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?

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