Friday, 16 September 2011

When private is made public

For a long time, we in India prided ourselves on the fact that our media is not voyeuristic about the personal lives of those in public office. We watched with amusement as politicians in the United States and Britain quit public office following the outing of a stray dalliance or an adulterous affair. Heck, we said, we have Karunanidhi with two wives who keeps getting elected as chief minister. We are more mature and less priggish about these things than the Westerners, we said smugly.
I don't know whether the media refrained from writing about private lives of politicians because of the general disinterest in them or whether the disinterest came because the media exercised commendable restraint. But the fact remains that Indian journalism respected the privacy of those in public office. (I am not using the term public figures because that would cover film stars as well. The issue of privacy is a tad complicated in their case because often film stars use their personal life for publicity. Film stars who want to keep their private lives private manage to do that.)
So we knew about that minister's affair with this media baroness, this politician's dalliance with that film actress, why one lady journalist got more scoops out of one ministry than all other journalists on the beat put together, how one politician and the daughter-in-law of another were an item. A journalist who didn't have a salacious nugget wasn't considered worth his/her salt. But this was all reserved for gossip sessions while taking a break from work, in the club, chilling out with friends.
There was one golden rule: these were not things to be written about.
If ever one did, no names were taken.
Alas, that seems to have changed.
Nothing brings this out more than a chief minister having to put out an official statement about his marriage. Omar Abdullah, chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir, had to do this after two newspapers went to town about his impending divorce and the reasons for it. These were mainstream newspapers, not tabloid rags.
Why did they do that? How was it at all relevant to his performance as chief minister? I have interviewed Omar Abdullah once when he was a junior minister at the Centre and he came across as a bright young man, but apparently there are enough reasons to criticise his performance as chief minister. Shouldn't the media have been content with that?
The depths to which the media has plumbed comes across in the way a newspaper described one woman he has been linked to - "a divorcee and has been in two live-in relationships since her divorce". That statement - the piece was written by a woman journalist - makes the woman in questions come across as some floozy constantly on the make. Why make a woman whose private life no one knew about the object of sleazy gossip?
When did the Indian media start changing? And why?
I think it all began with TRP-hunting television news. My mind goes back some years to when India TV aired clips of some MLAs with call girls in a hotel. Then there was the CD of former governor of Andhra Pradesh N D Tiwari with call girls in the Raj Bhavan. Both were disgusting and uncalled for. And I think the media fraternity was wrong to not have come out and openly condemned these practices.
The print media has, by and large, remained restrained. The only example I can think of is stories about Capt Amarinder Singh of Punjab and his Pakistani friend, Aroosa Alam. But that perhaps had more to do with the fact that Alam was seen in public with Singh and the fact that she was a Pakistani. The media may have restrained itself if she had been an Indian or of any other nationality.
That Shashi Tharoor and Sunanda Pushkar were an item was pretty well known but the media never wrote about it till the whole controversy about her getting sweat equity in the Kochi IPL team. So the matter became public only because it was perceived to be a misuse of office. I emphasise perceived. I am not saying there was a misuse. Maybe there was. Maybe there wasn't. I don't know.
But even this excuse is not there in the Omar Abdullah case. There is no public interest involved in the state of his marriage or love life. The media had no business in reporting about the impending divorce till it actually happened (maybe not even then) or commenting on the reasons and his future plans. Whether or not he remains married, or remarries will have no impact on the way Jammu and Kashmir is governed. If the attempt is to show that he is more interested in affairs of the heart than in affairs of the state, it won't work. There are many senior politicians in office who indulge in serial dalliances. If that doesn't affect their image as serious administrators why should this affect Omar Abdullah's image as an administrator? If he is misgoverning the state, identify other reasons for it - lack of experience maybe, or immaturity, or closed mind, wavering mind, wrong advisers, or whatever. Don't drag his private life and the people in them into it. 
If the media has done this to discredit Omar Abdullah as a chief minister, then it has become a willing tool for his critics. And that speaks even more badly of it than if it were merely indulging in tabloid journalism, bad as even that is.
There is no doubt that the media has crossed the line in this case. And if it doesn't step back, media ethics, which is already under immense strain, will suffer one more blow.
But does anyone care?

