Natasha Singh was one of my closest friends. Besides dealing with the tragedy of her shocking death, the most difficult part for her family and friends perhaps was coming face to face with, for lack of a better way to describe it, the media witch-hunt. Sunday morning, when we reached Hyatt Regency to identify Natasha's body, the first thing a senior police officer told us tersely was "she's been murdered...shot thrice in the back".
Dealing with the shock of that and then informing her mother and brothers in Goa was hard enough. Worse still was the full-fledged media assault that was unleashed. An assault which meant her brothers had to first see their dead sister wrapped in a white sheet on a stretcher and then have enthusiastic cameramen having the shroud parted to reveal her battered face in close-up. The image beamed relentlessly into drawing rooms across the country as part of a 24-hour breaking news cycle. People who had no idea as to who Natasha was when alive suddenly knew every gruesome detail about her death.
As news editor of a 24-hour news channel, Natasha's death was a rude awakening. A reminder of just how far we can go to improve TRP ratings. The relentless competitiveness that pushes journalists to get the story first. Even when no one knows exactly what the story is all about. Agreed that the mysterious death of a prominent politician's daughter-in-law is hot news but sometimes we are guilty of crossing the line between factual reporting and sheer voyeurism. Does "news" justify quizzing Jagat Singh—Natasha's estranged husband—for details on "how he will tell his children"...and then walking a few metres away to get a quote saying "100 per cent...isne murder kiya".
Does news justify an aggressive cameraman elbowing Natasha's pallbearers and jumping onto the hearse when her body was being brought out of the mortuary? Do we have to jettison all our humanity for a better shot? What does it say about our profession when a channel uses a film clip of Shah Rukh Khan throwing Shilpa Shetty off a hotel balcony in some bizarre attempt to shed more light on Natasha's death? The next time we report rape, will we use a Hindi film sequence as an accompanying visual?
Forget the sensationalism, whatever happened to the journalist's basic regard for facts? While the police complicated matters by swinging in 12 hours from gunshot wounds to suicide as the cause of death, the media didn't help matters either. If you don't buy the official version, go ahead and tell the true story. But investigative journalism in this case plummeted to new depths with a newspaper starting a website called whokillednatasha.com. This was an open invitation for anyone to write in with unsubstantiated rumours. The next day, perhaps spurred by the number of hits, two more websites were launched—whokillednitishkatara.com and whokilledjessicalal.com.
Natasha's mother spoke to me a few days after her daughter's death. She was in tears. She was upset that a prominent newsmagazine had reported that her first reaction to the news of her daughter's death was to inquire if she could take the train three days later out of Delhi. This was completely untrue, but who does she ask for redressal? As she told me, "Sonia, everyone will believe this, because it is in print."
And that is the frightening part. Many of us in the media have forgotten the power we wield. A casual, irresponsible statement, which is retracted three hours later, can devastate someone's life.
The Natasha Singh case was the first time we have seen a so-called "socialite murder" covered by 24-hour news channels. Obviously those in charge of news programming worked on the assumption that because the people involved were fairly well-known in Delhi's social whirl, they were somehow fair game for every kind of indignity and rumour.
Iconfess I haven't given serious thought to the fact that public figures also have private feelings. In fact when I was explaining to colleagues about the horror of seeing Natasha dead on TV screens, someone pointed out that exactly the same thing happened after Phoolan's death.
The Natasha case also raises questions on the tenuous relationship between the media and the celebrities it claims responsibility for having created. When she was alive, Natasha had no hesitation speaking to the media. In fact, she saw it as one platform she could use to tell her side of the story in the bitter divorce proceedings with Jagat Singh.
The media lapped all this up. But when she wanted to move on and put her past behind her focus on a career in photography, no one believed her. It became impossible for reporters to see beyond the stereotype of a society woman bitter about her marriage. She gave an interview to Savvy with the understanding that the focus would be on her work. Instead, it turned it into the now familiar tale of her broken marriage and relationships. The magazine took her off the March cover because she threatened to sue. But April is likely to be a different story. After all, dead people don't hire lawyers or file cases.
Let me make it clear that this is not a blanket condemnation of the media. I am proud to be part of it. And even during the Natasha tragedy there were newspapers and television networks which showed remarkable restraint. However, we must also be ready to learn from our mistakes. In the US, major television networks have a set of guidelines on covering a tragedy. These are not rules imposed by any authority but have come from sensitivity and experience.
Natasha was one of the most selfless and giving people I knew. Isn't the media travesty of her death our chance to acknowledge how urgently we need to change?
(The writer is news editor with NDTV. These views are her own. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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