In August 2015, A video titled, “Drunk Delhi Police man on Delhi metro” went viral, with millions of views. The video attracted so much attention that various news news channels reported about it. The policeman was identified as Salim PK and was later suspended by the police department, that made news too. The story was promptly forgotten by everyone except Salim PK, the policeman in it, and his family. Salim appealed the suspension, and after his medical documents were examined, he was reinstated to the police force within two months. The reason was that he wasn’t actually drunk, but was suffering the after effects of a stroke that he had suffered a couple of years before.
According to a report that appeared in the Daily Mail, following the stroke, Salim PK continued to suffer partial paralysis, memory loss, weakness of the body and speech difficulties. He was repeatedly hospitalized and suffered seizures. On the night of the video, he had worked a long day despite feeling ill and having not had his medication the previous day. On boarding the metro, he reportedly suffered a serious blackout and dizziness, to the extent that he could not find his way to the doors of the metro, and eventually lost his balance and fell when the metro stopped. The police department has since changed his suspension period to a period of active duty. But Salim’s life has suffered a lot of damage as a result of the viral video. His wife suffered a heart attack in its aftermath, and he became a subject of ridicule, having to field numerous calls from relatives and friends in Delhi and his home town in Kerala.
The issue of whether news outlets were right in carrying the news in the first place is a thorny one. It can be argued, on the one hand, that an off-duty policeman — if he is not committing a crime – can do what he likes and it’s nobody else’s business. On the other hand, it can also be argued, that a policeman in uniform represents the force even if he is off-duty, and any actions that seem contrary to that representation should be reported in the public interest. When Salim was identified and suspended, however, the issue becomes less ambiguous. Firstly, there is the fact that the police themselves gave in to the social media outrage that followed the video. It is now undeniable that social media outrage is a powerful weapon, and there is certainly pressure on the police to be seen as responsive. But was suspension the required response and were there no other options available to the police?
The media, failed at this point as well. In reporting the identification and suspension, the various news outlets did not take account of the fundamental journalistic principle of balance. Balance required that once Salim had been identified, he should have been contacted and his side of the story heard and reported. Salim’s illness would have emerged in the news right at the beginning if this had been done. Salim has now moved the Supreme Court seeking compensation for defamation, as well as for the court to direct the appropriate authorities to take down the video and identify measures to prevent such social media abuses in the future.
The report quoted Salim PK’s lawyer Wills Matthews as saying:
“When the video went viral and Salim PK was suspended, it made front page news. When he was taken back, not a single newspaper or TV channel carried it. In the eyes of the general public, the petitioner was drunk in the metro and he is still under suspension.”
What Matthews says is true, and the events at the point of Salim’s reinstatement indicate either a failure of the PR machinery of the police or the responsiveness of the media. After all, it was in the interest of the police to put the facts of this case, which had brought the police into disrepute, in the public view. What the court may or can do in this case is yet to be seen. The bottomline from Salim’s case, though is simple. As immediate as videos seem, what one sees with one’s own eyes, isn’t necessarily the full picture. Seeing something unfold isn’t always the same as knowing the truth about it. And in this case, that’s a lesson the media has to learn as much as its audience.