Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Saving heritage, yes... but media must always strike a balance

Having talked about the demolition of P. Orr and Sons as a lover of heritage, let me now put on my other pair of shoes, as a person who has more than a casual interest in the media. The hard wrap on the knuckles of the Chennai Chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and, indeed, a section of the press by the Madras High Court judges may not be without reason. Once the public interest litigation was filed by INTACH, seeking a stay on the demolition of the rear portion of P. Orr & Sons, the matter had become sub judice. When a case is sub judice it means it is being (or will be) discussed in court and it is therefore illegal for anyone to talk about it in the newspapers or media.

However, The Hindu published a report mentioning a slab being discovered on the P. Orr & Sons premises clearly making it out to be heritage property, which appeared to bolster the case for those against the demolition. So, was it right of the newspaper to have published such a report when the matter was in the court awaiting disposal? Perhaps not. Also, the fact that the Chennai convener of INTACH (who had filed the PIL on behalf of INTACH) was a regular writer for the paper might not have really helped. If indeed there was material to substantiate the claim that the property in question was built heritage, the same could have been passed on to the court, rather than putting it up in the newspaper and making it seem as if the media had the right to publish evidence in a legal case. This must have been the view of the judges. As a senior journalist said to me, in a case like this the media cannot run a sort of “janata durbar”.

Having said that, it is unclear why the judgment wanted INTACH out of the state’s Heritage Conservation Committee. After all, INTACH is an all-India body and people nominated as conveners do have a certain knowledge and background that qualifies them for the job. The fine of Rs 5 lakh (because the case impeded the progress of a public utility project), to me, appears severe. I understand that INTACH has gone on appeal and it will be interesting to see what happens when the matter comes up before the Supreme Court.

At the end of the day I think there is a lesson in it for everybody. A person holding public office must tread warily and if he or she is a writer or journalist, all the more caution must be exercised. And if there is a legal case involving the institution you represent, it is best you do not talk or write anything relating to the case as long as it is sub judice, and better still, even after.

The media must tread warily, too. It is a moulder of public opinion no doubt, but it cannot afford to be seen to pushing one case or another when it is in the court. Also, reporters and editors must widen their network, rather than get the same people to talk all the time. Surely, as far as heritage is concerned, there are knowledgeable officials from the Archeological Survey of India, other government departments, may even a few NGOs (other than INTACH), and even individuals who may not be prominent citizens yet have adequate knowledge about the subject. It must not seem to appear that a chosen few are appropriating the space where many others deserve to be present as well.

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