When invasion of privacy comes back full circle
At a personal level, I find it abhorrent that it has become par for the course for our private conversations, on the phone or on WhatsApp, to slip so easily into the public domain. Where they are then torn apart salaciously, discussed, and distorted without context or due process. It actually militates against all principles of natural justice.
Yet, like so many others, I too felt the “aha” moment, looking at the ethical scandal that has enveloped Republic TV anchor and promoter, Arnab Goswami. There was no escaping the grand irony. A bombastic man who has been not just the judge, but also the hangman at a private kangaroo court, night after night, distributing and withdrawing certificates of patriotism and propriety, has now been tripped by the proverbial shoe on the other foot.
Just a few months ago, Goswami — as well as all prominent anchors from his competing television networks, including those who are hand-wringing about him now — were using someone else’s leaked WhatsApp conversations as “evidence” to brand a young woman, Rhea Chakraborty as a murderer. Based on strands of conversation, entirely decontextualised, there were even whisper campaigns about the appropriateness of her relationship with Mahesh Bhatt.
And the same leaks and casual exchanges — which is how people talk when they think no one is listening — were used by Goswami and his cohorts to malign several directors and actors as drug-peddlers. Reputations were bent and broken, people convicted and buried, as gloating television hosts danced on their metaphorical graves, in a grotesque modern-day medieval witch hunt.
Thus, of all the people in this world, the one person who cannot lay any claim to privacy or being misunderstood or misrepresented is Goswami. I have not had the patience to trawl through the miles of his once private, now public, exchanges with the former head of India’s TV rating agency.
But the parts that really stayed with me were his gleeful reductionism over the horrific terror strike in Pulwama and the subsequent strike in Balakot. Again, it is the hypocrisy that is staggering. Channels such as the one run by Goswami have reduced the dignified constitutional patriotism that guides the Indian spirit to a prime-time caricature. People have been declared traitors because he willed it so. The banality of descriptives such as “anti-national” has rolled off his tongue with wilful destructiveness.
So, at this moment, we seek to measure him only by his own standards. What might he have said about a colleague in the media fraternity who was caught talking similarly on her phone? I have often argued with my liberal friends for their failure to gauge the pulse of the country on national security. But no soldier or soldier’s family that I know would find it pardonable that lives lost in the line of duty are treated as fodder for television eyeballs. As Apurva Purohit, the daughter of a soldier killed in the terror strike told me, “This is disgusting. This is not what my father died for.”
Again, from anyone else, I would be sympathetic to the argument that there is not a human being alive who would be comfortable with what they believe to be their private space suddenly ripped open for the world to see.
Ten years ago, I was hauled over the coals by media colleagues for a conversation on what came to be called the Radia Tapes. Shocked, hurt that my integrity had been questioned over a man I had never met or spoken to in my life — the then telecom minister, A Raja — I opened myself to a one-hour interrogation by my peers on national television, ready to answer anything asked of me, adamant that I had done no wrong and my work spoke for itself. As someone who asked questions of people all my life, I was ready to face them too. But then and now, I saw it as a deeply dangerous media-manufactured narrative to selectively target competitors within the fraternity.
Today, I am struck by how life turns full circle. The sanctimony that a section of the media wears like a second skin comes undone so fast when the scrutiny is on them. In many ways, we journalists, so trapped by egos and the ratings wars, have brought this moment upon ourselves. Instead of acknowledging that there may not be even one of us whose loose, casual talk, with sources and friends alike, would pass everyone’s test of approval, we have spent our energy on tripping the other and weakening the fighting capacity of our profession.
And Arnab Goswami is a parable for the Republic. And for the times we live in.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author
The views expressed are personal