So, once more we return to that old chestnut: are public figures entitled to keep their private lives private? This time, the question is prompted by recent media reports on the state of a chief minister’s marriage. So relentless was the speculation and so vicious some of the rumour-mongering that the chief minister had no choice but to issue a statement to set the record straight – which, of course, only gave a further fillip to the coverage. Now all the newspapers which had ignored the story ran holier-than-thou pieces on how the fine line between public and private lives had been transgressed by the media – quite ignoring the fact that they were just as guilty.
I am aware that I am laying myself open to such criticism as well, but now that the issue is on the top of most people’s minds, I think it’s worth risking opprobrium to make a few points.
And so, back to our question: are public figures entitled to private lives? Well, there’s no easy yes or no answer to that one. But there are some rules that the Indian media have, on the whole, adhered to all these years. And for the most part, they have served us well.
First up, there has always been a clear distinction between how we treat politicians and other people in the public life. Film stars, models, singers, sports stars have always had their love lives scrutinised, their marriages and affairs reported, their break-ups gossiped about. But politicians and, to some extent, businessmen have always been granted a measure of privacy as far as their love lives are concerned.
And no, there was no double standard at work here. The logic was that film stars and other entertainment celebrities had no problems discussing their private lives in their interviews. They happily talked about their boyfriends/husbands, dished the dirt on their break-ups, and announced their engagements/weddings with much fanfare (think John Abraham and Bipasha Basu or Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya). So given that they themselves opened the door to their homes, in a manner of speaking, they had no right to complain if we all turned into Peeping Toms.
But when it came to politicians, the game was played according to different rules. As long as politicians didn’t bring their wives and families into the public domain, we steered clear of reporting on their private lives, no matter how tangled they might be. As long as their private lives didn’t impact on how they performed their public duties, we took the line that it was no one’s business but their own who they did or did not sleep with. In other words, if a politician was dating someone, it wasn’t a legitimate news story. If his girlfriend was using him to make money, well then it was.
In this respect, the India media took their cue from the French press rather than the rabid British tabloid culture, which has made a fetish out of dabbling in the stuff of other people’s souls. We may have known full well which minister was having an affair, which one was unhappily married, which one was homosexual; but we chose not to report this on the grounds that none of this was in the slightest bit relevant.
All of this seems to be changing now. The old rules are in the process of being junked as the tabloidisation of our media continues apace. Now, it seems that even mainstream publications have no problem running speculative stories about the private lives of politicians, all of them brimming over with unproven rumours and unverified gossip.
And that, if you ask me, is a pity.
The argument used to carry such stories goes roughly like this. Anyone who enters public life should get used to the concept of public scrutiny at all times. If you are a public figure, well, then your entire life should be lived out in public. And the public has the right to take an interest in whatever part of your life they see fit. In other words, public interest is defined as anything that the public is interested in.
To see just how dangerous this concept this, just extrapolate it outwards to include all those who exist on the fringes of public life. And in this age of social media, that would include you, me and all the several thousand people who follow you on Twitter or read your blog.
To that extent, most of us are public figures now because we have a presence on social media networks and platforms. Journalists, bloggers and just regular folk who like to post their wisdom on Facebook or Twitter – all of us have created public personas for ourselves. We are constantly blogging and tweeting about our spouses, our kids, where we went on holiday, what we ate. And in that sense, we are opening the door to our private lives on a public forum.
But in doing so, have we forfeited all our rights to privacy? Are our private lives fair game as well? Should our marital problems be published on Facebook for all to see and snigger at? Should our divorces become trending topics on Twitter? Should our shouting matches with spouses/partners be posted on YouTube for the amusement of the world?
If your answer to any of the questions above is a horrified no then think long and hard before you dip into a story about a chief minister’s marital problems. There, but for the grace of God, go you...
Follow Seema on Twitter at twitter.com/seemagoswami
From HT Brunch, September 25
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