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Breaking lives, breaking news

Bolder and raunchier scoops may sell papers, but muck-raking comes at a grave human cost

india Updated: Jul 08, 2011 20:50 IST

Much has been written about the inevitable and impending demise of the newspaper, especially in the West. None of those oft-repeated reasons for going out of business will, however, apply when the 168-year-old News of the World downs its shutters after its last edition on July 10.

A weekly tabloid whose infamy and fortune have always depended on its muck-raking skills, the Britain-based newspaper sold 2.6 million copies every week, and was generally regarded to be the parent company News Corporation’s most profitable venture. The end of what was undoubtedly a dream run, given these tight times, came from the newspaper’s rapacity for bolder, raunchier scoops that led its journalists to outsource the hacking of voicemail messages on mobile phones to a private investigator. The revelations of the identity of these targets shocked all: a teenage girl who was murdered in 2002, relatives of British servicemen killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and survivors of the 2005 terrorist attacks on London.

The propensity to get mileage out of other people’s misery caused widespread revulsion and disgust, with advertisers pulling out as a mark of censure and a readers’ boycott on the cards. Given the predatory, ruthless and avaricious reputation that News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch has earned over his life and career, it was but expected that he would bear much of the ferocious backlash. And yet even while he was being accused of pulling a fast one by closing the paper instead of fixing guilt and responsibility where they lay, sending his staff as the proverbial lamb to the slaughter, other British tabloids remained largely silent, almost as an admission of their complicity in using similarly dubious methods to unearth new sensations. The market craves an endless supply of sleaze, longing for a vicarious peek into the bedchambers of the rich and famous and these were but ways and means of satisfying that insatiable appetite.

And yet the means employed by News of the World to stay commercially afloat — phone hacking, covert filming or using agents provocateur — are disturbingly similar to what unfolds all around us under vastly different circumstances. In 2010, Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University student who was secretly filmed by his roommate during a sexual act, jumped to his death, unable to bear the public spectacle that an intensely private moment had become. Closer home and earlier that year, Shriniwas Ramchandra Siras, a professor at Aligarh Muslim University, was hounded out of his job and eventually committed suicide after being caught on camera, having sex with a rickshaw-puller. Long ago, the prying eyes and ears of modern technology had deemed

Our lives and actions to be fit fodder for public entertainment. Through our mass acquiescence, we have precluded all possibilities of settling that account.