Sunday, June 21, 2009

Our forensic experts mess up again

It's exactly as I expected. Two forensic labs have come out with contradictory conclusions about the Varun Gandhi footage. Lucknow says the footage is fine, Chandigarh claims it is not. No wonder the BJP wanted to play a wait and watch game. The party heads knew forensics would only muddy the waters, providing the Hindutvavadis with an escape route.
The issue, actually, is what the term 'doctored' connotes. According to Chandigarh's lab, the footage has been edited and spliced together, and that is enough for it to be catalogued as 'doctored'. But the editing was apparent even to casual observers; we didn't need a forensic lab to tell us about it. Part of the footage has Varun sitting down with a group at night, another section has him standing up addressing a large crowd in daylight. Nobody with even a basic understanding of video could fail to see the discontinuity. If mere editing constitutes doctoring, virtually every speech played on TV is doctored, because, except in rare cases, only portions are ever broadcast.
Was Varun's voice over-dubbed? No, say both labs, the voice is his. Did he say what he is alleged to have said? Both labs agree he did. The brief of forensic experts should end there. Questions of context and of how meaning can be influenced by the juxtaposition of two discontinuous clips are not matters about which precise answers can be arrived at through scientific enquiry.
When a task includes ambiguous phrases like 'doctored', contradictions are assured, particularly considering our forensic experts differ even when their brief is crystal clear ("Is the woman in this video Anara Gupta?")
As a sidelight, it is amusing to hear chaps like Vinay Katiyar demanding to view the 'original CD'. Somebody should tell them there is no such thing as an original CD; footage is always transferred to viewing media like DVDs and VCDs.
I can't be too harsh on Katiyar for his ignorance. After all, even institutions of learning like the Asiatic Society don't understand what 'original' denotes. As I mentioned in one of my Time Out columns, Bombay's Asiatic Society promotes a manuscript of Dante's Divine Comedy in its possession as an 'original', though it is one of several copies made long after the Italian poet composed his magnum opus.
If we misunderstand the concept of originality in matters concerning the middle ages, we can hardly be expected to comprehend it in relation to digital media that allow images to be replicated instantly and infinitely.

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