Code of Honour

December is Delhi's cruellest month. The multiple murders of children in Nithari, Noida, came to light in December 2006. And now, the city is finally putting some distance between itself and the atrocity of last month, because the family of the victim wants to be left alone.

What a difference six years have made to the reporting of horror. In 2006, Moninder Singh Pandher, who owns the house where the poor children of Nithari were sexually abused and killed, was depicted as a monstrous sybarite, a man who drank gold. It was suggested that luxury was the wellspring of his crimes. Luxury stretched to the point that it bred perversion.

This bizarre mythmaking was done on the strength of a journalistic investigation of Pandher's bar, which revealed a bottle of Goldschläger, schnapps with flakes of gold film floating in it. Patently, a man who drank pure gold was capable of anything. Looking back, the general impression was that in large doses, wealth could be toxic. This is a distant memory now but compelling nevertheless, and replete with images of expensive bottles dancing across the television screen, moodily lit to suggest satanism.

This weird perversion of a terrifying story about atrocity and homicide into a moral fable about luxury had been especially prominent on some Hindi channels. But in order to move hearts and minds, even the leading English channels had preferred to suppress something that five seconds on Google can tell you: how much gold is there in a bottle of Goldschläger? About as much as you can buy for Rs 40 today, when gold is priced obnoxiously high. Certain Ayurvedic tonics probably have a bigger payload.

Gold is extraordinarily malleable and is therefore widely used for embossing cheap wallets and belts. To make economic sense, it has to be spread very, very thin. Goldschläger uses gold exactly the same way. It is a gimmick aimed at new money, not something that the seriously privileged are likely to take seriously.

In contrast, the coverage of the atrocity of December 2012 has displayed no attempt to sensationalise, or even to dramatise. Dramatisation requires at least the presence of dramatis personae, and not a single channel has revealed the name of the woman who was abused, tortured and slain. Not even after Shashi Tharoor proposed that she should be named, and that initiatives against rape should be named in her memory. Not even after her family agreed that this would be an honour.

The media has a law of omerta on reporting rape, and it has respected it in letter and spirit. Neither has it tried to turn the horror into a human drama, nor into a moral fable. Nor has there been any serious attempt to demonise the accused. Instead, there is an implicit consensus that they must face the maximum penalty under the law, by due process. And television debate has resisted the demands of lynch mobs on the streets and in social media.

Another horror story fell between Nithari and the inhumanity of December 2012 – the 2008 double murder in Noida of Aarushi and Hemraj. Television refers to it as the Aarushi murder case, erasing one victim altogether. The case occasioned some shameful coverage in which India TV, for one, decided that the father had done it rather than the butler. It ran stills with a sword of Damocles hanging over the grieving man. The caption read: "Dhongi Papa".

In contrast, restraint, decency and humanity characterised the coverage of the 2012 crime. After a slew of excesses and absurdities, media has substantiated the claim that it can regulate itself.

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