How Supreme Court wants media to cover court affairs?: A dialogue between two “natural allies”

Well, the question would aptly sum up the objectives of the workshop on reporting of court proceedings by media and administration of justice being organized by the National Legal Services Authority, Supreme Court Legal Services Commmittee, Indian Law Institute, Press Council of India, and Editors Guild of India in New Delhi today and tomorrow.

Although it is intended to be a dialogue between what one called two “natural allies” in the context of growing criminalization of politics (as if the media and judiciary are the only two hallowed institutions and that they should join hands in the face of a common adversary, called politics), the thrust of the workshop clearly appeared to provide an opportunity to the Judiciary –which initiated it – to teach the media. In this endeavour, the non-legal background of most legal journalists (including the so-called court accredited ones with law degrees) was a blessing in disguise for the Judiciary which fielded some very basic questions from the media concerning court functioning and writing of judgments with alacrity. In this post, I intend to highlight certain exchanges among the Judges, senior advocates and the media which struck me.

Justice S.H.Kapadia set the tone of the discussion, by stating that legal literacy is the only solution to correct reporting of court proceedings by media. As Judges speak only through their judgments, they have no opportunity to respond and, therefore, media needs to maintain fairness and accuracy, he said. According to him, the objectivity standard cannot apply to court reporting, because the Judiciary cannot respond to criticism in the Press.

The alternative standard of fairness and accuracy proceeds on the basis that “bias” is implicit in reporting, and seeks to minimize it. This standard, he said, must be based on concept of balance and neutrality. The editor, he said, must not ask “Do I like this story”,but rather “does this story, in my best judgment, serve the general purpose or function?”. His concluding remark, “Let us all be seekers of truth rather than finders of fault” invited a retort from H.K.Dua, editor-in-chief of Tribune that fault-finding is also truth-seeking.

To Justice G.N.Ray, Chairman Press Council of India, fair trial and freedom of press, if ever they are at conflict with each other, must be resolved in favour of the former.

It was Justice V.S.Sirpurkar who became the darling of the media, by his open invitation to them to come to his room, if they have any queries on his judgments, or observations in the court. “I will make a comment in the court room, only if I can defend myself, not otherwise”, was his cryptic remark, when journalists referred to Justice B.N.Agarwal’s angry remark in the court that the Court would not hesitate to recommend President’s rule in Tamil Nadu, if the State went ahead with its bandh on the question of Supreme Court’s interference in the Sethusamudram Project, by staying work on the Adam’s Bridge.

Justice Sirpurkar said he has no objections to even televising the court proceedings, but the issue is an administrative one, and therefore, is not in his hands. When journalists pointed out that some judgments are confusing (one journo referred to the confusion caused by the Court’s judgment on whether Jainism is part of Hinduism; he said he did not go ahead with his story because of two confusing paragraphs, and two contradictory reports in two Hindi newspapers), he advised them to contact the Judges who wrote the Judgments and seek clarity, or speak to the lawyers who argued in that case.

Reading materials circulated among the participants at the workshop had some annexures showing recent examples of “bad” reporting, and how the Court viewed them. Examples:

On the judgment on live-in relationship:

The thrust of the decision is not legitimacy of live-in relationship. It is a decision based on the age-old public policy against bastardization of children and breaking up of families. The decision is also on the basis of equality. The press could have done well had it discussed the law and wondered as to the fallout of the decision.

On Justice B.N.Agarwal’s outburst over dismissing TN Govt:

Confronted by a submission that its orders for maintaining law and order were being ignored the Judges must have reacted pointing out the possibilities for coercing the Government to comply with its orders. The Court’s remarks were highlighted out of proportion giving an impression that it was threatening to take action against the Government. It would have been nice if these remarks were not reported.

In fact, every Judge who spoke at the workshop revealed his discomfort over the media reporting utterances/observations of Judges during the Court proceedings – even if they are newsworthy, because such observations do not reveal anything, not the least of the Judges’ intentions to make such remarks, and they make such observations just to provoke the counsel, to elicit their views. It appeared to me, that the Judges seek to deprive the source of livelihood of many Journalists who cover the Courts. Why sit through the hearing of the important sensitive cases, if they are not to report what is said by the Judges?

