TV viewers as 21st century juries

Cynical Indians who have long thought that the rich and powerful can get away with murder are suddenly cheering. In the Jessica Lal case, the High Court has reversed last year’s acquittal of Manu Sharma, son of a prominent politician, and sentenced him to life imprisonment. His two companions have been convicted for destroying evidence. And witnesses who changed their story have been summoned to explain why they did so.

When Manu Sharma was acquitted by the lower court last year, cynics said “I told you so.” They had already seen Santosh Kumar Singh, son of a police chief, acquitted in the Priyadarshini Mattoo case. Chalta Hai, said cynics. You can’t touch powerful people: they will manipulate the police and prosecutors, threaten or bribe inconvenient witnesses, and destroy evidence.

That cynicism has now given way to hope. Public outrage at Manu Sharma’s acquittal last year triggered a judicial revolution. TV channels in all languages interviewed and captured the outrage of citizens. This hit viewers in the face with stunning effect, something cold print could not achieve. Thousands of SMS messages inundated TV channels, and were carried as streaming messages.

This interactivity, facilitated by mobile phones and TV, enabled individual outrage to snowball quickly into a mass movement. Citizens called for candle-light marches to protest, and fellow citizens duly assembled for the marches, which then became fresh media events.

In earlier decades when TV was a government monopoly, public outrage could not be captured so vividly. Earnest socialists wanted TV to be used mainly for education, farmer’s programmes and the such. They wanted to instruct people, not listen to them. They viewed entertainment as a diversion from the serious business of nation building. So, when TV was opened up to private commercial channels in the 1990s, socialists declared that TV would become the new opium of the masses

In fact hundreds of private TV channels in all languages have now made possible a judicial revolution. TV viewers have been transformed from a passive audience into judicial activists. Only asses can still claim that commercial TV is opium. On the contrary, it is a force for empowerment, suppressed for decades by a government monopoly and now liberated by the blooming of a hundred private channels.

Public outrage in the Jessica Lal case not only led to a quick appeal and reversal of verdict in the High Court, it also revived the Priyadarshini Mattoo case, which had earlier looked dead and buried. Fresh verdicts in both cases were delivered quickly, without the endless delays of the past.

Is this trial by media? No. The new activism is not the activism of media barons, editors or producers. It is the activism of millions of TV viewers. Please do not call them couch potatoes. They have on key occasions become a virtual 21st century jury.

TV viewers have not imposed anything on the judiciary. Rather, they have persuaded judges to come out of their ivory tower, to listen not just to lawyers but also to ordinary people.

Something similar happens in the West through jury trials. Guilt there is decided not by judges alone, but by 12 members of the public acting as a jury. The commonsense perceptions of jury members matter more than fine technicalities. Juries often rely on the evidence of one witness, rejecting all others. This is what the High Court has now done in the Jessica Lal case.

The rich and powerful will not like the change. Having money, muscle and influence has ceased to be an unambiguous advantage. In some criminal cases this can actually be a disadvantage: the public wants an example made of such people. I welcome this trend.

Now, the emergence of TV audiences as virtual jurors is not always a good thing. The public can sometimes resemble a lynch mob, calling for blood. Afzal Guru was given a death sentence in the Parliament attack case, partly because the public mood demanded a hanging. Afzal was not one of the killers. He was accused of facilitating the attack, but the evidence was less than overwhelming. Yet he has was given a death sentence, whereas Manu Sharma escaped with a life term.

So we must not exaggerate the virtues of TV juries. We must also note that hundreds of millions of poor people have no access to TV. Hence the poor are excluded from the new viewer activism, which has a distinct upper class flavour. We experience more viewer outrage over the killings of Jessica and Priyadarshani than of dalits in Khairlanji.

Nevertheless we must welcome viewer activism, warts and all, as well as response of judges. Forgive the hype, but viewer activism can be called justice of the people, by the people, and for the people. Democracy has got one foot into the courthouse, via the mobile phone and TV set. Given some of its accompanying shortcomings, this may not justify three cheers. But it surely justifies at least one.

What do you think?