If WhatsApp was a TV news channel, it would be number one week after week, by a large margin. That perhaps explains the collective orgasm among the other legitimate news channels to emulate the WhatsApp model of disseminating news on Indian actor Sridevi's death. Which is to put out unverified information, often a piece of gossip or the work of an imaginative, jobless mind, as news.
“Forwarded as received” is the new “Breaking News.” There is no caveat of “Believe it at your own risk.” Nor a warning sign that says “Watching news channels can be injurious to your sensibilities.”
From a Sunday that was spent in an entire nation collectively mourning one of its most loved artists, India moved to a Monday when Sridevi's lifestyle, habits, quality of marital life, all came under the scanner. For an actor who lived her life with dignity, there was no dignity after she was gone.
All hell broke loose when “accidental drowning”, and not cardiac arrest, was mentioned as the real reason for Sridevi's death. Once the authorities in Dubai said there were “traces of alcohol” in her blood, a fair bit of moralistic posturing also kicked in. It betrayed a lack of understanding that “traces of alcohol” was not synonymous with being drunk, or worse, alcoholism. A news channel dug out clips from Sridevi's films in which she is seen with a glass of liquor, to add visual impact to the story.
Throwing the basics of journalism to the winds, none of the theories that were put out in the public domain were based on facts. They were innuendos masquerading as truths and half-truths. Out to satisfy the collective thirst of the same nation that had 24 hours ago wept for Sridevi.
Panelists adorning tiny windows on television screens decided to indulge in a fair bit of navel gazing. That, to one's horror, included former police officers who speculated on what could have happened inside the hotel room in Dubai. This, without a shred of primary evidence or know-how of the layout of the room.
By prime time, the content on shows started getting more ludicrous with several homegrown Sherlock Holmeses coming to the party. A cardiologist on a show and a former diplomat on a neighbouring channel wanted to know who filled the bath tub in which Sridevi drowned. A channel alluded to an injury due to a fall, while a film celebrity wanted to know if water had splashed outside the bathtub. Someone else claimed the channel's teams had not slept for three days.
An anchor suspected something fishy because the word ‘drowning’ in the report by the Director of Preventive Medicine in Dubai had been spelt as ‘Drawning.’ The reputation of Dubai police was also called suspect because, after all, they look the other way when the likes of Dawood Ibrahim come visiting to the Emirates. Though the hashtag said #SrideviDeathMystery, anchors and guests were freely using the word ‘murder.’
What does this say about us as a nation and our television media? While the coverage with anchors placed in digitally created bathrooms with bathtubs and a wine glass as props has come in for a fair share of criticism – and rightly so – the fact of the matter is also that the media is also catering to the Indian viewer’s greed for sensational stuff. Because “kuch to gadbad hai” is part of the mindset, and the more over-the-top the conspiracy theories are, the better they are for garnering Television Rating Points (TRPs).
Apologists for the Indian media would argue that it is caught between a rock and a hard place. If a channel chooses to focus only on facts and not convert the story into a lurid soap opera, it stands to lose out in the race for TRPs. Because let’s face it: on Monday, many of us, too, flocked to patronise the channels dishing out such fare. So how is the viewer any less complicit in encouraging channel editors to go ballistic on this one story?
Two, there is a significant mobile-loaded population in India that treats WhatsApp forwards as gospel truth. These are the people who would then put out the same unsubstantiated gossip on their Facebook page with the title ‘The real news that your sold out media won't tell you.’ Damned if you put it out, damned if you don't put it out.
The pressure of getting hits on its website is the bane of any digital media. That explains why a media outlet put out a clickbait tweet asking “Is Jahnvi inconsolable?” (Jahnvi being Sridevi's elder daughter.) It is not a mistake by a junior on the newsdesk. These are hooks to grab attention. The lower you go, the higher you rise.
Even vultures, I suspect, would exhibit better manners.
Even on Sunday, when the cardiac arrest theory was doing the rounds, it served as fodder to focus on Sridevi's alleged plastic surgeries and crash diets because she would reportedly hardly eat. What was left unsaid was that Sridevi brought it upon herself with her obsession to look good at 54. This commentary, again, blurred the lines between WhatsApp, Facebook posts and TV news.
This is not to say that the media should not highlight the gaps in the versions coming out of Dubai about the evening of February 24. There are indeed far too many inconsistencies which need to be underlined. But facts please, not fiction. Sensitivity please, not boorishness.
For a couple of channels, that had cut their teeth in ‘investigating’ the Sunanda Pushkar and Sheena Bora cases and pronouncing the guilty, and subsequently hounding them for a confession, #SrideviDeathMystery is like a fresh case on the table, meat good enough to get the adrenalin pumping. The first step to declaring that it a whodunit is done. I fear this may well become the Aarushi case revisited.
Is there a way out? The only solution is for viewers to mount pressure through social media and other forums that this form of bathtub journalism is not acceptable. Journalists inside newsrooms have to emphasise that the tribe is becoming the butt of jokes and losing respect because of the screechy nature of the medium. A course correction has to happen, and soon.
Sridevi was a pan-India superstar, achieving so much in a career of 50 years, entertaining us with her craft. She deserves a better send-off than what India is giving her now.
And let Dubai police do its job.
TS Sudhir has been a television Journalist since 1994. Views expressed are the author’s own.