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Public, pvt ltd

india Updated: May 21, 2011 17:03 IST
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'Oh wise oracle!' Pertie's voice was dripping with sarcasm. "What do you make of the issue Ratan Tata has raised in the Supreme Court? Which in your wisdom would you say has higher priority: the public's right to know or the privacy of an individual?" I started to parrot what I'd read in the papers when Pertie interrupted me. "I can read all that myself. And anyway it's not a constitutional answer I'm looking for. Can't you answer in terms of simple common sense?"

As I struggled to reply it dawned on me that Pertie's inquiry was leading towards a fundamental question which we, in India, often ignore. Which has precedence: the individual or the nation? At one level the nation is nothing but a collection of individuals. That's the liberal view. But once united in a nation, does the collective take priority over its myriad individual parts? A tradition starting with Hobbes and stretching to Hegel and Marx would probably say yes.

The key issue is at what point, if any, does the nation become supreme? The simple answer is where supreme national interests are at stake. But the problem is what defines these interests? On this there can be many disputes but some answers are obvious. No one would question the nation's right to act in cases of treason. So if you're plotting the overthrow of the government, it's not an invasion of privacy to tap your conversations. But what about tax evasion or lobbying to get a preferred minister?

I would say there's no right to tap private conversations to catch defaulters or lobbyists. In this case, the privacy of individuals outweighs the public's right to know. And by this I mean two separate things - first, individual phone calls should not be tapped on such tenuous grounds and, second, their content must not be leaked for wider dissemination. Alas, the sad truth is governments tap many more conversations than we find out about and for reasons that are not just kept secret but could also be questionable. I doubt if this can be stopped leave aside rolled back. But surely we can act to ensure that such tapped conversations aren't made public? And certainly not leaked to the press?

"That, I would say, is the real nub of Tata's complaint." But Pertie wasn't satisfied. He wanted to push this inquiry further. "And what about newspapers and channels? Do they have a right to publish unauthorised leaks?"

Here the answer is different. It's not just supreme national interest that would confer such a right but also the duty to expose inappropriate or illegal behaviour by people in the public eye. So, if politicians, businessmen, bureaucrats or journalists are caught behaving improperly - and not just illegally - we do have a right to know. This also includes revealing hypocrisy and double standards. But the critical thing is these must be people in public life and it must be about behaviour that concerns the public. Exposing personal secrets is altogether different.

"And what happens if someone's privacy is invaded without justification? If personal phone calls are made public just to titillate without serving a higher purpose?" I knew at once the answer you can go to court is unsatisfactory. You might win the case but the damage would have been done.

"The press," said Pertie, making the obvious point, "has a bigger responsibility than it exercises or, at times, even acknowledges. But do you guys realise that?"

(The views expressed by the author are personal)