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Stuff that’s not our business

Soon after Tiger Woods crashed his car into a fire hydrant in November last year, some US publications began speculating about the accident’s immediate cause. Sumana Ramanan writes.

india Updated: Jul 11, 2010 02:21 IST
Sumana Ramanan

Sumana Ramanan,
Readers’ Editor

Soon after Tiger Woods crashed his car into a fire hydrant in November last year, some US publications began speculating about the accident’s immediate cause. One conjecture was that he had had an argument with his wife.

From focusing on the accident’s proximate cause, the discussion gradually expanded to cover the general state of his marriage. As it turned out, his marriage was, to put it mildly, not in very good shape.

But even before the details about his serial affairs began tumbling out, some US media commentators were disgusted by the post-accident speculation.

“People want answers from Tiger,” wrote Brett Haber in USA Today on December 2, 2009, “not because they need them or have a right to them, rather because they’re curious. [But] I don’t believe any federal judge has ever issued a subpoena on the grounds of curiosity.” (A subpoena is a court order requiring a person to testify, failing which he or she will be punished.)

Ethics manuals make the distinction between three kinds of information: one that the public has a legal right to now; another that it needs to know, such as government and corporate decisions, safety and health issues, etc; and a third that it merely wants to know.

“People want to know some really kinky stuff, so reputable news organisations have...developed...standards that say ‘hey that stuff is none of our business. It is prurient.,’” wrote Tim McGuire, a journalism professor at the U.S.’s Arizona State University, in his blog (cronkite.asu.edu/mcguireblog).

I wonder what he would have said about the Indian press’s coverage of Viveka Babajee’s suicide and its aftermath. The one-time model hanged herself on June 25, unleashing a frenzy of reportage that delved into the minutiae of her private life.

Readers, however, found that HT Mumbai had largely kept out of this circus. “Good, restrained coverage of Viveka Babajee,” wrote Kartik Das. “It’s despicable how some other papers have splashed those photos all over their pages. Very insensitive.”

The coverage raises two issues: the first is the worth newspapers implicitly attach to people’s lives and the second involves the invasion of privacy.

Just compare the coverage of Babajee’s suicide with the resources and space devoted to farmers’ suicides or, closer home, to the suicides of less glamorous people, such as a labourer who gives up trying to keep body and soul together amid soaring prices or a middle-class stockbroker who takes his life after a market crash wipes out his small fortune.

On the second issue, the press definitely crossed the line with Gautam Vora, Babajee’s friend — not only by badgering him but also by releasing information that Babajee’s publicist provided.

If a big film or sports star with a huge fan following had committed suicide, one can understand the curiosity and justify some of the coverage.

Babajee may have been rich but she certainly wasn’t famous. There is even less justification for the frenzy over her than over Tiger Woods.