In light of the media coverage of Sunanda Tharoor’s death, the writer insists that news can be pursued without invading one's privacy.
Earlier this month Shashi Tharoor’s face was once again on the front pages of Kerala’s newspapers. He looked haggard and weary and in his hands was a copper urn containing the ashes of his wife.
A death is usually made known via sober obituary columns or by word-of-mouth among friends and relatives. For the more famous, a piece in the newspapers, perhaps. But, as we all now know, Sunanda Tharoor’s death occupied newspaper headlines for days, not just in India but abroad as well. The fascination was inevitable and all media outlets were, dare I say, understandably swift in exploiting the irresistible cocktail offered up by a recipe that included a high-profile politician, his glamorous wife, her sudden and mysterious death and the possibility of an extra-marital liaison rather hysterically advertised by Sunanda herself shortly before her death.
As a novelist, I would have shied away from throwing all that into a work of fiction for fear that the mix would seem overly torrid. And I should therefore have felt indulgent towards hard-pressed journalists for falling upon such tantalising real-life material to fill generally dreary column space with.
However, many years ago, I trained at one of London’s top broadcast journalism institutes and recall that our heftiest text-book was one titled Media Law & Ethics. Among the more obvious issues covered were accuracy, misrepresentation, plagiarism, identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes, offering money or favours to sources … the list was long and, by and large, easy to comprehend and accept. However, some areas led to unexpected reflection and debate in the lecture room. Questions such as when it was acceptable to not be totally objective as a journalist, or how to prevent the pursuit of news from descending into a gross invasion of privacy were among the ethical issues that invited particularly heated discussions. I recall too enormous dissent on the business of balancing an individual’s right to a fair trial with the public’s right to be informed of crime.
The variety of views thrown up was the result of our varied backgrounds, the kind of papers that we ourselves had remained loyal readers to and the different media outlets we envisaged being able to find jobs in once we’d completed the course.
One winter afternoon, however, struck by the unfolding tragedy of the Jamie Bulger case in which a British toddler had been killed by two 10-year-old boys, my colleagues and I gathered around our lecturer long after it was time to go home. The discussion mostly hovered around the court’s decision to protect the identities of the two young killers but soon meandered into the area of privacy when someone pointed out that media harassment had led to one of the boy’s families being hounded out of their home in Merseyside. Despite the prolonged session, we didn’t conclude with a neat resolution or even a blurry line in the ever-shifting sands of a citizen’s human rights, the public’s right to know and, indeed, their seemingly endless hunger for ghastly stories.
So where, indeed, should the media stop short when private grief is held up to public scrutiny? And should there be a sliding scale of journalistic magnanimity depending on whether the people being written about are celebrities or film stars or politicians or simply ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances? It is true that politicians are generally considered fair game, especially when financial or professional probity is called into question. But, when a politician is caught up in a story that has little to do with his public duties, should he be treated on a par with any other person? That will probably always remain a journalistic grey area but, unquestionably and emphatically, no person’s potential involvement in a crime should ever be insinuated and played out in media outlets. Despite the journalist’s duty to investigate, there isn’t a textbook in the world that has ever declared it acceptable for the media to play police, judge and jury.
Of course, the murk surrounding Sunanda Tharoor’s death will begin to clear only when the police inquiry is complete and people are convinced of its impartiality. If the outcome does not lead to further proceedings, that would be a very good time for the media to show respect to the other agencies involved and take a firm step away from every individual’s essential right to justice. Yes, even a politician’s.
Jaishree Misra is the author of ‘A Scandalous Secret’.