New-age reportage recently in evidence crosses the boundaries of decency and sets worrying new principles.
Years ago, a newspaper editor taught me a few principles of story writing. “Never make direct personal attacks. Twist the knife ever so tenderly and you will be surprised at the results,” he advised. His own favourite story was his description of Shiv Sena lion Balasaheb Thackeray as “the gentle Mr. Thackeray.” The media veteran earned a torrent of abuse for it!
Rookie reporters also learnt other dos and don’ts: Attribute, confirm and hear out the other side — rules that could be set aside only when the story was a major scoop needing protection and secrecy.
But that was another world and another time, and as much hit me like a thunderbolt as the IPL mega scam exploded on television and print media alike. TV is by definition loud, fast and sensational. It is futile to expect a delicately mannered anchor with a commitment to facts and fairplay to beat the competition, much less bring the coveted TRPs. Most certainly not when a story breaks with the force of an avalanche as happened when Minister of State Shashi Tharoor was revealed to be complicit in a deal that offered a bounty to his lady friend. The Shashi Tharoor-Sunanda Pushkar story was god’s own gift to the TV channels and they grabbed it with both hands, delving into Ms. Pushkar’s past with all the finesse of a rampaging bull.
In the days since, the IPL reporting fever has spread like an epidemic, taking in its embrace mainstream newspapers as well as reputed magazines. Over the past week, scoops and stories have tumbled out at a breathless pace, some of them truly able to expose the rot behind the glamour and glitz of cricket’s brashy new offspring but many others irresponsibly speculative. By all accounts, IPL is a humungous wheels-within-wheels affair. Just how many people it will eventually implicate, if it does so at all, is anybody’s guess given the complex pattern of franchise ownership, benami stake-holdings and a score of affiliated legal and illegal activities, ranging from telecast rights to money laundering, betting, match-fixing and so forth.
When imagination takes flight in this volatile situation, the results can be tragi-comic. A reported e-mail sent from Minister Praful Patel’s office to Mr. Tharoor had two newspapers reach opposite conclusions. One held Mr. Patel guilty of helping Mr. Tharoor. The other accused him of trying to mislead the former Minster into giving up the Kochi Consortium bid.
A weekly magazine in its last issue dug its nails deep into Sunanda Pushkar, turning Mr. Tharoor’s companion into a virago with an insatiable appetite for men, power and money. The author might have been Ms. Pushkar herself, considering the easy and expert access she seemed to have had to her subject’s mind. The “belle from Bomai (in Kashmir)” was apparently so devilishly clever that she mapped out her future while still a teenager in college, taking the “marriage route” to escape the dreariness of everyday valley life, ensnaring her husband’s best friend on the way and chasing after the good life with a “vampire-like” thirst that ironically, by the author’s own admission, did not get her subject too far. For, despite “clawing her way” into Dubai’s event management and entertainment circles and charming a variety of sponsors (she had them “eating out of her hands”), not to mention a talent for acquiring a procession of “companions”, Ms. Pushkar, the author says, struggled to stay afloat for the most part, “orbiting into the inner circles of the mega rich” as recently as 2009. The author concludes that though aided by “heavy make-up, false eyelashes and seductive couture,” Ms. Pushkar ought to be reconciled to the fact that pedigree-obsessed Delhi would not accept a “wannabe”.
With so much venom packed into the narrative, it is hardly any surprise that the Pushkar profile and its author have become the toast of the glitter-twitter world. Author and gossip queen Shobaa De posted the “juicy, masaledaar” piece on her website. Complimenting the “hugely talented” author on her “delicious” reportage, she wished she had written it herself.
Not to be outdone, a Mumbai tabloid gave out salacious details of a surgery performed on Ms. Pushkar by plastic surgeon Ashok Gupta. Dr. Gupta, a 2009 Padma awardee, confirmed to the paper that Ms. Pushkar came under the knife. Not only this, he supplied the “before” and “after” photographs to prove the transformation. So much for the Hippocratic oath and so much for the Padma awards!
It is not my case that Mr. Tharoor and Ms. Pushkar are innocent of all wrongdoing. Far from it. However, their “sins” do not fall in the same category. Mr. Tharoor can be accused of a corrupt practice but not Ms. Pushkar who, as a private citizen, was free to accept job and equity offers, provided she did not run afoul of the law. To be sure, there are legitimate questions about whether her professional qualifications were such as to earn her a large "sweat" equity.
However, none of these concerns warrant the dissection of her personal life. Those who claim to have been entertained by the weekly profile of Ms. Pushkar must ask themselves this question: Entertainment at whose cost? Tragically, many of Ms. Pushkar’s detractors are themselves successful women basking in the fame and spotlight of Page 3 events and parties. Ms. Pushkar has been pilloried for her ambition. Which woman who has reached any position of importance can claim to have got there without ambition?
Now imagine a man with qualities attributed to Ms. Pushakar. Surely he would have been seen to be on the fast-track — a workaholic focused on his job and able to connect with a wide cross-section of people. And so what if he broke a law here and there? That would only add to his dash. A woman similarly placed becomes a social-climber, especially if she was a “wannabe” without the social sanction afforded by “pedigree.”
When witch-hunt journalism of this kind comes into the mainstream media it sets a new principle: That it is kosher to get into people's personal territory. That no attribution need be made, that if the person being profiled is judged to be completely without a virtue, her version can be dispensed with.
Fortunately, good taste does seem to prevail outside the rarefied circles of Metro high society. The reader response to the Pushkar profile (posted on the weekly's website) was one of revulsion. Said one reader: “Every sentence in it reeks of a deep-seated upper class prejudice which ridicules and sneers at the ambitions and processes of social mobility of many people of India, especially those from mofussil regions.” Commented another: “This writing looks to be a case of libel. Vindictive and sexist to the core.”
I could add a line: This journalism requires no sweat.