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Act, Mr PM, Act

The Prime Minister has said, yet again, this time in the context of the bomb blast at the Delhi High Court, that "we will not succumb".
So we are expected to go around our usual business - breakfast, office, household chores, school, college, back home, saas-bahu serials, trip to the mall, dinner and bed. Just to tell the terrorists that we are not "cowed down". 
But why not show that we are not "cowed down" - and the steely resolve with which those words are said - by carrying out the death sentence on Afzal Guru, Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar and Rajiv Gandhi's assassins? And fast-tracking the prosecution of Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab?
Wouldn't that be a better way of showing India will not tolerate terrorism in any form? And that terror attacks cannot be used to blackmail us into inaction (in this case stopping the hanging of Afzal Guru)?
In fact the latest terror attacks should be used to tell political and other groups pleading for clemency to these above-mentioned worthies (for that is what they are to these groups, never mind that each of them has indulged in senseless killings) to stop pleading their case. They never showed any mercy to the people they killed, why should they be shown any mercy?
Does this sound churlish, immature? Perhaps.
Should I exhibit more sagacity and moderation? I see no reason to.
I see no reason why India should come across as a soft state, which people can come and bomb at will.
There is a time when sagacity and moderation have to be set aside. This is such a time.
Of course, there will be the usual arguments against death penalty itself. But as many people have pointed out, why does death penalty get debated only when high profile or political convicts are involved?
Perhaps there is a case against death penalty. Perhaps there isn't. Perhaps we need to debate it.
But after Guru, Bhullar, Rajiv Gandhi's killers and Kasab are hanged.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Too Special By Far

 Journalists in Mumbai have stepped up pressure for a law to make attacks on them non-bailable and cognisable. This has come in the wake of the tragic killing of investigative journalist J Dey last week. Apparently this demand is a long-standing one. First the Maharashtra government had a meeting with journalists on this. Now the Union law and justice minister Veerappa Moily is promising a Central law on the subject.
This is absolutely uncalled for.
Dey's killing is extremely sad and brings home to a lot of us the perils we face while going about our jobs. Ours can be a hazardous profession and this article highlights this. In some north-eastern states and Jammu and Kashmir, journalists are routinely threatened by militant groups. I was in Ayodhya in 1992 during the Babri Masjid demolition and journalists were attacked.
But is a special law to protect journalists the answer? Definitely not.
Ours is not an ordinary profession. Journalists relay information to people and in doing so are privy to a lot of information that is not in the public domain. Their reports highlight problems, expose corruption and other misdeeds and help shape public opinion, among other things. That gives them power and prestige but also makes them vulnerable.
There are other professions whose practitioners also face hazards. Doctors, for example, do get attacked by relatives of patients whom they couldn't save. They also go into remote areas where their lives are endangered. So are engineers engaged in the construction of large projects like dams and power plants who could be attacked by people opposed to the project. Remember the case of Satyendra Dubey, the National Highways Authority of India engineer who was killed for fighting against corruption in the Golden Quadrilateral highway project? Or Manjunath, the Indian Oil sales manager, and Yashwant Sonawane, the IAS officer from Maharashtra, both of whom were killed by the oil mafia when they were checking adulteration of fuel?
Why shouldn't all these professions also get special laws against attacks on them?
And, like the Indian Express pointed out today, if special groups are to get special laws to protect them, does this mean that it is okay for all the others to have to make do with less stringent laws? The state is supposed to protect everyone from attacks on their person.
Journalists have got too accustomed to special privileges - government accreditation to allow them easy access to government offices and Press stickers for their vehicles to enable them to go to places in the course of their duty where others are not allowed (e.g. riot-hit areas, areas under curfew), to name just two.
Asking now for a special law to protect them is carrying things a bit too far.
The proposal needs to be nipped in the bud.