Now as Farce

The end of the journalistic code of silence around the courts

From the arrival of JS Khehar as the Chief Justice of India to the departure of Ranjan Gogoi from the office, the rules of legal reporting have changed as much as the image of the Supreme Court itself. illustration by paramjeet singh
30 November, 2020

Just four years ago, though it feels longer, towards the end of TS Thakur’s tenure as the Chief Justice of India, I interviewed a retired judge about the state of the Supreme Court. We started talking in the middle of the afternoon, and when I left the judge’s house it was almost dark. Though initially hesitant, the judge unearthed so many grievances once he started talking that he could not stop. At times he was breathless. In his telling, the top court was a house of cards, its occupants were concerned about nothing but their own interests, the process of appointing judges to it was a sham and the future looked bleak. The judge did not just tell me stories, he named characters.

The next morning, at 6 am, I got a call from the judge. “I spoke too much yesterday,” I remember him saying. He told me that he had not slept all night as he went over everything he had told me. He asked me to not use all that in my story, or in any case to hide his name. I wrote the story including what I could from the conversation, the parts I could back up myself, since the judge had already withdrawn his name.

My draft went to a lawyer, who sent it back with her concerns. Among other things, almost everything I had put in based on the conversation was highlighted. It was too serious or too scandalous, the lawyer said, and would likely provoke charges of contempt. If it goes to court, I was asked, would the judge back me up? I could not be sure, and the story went to press without those parts.

The skittishness of everyone involved in that episode now seems a relic of some bygone age—an age when draping the judiciary in a cloak of secrecy was considered the responsible thing to do, when judges stared at ceilings through the night worrying over what damage their words could do to the institution, when journalists had to creatively interpret the public’s right to know when writing about the workings of the courts. Through the successive tenures of JS Khehar, Dipak Misra and Ranjan Gogoi as the CJI, on the heels of Thakur’s departure, the rules of legal reporting have changed as much as the image of the Supreme Court itself. Just noting down what was happening before our eyes was an offence to the judicial dignity we once tried to preserve. The shift is irreversible. We might as well mark the split in time: Before Khehar; After Gogoi.