If court reporting is just culling out the operative parts of the judgments and summing of the arguments of respective parties as carried in their written affidavits, (in any case the bulk of the media is not interested in the reasoning and the various legal nuances of the arguments), most legal journalists would lose their jobs, as the same can be done without visiting the Court. The explanation offered by some journalists that they write their reports by adding that these remarks were just observations, and not binding legal orders, did not appear to convince the Judges, who believed they are not even observations, but questions intended to elicit answers to clear their doubts, and as such, reporting the off-the-cuff remarks and giving them sensational headlines is just misreporting.

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  • The problem is that the judges are actually right in this case. Media does sensationalize cases. In an update to a previous post, I highlighted how the media got the ‘live-in’ case completely wrong.

    But sometimes media errs in favour of the judiciary. I mentioned the disturbing judgment in Hinsa Virodhak Sangh v. Mirzapur Moti Kuresh Jamat (decided on 14.03.2008) in a recent post, where the Court upheld the ban on selling meat for 9 days of a Jain festival. A look at news headlines reporting the case is telling:

    SC upholds right to settle anywhere in the country
    SC asks people to be more tolerant, slams regionalism
    Practise religious tolerance, urges apex court
    SC warns of growing intolerance

    All this for a judgment that upholds a law that privileges one sectarian sentiment over all others (see para 24 of the judgment). Tolerant?? I thought tolerance required that one should leave others alone as long as they dont harm you. How can imposing your own worldview on followers of other religions without any demonstrated harm (except ‘harm’ to religious sentiments) be possibly described as tolerant? It is precisely the opposite of that. But the media parroted solemn words from the judgment, without one critical examination of what was actually decided in the case (at least none that I have seen so far). Not to mention the fact that the case was not even about regionalism (the actual term ‘regionalism’ is not mentioned even once in the judgment), any remark made during the hearing must have been in the passing, but sufficient to enter headlines during the heady days of Raj Thackery’s ‘movement’.
    Surely, media reports of judgments are uninformed, but uninformed reports help maintain and embellish the image of the SC as much as they tarnish it.

  • From my little experience in the Bombay High Court, there is a continuous/ongoing frustration with the journos. Most journalists assigned the court beat are the most junior – dont forget that its hardly fancy and considered extremely tedious. You spend the entire day trying to chat up all kinds of sleazy lawyers filing their own versions of the public interest litigation, get to work in the end at around 6 or 7 pm and have to hand in a story instantly.

    I dont intend to justify mis-reporting, but its important to look at the context. Most often, journalists would ask me for a copy of the petition, and weave out a quick story from my pleadings without bothering to verify a single statement. I may create demands for jurisdictions, rights and liabilities that may not agree with the most flexible, critical legal mind, but the journo will treat the petition itself as the veritable truth.

    On the other hand crime reporters, the worse of the kind, actually believe that the charge sheet filed by the police, represents the inviolable truth in the matter. In a recent case of a Belgian national who was arrested for taking nude pictures of male friends (292) and emailing them through his laptop to the email addresses of the same friends whose pictures he took (67 of the IT Act) [something many of us may have done] has been in prison for more than 2 months, because the press on the basis of the statements of the PP (without even bothering to check the details in the charge sheet or the remand applications) have branded him a porn racketeer – not to mention a homosexual one at that.

    I think a Press Officer is a great idea, but if its going to be just another government/court employee, who I hate to add is going to be picked up from the pool of the existing High Court registrars, may have a challenge understanding the complexities of a judgement let alone explain it simply. I think it should be an independent panel – maybe run by the Bar council, by recruiting local law students.

    The South African Constitutional court provides the following media summaries of all its hearings (which are like 30 in a year):
    a.) Pre-hearing media summary
    b.) Post hearing media summary
    c.) Media summary of the Judgement

    Its a great idea. And as clerks it was our responsibility, and really ensured that press reporters had a way to minimise errors.