Do public figures have a right to private lives? Especially when they seek attention when it suits them? When does a person become a legitimate focus of the media? Where does one draw the line in a changing landscape of blurring boundaries?

Privacy is not something that I'm merely entitled to, it's an absolute prerequisite — Marlon Brando

India's media scene is transforming so rapidly, and in ways that impinge directly on the future of a society that claims to be democratic, that it is difficult to make sense of it all. Not just ordinary people but responsible media practitioners find themselves clueless about how they should negotiate this chaotic mindscape.

The one thing everybody would agree on is that the old normative structure within which the media have functioned, which valued freedom of expression and the right to information, which reflected social concern and respected individual freedoms, which put a premium on checking facts and eliciting the counter view, which functioned professionally and, to some extent, ethically, is rapidly disintegrating.

Ignored issues

Think of the innumerable developments over just these last few months which seem to have yanked from their moorings the markers that had once guided media conduct. Most recently, of course, we have had scams surrounding a cricket tourney being given attention far exceeding anything accorded to the on-going scandal of endemic hunger. The very fact that just a few days after this story — when more substantive issues like the nexus between politics and cricket needed to be discussed — there is hardly a soundbite on it shows how very like a summer squall that particular treatment was.

In a similar league was the caper over the Sania-Shoaib marriage. The hysteria exhibited by reporters and photographers outside the Mirzas' Hyderabad home in their bid to record a nano-second glimpse of the Pakistani cricketer talking into a cellphone would have been pricelessly funny if it were not so hopeless. Incidentally, the same excess marked media coverage of the issue across the border too — talk of Indo-Pak unity! When the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa was witness to a series of bomb blasts that claimed at least 50 lives, it did not get the screen-to-screen coverage usually accorded to such incidents, because Pakistan's media just could not tear themselves away from this new age, subcontinental version of ‘ Romeo and Juliet' — balcony scene and all — unfolding in India.

Both stories wrought plenty of collateral damage. If the Tharoor-Modi media face-off fed off hugely on Sunanda Pushkar, she of the sweat equity fame, the Sania-Shoaib “breaking story” discussed the person of Ayesha Siddiqui — the woman Shoaib was married to — as if she were an inanimate object rather than a thinking, feeling human being. But who really cares for the china when the media bull runs amok?

Disturbing trends

There were other portentous occurrences too. The ‘paid news' phenomenon finally came to be recognised as having become disturbingly widespread. Then there was the discovery that the conversations of certain politicians had been tapped. While this may not strictly fall within the realm of media functioning, it holds important ramifications for the idea of freedom of expression, which has just been reiterated in the Supreme Court verdict of the Khushboo case.

Several important questions emerge from these developments. When should a person become a legitimate focus of media attention? What constitutes a story that justifies newsgathering techniques sometimes bordering on the extreme? Do the media treat women differently? What is at stake when paid content is passed off as legitimate news? What is at stake when government surveillance takes on universal dimensions?

Any answer to the first question should be preceded by the observation that the media in India today are increasingly adapting the intrusive, American-style scrutiny of those they deem as “public figures”. There have been a plethora of judicial verdicts in the US seeking to map, in this context, the public and private spheres. In the 1970s, a US court ruled that photographer Ron Galella had committed the crime of harassment with his camera. In his dogged pursuit of images of Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis over the years, Galella had played every trick in the book — from tailing the Kennedy children in school to using a powerboat to capture images of Jacqueline swimming. The court ordered that Galella keep a prescribed distance away from Onassis and her children. Interestingly, though, the court also acknowledged the notion of “public interest”. Observed the court: “Of course legitimate countervailing social needs may warrant some intrusion despite an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy and freedom from harassment. However, the interference allowed may be no greater than that necessary to protect the overriding public interest.”

The question gets more complex when the subject of the scrutiny consciously seeks the media spotlight, either for commercial, political or personal purposes. Shashi Tharoor's careful cultivation of a Twitter following, believed to run into several lakhs, or the alleged interest that Shoaib Malik's family displayed in cashing in on the ‘walima' in Lahore, indicate a certain willingness to play the publicity game. There is also an implication here that public figures, by being in the public eye, waive their right to privacy. The problem, of course, lies in the interpretation of that waiver: while the public figure would like media attention to the extent that he/she can benefit directly from the engagement, the media do not recognise such boundaries. In any case, the media are driven by other considerations, like the perceived newsworthiness of the story, which in turn is dictated by supplementary factors like the coverage accorded to it by rival media houses or its impact in terms of TRPs or circulation figures. So a process is set in motion, which neither party can really control.

Fuzzy areas

But when should a person become a legitimate focus of media attention? The media supposedly exist to inform their readers/viewers about issues of public interest. But in defining “public interest” we enter a fuzzy area. As the court legitimately asked in the Galella case, is public interest merely public curiosity? “Public interest” may legitimately have an aspect of public curiosity but it should also have social value that goes beyond it. For instance, issues concerning public governance, public welfare or public reform are legitimate subjects of public interest. It is only when a story holds “public interest” in the true sense of the term does it become newsworthy, and it is only when a story is newsworthy can unconventional means of newsgathering sometimes be justified. Such gradations are ignored in a scenario where chasing news becomes a rollercoaster ride in the dark.

If the subject of a news story happens to be a woman, there is a very discernible shift in treatment. Women are generally not the subject of stories. Their presence, by and large, continues to be marginalised. Like children, they are still expected to be seen, not heard. The preliminary Global Media Monitoring Report 2010, ‘Who Makes News? Editorial Media and Gender Monitor', has just assessed that only four per cent of the people seen, heard or read about in the news are female — and at the current rate of increase of women's visibility in the news in relation to men, it will take at least 43 years to achieve gender parity.

Take the recent instance of someone as articulate and non-conformist as Arundhati Roy talking about an issue of contemporary concern —the social basis for Maoist violence. What she had to say was either dismissed in advance, or discredited immediately after. Then there is the continuing media obsession with the way a woman looks. Sunanda Pushkar was immediately given the media once-over treatment, with footage of her adjusting a sari or smiling at the camera projected over and over again. Pushkar can shout from the rooftops demanding to be taken seriously as a professional, but for the media she may just as well have been a tell-tale smudge of lipstick on the “crime scene”. When Ayesha Siddiqui refused to come before cameras, strange, touched up visuals of her started appearing, as speculation about her weight problem reached a crescendo. If such coverage, despite being deeply offensive, provokes no introspection, things are only going to get more intrusive, more uncaring, more sexist, with each passing day.

Finally, we come to the interstices between power and information. The issue of ‘paid news', which first surfaced during last May's Lok Sabha election and again during the Maharashtra assembly polls in October, has sounded the wake-up siren. According to a committee of inquiry set up by the Press Council of India, it “goes beyond the corruption of individual journalists and media companies” and has “become pervasive, structured and highly organised and, in the process, is undermining democracy in India.” The worry is that the phenomenon of the power elite determining media content is getting normalised — not just during elections but at all times. This is what makes so perturbing the defence mounted by government spokespersons, when the institutionalised tapping of the phones of senior politicians became public. Their argument was that such surveillance was necessary to counter terrorism. Nobody, of course, can deny that the state needed to counter the designs of those plotting terrorist attacks but when such activity randomly enters the private space, it crosses a line and becomes an indefensible violation of the right to freedom of expression. Each intrusion of this kind, each suavely argued justification for it, chips away at the system of checks and balances within the constitutional edifice.

We are living in complex times. The media should help us make sense of the intricate realities that confront us as part of civil society, rather than undermine the ground beneath our feet.

The writer is director, Women's Feature Service.