Can the five adults and one juvenile suspects in the notorious Delhi gang rape case expect a fair trial? Probably not.
On paper, the men accused of the vicious assault will enjoy all the advantages of India's liberal justice system, apart from the high-priced, influential lawyers that only the wealthy can afford. But cases are not tried on paper, and this one exhibits every sign that it will not be tried in the Saket district court where they made their first appearance on Monday. Instead, like so many court cases, government policies, and bureaucratic actions, it will be decided by the country's real rulers: The Mediocracy.
"This is a media trial," senior Delhi High Court advocate Rajinder Singh told me in a Q&A yesterday. "Even the judges who are going to be responsible for these trials are motivated by the media and what is going on in the country."
In almost every story I've reported, whether it's about poor people starving because of government corruption or a city cleaning up its act after an unhealthy dose of the plague, somebody will say it: All this is only happening because of the media attention. And if the media attention goes away too soon, "all this" stops happening, too. (Consider the Wall Street Journal's neat encapsulation and the Washington Post's history of "high profile" Indian rape cases and the policies they engendered, such as an innovative and effective Delhi Police outreach program called Parivartan, which began in 2006 after a sensational case and then quietly died as the media attention to the issue waned, according to the Economic Times).
Call it the power of the press, and it's a good thing. The government isn't functioning -- it's failing to feed the hungry, or failing to curb corruption (the main cause of the first failure), and the journalists step in. But the short attention span of the news cycle isn't enough to initiate real change--consider the country's revolving door elections--and as the Delhi gang rape case indicates to some degree, what makes news is often connected with caste- and class-related biases. (Rape and humiliation is a daily reality for women from the castes once known as "untouchable," for instance, yet the media's sporadic coverage of the problem has never gained much traction, as Badri Narayan pointed out for The Hindu).
On Wednesday, a high-handed New York Times editorial cautioned that "there are disturbing aspects to the way the case is being handled." They're right. But the editors might have a look at the newspaper morgue before they get TOO snippy: There are several parallels (as well as contrasts) here to the brutal New York City rape and beating of the so-called "Central Park jogger" in 1989-- which ignited a similar media frenzy.