because the pen is more lethal than the gun. The article which appeared in Frontline, made averments that mired the reputation of the Chief Justice of India, A.S. Anand, and is not quite becoming of Frontline. It made no personal im putation on him as Judge but roused suspicion by narrating incidents relating to his wife and some property.

V. Venkatesan, the journalist in question, has displayed superb skill, exalting marshalling of slender facts into the status of a verdict. The title, 'Under a cloud', immediately traps the reader's attention. The next lead sentence is opium: "A case invo lving a land dispute between Mala Anand, the wife of the Chief Justice of India..." But as a potential protective mantle it adds: "although the Chief Justice himself is not directly involved in the matter." Is he indirectly involved and, if so, was his o ffice an influence to achieve an injustice? I am surprised at a needle of suspicion without a plain imputation, which is the concealed object. The purpose is clear from the opening quotation in the article from Chief Justice Anand himself: "If a judge de cides wrongly out of motives of self-promotion, he is no less corrupt than a judge... financial gain." The blunt hint is that the article aims at a corrupt act associated with Chief Justice Anand. Why camouflage the intent in quotes? Why refer to a judic ial code of ethics unless the article is geared to unfolding Anand's alleged quasi-corrupt behaviour?

The writer, aware of a confidential, informal judicial code of ethics, violates the rules of professional journalism in failing to inquire from Mala Anand, who is very much in Delhi, whether she would respond to the allegations he has sourced from Kal chakra. Is it fair play to damn without the charity of asking the lady for her version, if any? If she declines, okay, you go ahead. What is the link between the Chief Justice and Mala Anand's property case? The writer is aware of the contempt power and circumvents it by hitting the lady while he cutely avoids the Judge. Kalchakra, on which he heavily relies, is bold and blunt and ready to face the penalty from the two justices. But this article is a study in contrast.

There is a grave charge, with frightful details, against Justice J.S. Verma made by the same Kalchakra and referred to in Frontline. The Frontline writer narrates the episode and wonders why the court failed to act. His investigative pursuit pauses without research into the alleged Verma bribery anecdote. Afraid? Discrimination? I, for one, know Justice Verma for a few years. His great performance in the hawala cases has made history and him a hero in the annals of the court. Indeed , public interest litigation found its finest hour and acquired a new dimension after Justice Verma made the executive and the mafia remain in panic by his court proceedings. Nevertheless, this article retreats from investigation into Verma while it hunt s for Anand. Why spare one and chase the other is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma!

Indeed, more intriguing is the fact that the article formally exonerates Justice Anand right at the top and chases Mala Anand, who is unable to speak because she is not contacted by the author. His visit to Gwalior is not equal to asking Mala what she ha d to say on the materials gathered. He would then have learned that a suit was filed long ago by Mala Anand against the Madhya Pradesh government regarding the land in dispute. She won the case and the State, dissatisfied, filed an appeal and lost it. Wanting to pursue the matter against Mala Anand, the government filed a second appeal and lost it again, and then a special leave petition was filed, which proved infructuous. It must be noted that all this took place a few years ago. Is it suggeste d that the trial judge, the appellate judge and the High Court were all influenced by Anand? Anand was not a Supreme Court Judge at all then. Is it the case that the Madhya Pradesh government colluded with Mala Anand? In which case why did the government contest the suit, file an appeal and a second appeal and a special leave petition? All these facts baffle one's understanding. The article makes much of a Commission to examine Mala Anand. Those who know the Procedure Code know this to be a simple discr etionary order. It is her evidence, not the Commission, that is relevant.

The effect here is to create irrelevant suspicion. Journalists must remember that jaundice mars one's objective vision. In more than one place, the writer evades positive assertions of his findings and merely states, "according to informed sources" or it is "alleged", and such like expressions which responsible journalism will be allergic to. The 'unkindest cut of all' is that for two years after everything was over and months after Kalchakra has published the charges against the two judges, the writer essentially discovered nothing more than what Kalchakra had mentioned earlier.

PERHAPS I am sad to say these things because Mr. N. Ram is a great human being and Frontline, the marvellous educator of the public.

Before concluding, I must make it perfectly plain that I am not wholly happy with the Mala Anand matter although it is outrageous for anyone to suggest that three courts and the Madhya Pradesh State colluded to help Mala Anand gain enormous wealth throug h some subterranean influence of her husband who was not anywhere in the Supreme Court!

Both Verma and Anand have been great judges. But even Homer nods. There may be black spots in the sun and in the moon. I feel distressed at the Kalchakra saga about these two judges. To my brethren on the Bench may I bend and beg and biblically me ntion: Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? Accountability is applicable and transparency is necessary whenever our public interest is vested - in the journalist or the judge.

The Everest stature of the Indian judicature is the guardian of the constitutional order. To plunge it into an imbroglio, or separate it from the people by an iron curtain, is a misfortune, which we should do our best to avert.

Editor's Note: With reference to the fairness principle in journalism, we wish to point out that Frontline's Special Correspondent contacted Mala Anand's legal counsel for a full response before the publication of the article. The Chief Justice's wife is still free to exercise her right to reply, in a relevant and fact-based way, in these columns.

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