(Published on 21 July, on Sify.com, retrieved from
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Fourteen years ago, a Princess died trying to escape the paparazzi as she spent an evening out with her partner.
Now, a best-selling tabloid shuts down, its top executives get arrested, and two of Scotland Yard’s highest-ranking policemen resign.
As UK Prime Minister David Cameron calls an emergency session of the House of Commons and Rupert Murdoch’s name becomes less synonymous with ‘media mogul’ as with ‘hacking scandal’, we continue to pretend to be shocked that News of the World was tapping phones.
For decades now, papers and channels have been quoting anonymous sources. For decades now, media outlets across the world have been getting sued and paying settlements that are a fraction of the gains they made from the allegedly defamatory information they published.
It’s easy to wrinkle our noses at the opportunism and sensationalism flaunted by these tabloids and news channels. But then, the fact that scandal sells makes us nearly as culpable as the middlemen.
Perhaps the human race is, by nature, voyeuristic. We have evidence dating back millennia. Aristotle explained that the purpose of tragedy is catharsis. The tragic hero was haunted by hubris – pride – and hamartia – fatal flaw, brought about either by circumstance or character – and would end up losing everything that mattered to him. The audience would cry with him and go home, and return promptly for the next show.
Now, we have the luxury of cinema – and pornography – that allows us to play fly-on-the-wall, watching lives designed to be spied on.
But that wasn’t good enough for us, so we wanted reality shows.
But we found out those were staged, so we sought real grief, real sorrow, real heartache, and real drama.
With that, the purpose of the press seems to have changed. Yes, you give the audience information, but they also want entertainment. So you spin the two together, make up a fancy-sounding term – infotainment – and stalk misfortune.
Trainee journalists are asked to speak to bereaved families, irrespective of the cause of death. The first time someone snaps, “with your permission, may I cremate my daughter before I answer your question?”, the trainee is left disillusioned and disgusted at the career s/he has chosen.
However, a few incidents and TRPs later – say, an Aarushi Talwar murder case later – the journalist begins to see himself or herself as a crusader, and the public joins the campaign for ‘justice’.
The next thing we know, the real issues – suicide, murder, dowry harassment, sexual misconduct, corporal punishment – and the frivolous ones – whom does the mother suspect, whom did the victim last have a fight with, what do his or her best friends think – have been mixed up, and the walls have been bugged.
While News of the World has made no bones about hacking phones earlier, it was the revelations about the paper hiring detectives to listen in on calls made by the families of murder victim Milly Dowler, of the casualties of the London tube bombings of 2005, and of soldiers killled in Iraq and Afghanistan that resulted in a public outcry and eventually caused the paper to shut down.
One wonders whether it's acceptable, then, to hack the phones of celebrities. Do we really need to know who they’re dating, or grab hold of exclusive pictures from their weddings, or sneak a peek at their babies? Does it really matter to us whether Siddharth Mallya kissed Deepika Padukone, or Bipasha Basu dumped John Abraham?
There is no doubt that some people are accountable to the public – such as politicians and civil servants – and the media has exposed corruption often enough, as in the case of the 2G spectrum scam in the India and the MPs’ housing scam in Britain. The fact that the whole country knows what’s going on in the corridors of power has certainly plied pressure on the government and judiciary to take concrete action.
However, it’s important not just for media houses, but we the consumers, to focus on the point of the news they dish out. Does it inform? Does it help? Does it alert? Is it necessary?
Because it’s only when we stop being voyeurs that the media will stop selling privacy. When we find an article that is a breach of privacy, maybe we shouldn’t simply wrinkle our noses, but actually write in to the paper, and put our objections up on our blogs too. Because when we read what the media has learnt from invading people’s homes and phones to squeeze the juice out of their sorrow, we’re abetting their actions.