When Indian television killed Bollywood star Sridevi
Khaleej Times' credibility made the difference in a cacophony of voices.
Most Indians don't have bathtubs at home. I was flipping through Indian news channels on Tuesday night and this comment from the managing editor of a Hindi TV channel grabbed my attention. Turning up the volume, I watched and listened intently (my Hindi is basic; Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada are better).
He went on to explain that his editors and reporters had done a terrific job of figuring out how someone could die in a bathtub - an analysis of the death scene. He was referring to Indian actress Sridevi's tragic demise by accidental drowning in Dubai. "It's the media's job to break down events and make sense of them to people who are not used to such incidents," he told the editor-anchor, who appeared confused.
I could see that the veteran editor had his doubts but he kept his counsel and let the man speak. It looked like the tragedy had gone beyond editorial control of the media group. Management had stepped in. The honcho spoke in chaste Hindi as the English editor listened and did not contradict what he was saying.
The celebrity drowning was analysed, dissected and exploited by experts and editors on several channels who cared little for real reporting that was drowned in untruths, falsehood and crooked spin. I must say here that Indian television sunk to new depths in 72 hours. Out came the country's chief conspiracy theorist Subramanian Swamy who proclaimed that it was murder and complicated matters. "She died in another country, it should have been murder." Another failed politician who has lost it whined that his 'good friend' Sridevi drank only white wine with her meals.
My WhatsApp messages haven't stopped coming since Sunday. I wish they stop now. Indian actor Sridevi's death was accidental. She drowned. It has been confirmed. The speculation should cease for the family to grieve in peace.
I have been keeping track of developments since Saturday when I received that first message from an old friend who now has a top job in management at a South Indian media company. It went like this: "Hey, did you know she died?", I was startled. "Who . are . you?" I typed through my groggy eyes. "It's me, macha (Tamil slang for brother). I changed my TV channel. (Smiley). New job. I'm in management now. In a major South Indian channel."
He texted again: "Sridevi, remember, her? We watched her movies, maan." Those irritating smileys again. 'She was killed...you're in Dubai, right?" I realised he had made up his mind on how the plot would pan out when reports emerged that the Indian actress had died in Dubai. This was how the story would be spun and his editors and anchors would follow his instructions and make a mockery of the police and justice system in another country they had no clue about. This was a high-profile case, there must be some hanky-panky, and he would go to great lengths to make this drag out for a ratings surge and an extra dollop of advertisements.
I could only laugh in anguish as he spelt out his grand plans for the coverage he had in mind. He sounded like he was doing me a favour by spelling out his plans. "Are you sending a reporter to Dubai?" I asked. "Not worth it, man. We'll get it from social media. This could be big." He offered me a primetime spot on a major show which I refused and watched with shock and dismay as the script came to life.
Breaking news and lung power was all that mattered over three days for the broadcast media in India. Facts followed from Dubai, but what use were the factual details when everything was said and done in some studio? Truth is a constant, but TV and their social channels were living in the moment. Flash news would do, in an instant. This was a convenient mystery, a whodunnit that looked like a killing from afar. It was murder that Indian television's stalwarts wrote without effort from the comfort of television studios by lining up a panel of experts.
So #sridevideathmystery spread in the blink of an eye on social media and anchors in India went to town with it. In a Nano Edit on Tuesday, I urged patience to those rushing to leave their senses behind while jumping to conclusions.
At Khaleej Times, we followed leads from the investigation. We were on the ground. We spoke to our sources in the police while other media speculated and curated what we broke. We put five journalists on the ground who spent sleepless nights getting the facts right. Editors then pieced the information together - confirming, re-confirming, debating, arguing, filtering and publishing only what was genuine information from trusted sources. We were being sensitive and sensible. It came from experience, it came from passion and compassion, it came with the turf. It made us credible and fair.
Other media nicked what we put out first and cooked up the rest of the stuff. They hired non-journalists and shady characters who had no idea about what was happening to spread a tale. The 24/7 news cycle demands it, was the argument. You got to keep the story alive and use every means at your disposal even if that means getting the basics of news gathering wrong.
Some went further and questioned Sridevi's choice of cosmetic surgery and brought up the "traces of alcohol" when they should have shown her some respect. It was an unethical spectacle shorn of dignity and neutrality for a fellow human being who leaves behind a family. The ugly episode made me introspect as a journalist in the age of viral media when the Press probes and launches a trial which they are unable to bring to an honest conclusion. "What happened to people like us who had a calling to join the profession," I asked the friend. "What journalism, what calling? I'm management, mate," came the reply.