Sensationalism, media competition blew up Goa’s Scarlett murder case

April 6th, 2008 - 12:29 pm ICT by admin  

(News Analysis)
By Frederick Noronha
Panaji, April 6 (IANS) Over six weeks after her death, British teenager Scarlett Keeling, believed to have been murdered on a Goa beach, continues to make news as few other cases involving tourists and crime in India have done. The 15-year-old was found dead, almost wholly naked, on Anjuna beach in North Goa, on the morning of Feb 18, sending the media in the UK, in Goa and across India on a tizzy to follow up a case that has links to sex, drugs, crime and, allegedly, even the local mafia and political connections.

“It was the sort of story where editors urge their reporters to keep turning up angles, to feed popular interest…. The Scarlett Keeling story has gone off the pages in some newspapers, but not all,” said the media critique site, in a comment titled ‘Living off Scarlett’.

One prominent insider in Goa’s tourism circle hinted that all the negative publicity hitting Goa could be the result of a “conspiracy against Goa.”

Goa Chief Minister Digambar Kamat took off on a similar track. Kamat said: “I don’t know if there is some motive or some lobby working to blow up the case and malign an important tourist destination like Goa….”

But while the media blitz has been inexplicable to some observers here, the conspiracy theories about the publicity is far off the track.

Never in Goa’s living memory has a single case warranted so much of a media blitz, as did Scarlett Keeling’s. Even three weeks after the girl’s death, Google news, the online global news tracker, notched up some 800 to 900 articles on the case, before tapering off.

Ironically, the coverage didn’t start from Goa itself. It originated in London, and quickly became a big issue in the British press.

But Goa’s media, often willing to take the police version for it and who seldom undertake sustained follow-ups, caught on next with a section of the local press taking an active stance on the case. Latching on to the foreign coverage, and obviously influenced by it, the New Delhi and Mumbai-based press, apart from others, soon descended on Goa.

BBC’s website reported: “Dozens of journalists have descended on a corner of India to follow the investigation into the murder of British teenager Scarlett Keeling….” It spoke of the “media scrum” in Panjim, using a word originating from rugby and whose British usage reflects a disordered or confused situation involving a number of people.

In the first reports - which broke in the UK and in Goa only five days after the girl’s death - the British media highlighted the teenager’s death on the beach, the signs of sexual assault, and what smacked of an official attempt to brush aside the case.

Soon, questions started being asked about Scarlette Keeling’s mother Fiona Mackeown’s own responsibility, or lack of it, in leaving her daughter alone in an alien and rough terrain.

From there, the British media mainly doggedly dug up details about who might be involved, and cited names of waiters, eyewitnesses, shacks, drugs and even politicians.

Facing the competitive pressures of garnering the audiences, Indian TV channels swung into detailed coverage too. NDTV’s Barkha Dutt descended to the beach at Baga, North Goa, to conduct a Sunday afternoon debate, leaving some Goan audiences dissatisfied with the confused messages from the hurried soundbytes offered by national television.

NDTV’s rival national telecaster CNN-IBN’s Rajdeep Sardesai, himself of Goan origin, on the other hand, penned a piece, critiquing “an increasingly tabloidish media” and said that “for many Goans, the foreign tourist is a needless intrusion into their community life.”

Later, excerpts from the 15-year-old diary, including her sexual details, got splashed across the mainstream broadsheet media across India and in Goa too.

Some journalists voiced concern about the ethics of such a practice, both on the part of the police who released these details and the media which quoted salacious details from it.

At least one lawyer, who has taken the brief for the accused, has joined the media debate, by writing a series of articles, some of which got published in the newspapers here.

Public opinion was sharply divided over who was “at fault” in the case. Some sections of the British media were blunt in castigating the girl’s mother, an alibi which both politicians and police in Goa quickly latched on to.

But the conservative politics of some British papers, the class and hippy-like background of the family, and possibly even their Romany gypsy roots could account in part for such approaches.

Other questions were raised. Kashyap Sinkre, who runs The Sincro Hotel at Fatorda, said: “Who is Adv. Verma (the lawyer of Scarlett Keeling’s mum)? What is he doing in Goa if he claims to be a Supreme Court advocate? Why is Scarlett’s mother Fiona staying at his place?”

Give that there are four to five dozen foreign deaths in Goa each November-to-February peak party-and-drug season, wasn’t the media blowing just this one case out of proportion?

Though the number is high in itself, Goa’s tourism-related deaths aren’t significantly higher than those of, say, Thailand. Figures from London say 381,000 Britons visited Thailand and 224 of them died. To make matters worse, nearly half of tourist deaths are not natural or accident-related.

The Times of London argued: “The problem for Goa is the same as the difficulty faced by other tourist destinations ‘discovered’ by the young and the adventurous and trading on their fashionable, hippy associations. Ibiza, Bali, Gambia and parts of Thailand are all places where the prevailing hedonism attracts a large number of free-spending tourists but runs counter to the more conservative views and mores of the host country.”

But the media, both international and domestic, decided to make an icon of Keeling.

In the Scarlett Keeling case, the girl was young. There was also the sex-drugs-crime-corruption links to the case, which only arouses the reader’s prurient interest.

“I’m tired of writing on this case,” confided a local reporter who was one of the first to focus on it here.

Added “The story is now moving on, as it should have done long ago, to focus on the drug trade and rising crime in Goa. But the focus comes from the victims’ mother’s fresh allegations, not from newspapers deciding that the reasons for the decline in Goa’s law and order climate needs probing.”

Sensationalism, enhanced by somewhat unhealthy competition among the media, and the new trends in the tabloidisation of news, clearly has more to do with the way the media focussed on the case.

(Frederick Noronha can be contacted at

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