Sunday, May 20, 2012

Are we turning into a voyeuristic society?

Seeing the kind of news coverage, both in print and electronic media, I often wonder whether we are turning out to be a society of inconsiderate voyeurs?

Are we driven too much by “page 3” kind of news? Is the trend of ‘peeping into the lives of so-called glamorous newsmakers and celebrities becoming more of a habit? Are serious social issues (current affairs, policy issues and other such issues which affect all of us) been a thing of the past? Has cheap sensationalization of irrelevant and useless newsfeeds have become the order of the day?

Notice some of the news items appeared recently...

1. I was reading today’s Times of India (Sunday Times, New Delhi – late city edition, dated May 20th) was distressed to see the news coverage on Luke vs Zohal controversy occupying the top half of first page, entire 2nd page and most of the 3rd page. While those of you not aware of this “news of such national importance”, its about how an non-playing, never heard of IPL player of Australian origin Luke tried to molest Zohal, an allegedly American model and her manhandled her “fiancée” at 5 am in the morning at the top star hotel in the capital. A Delhi court on Saturday had granted bail to Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) player Luke Pomersbach who was arrested earlier for allegedly molesting her.

Not only this, you open any channel these days and you would notice Zohail all over. Wonder would it be the same coverage if any poor middle ages woman been molested somewhere and her fiancée /husband beaten up which incidentally keeps happening in almost various parts of the country with amazing regularity.

2. We are all aware of the Aarushi murder case and how it continues to grab the headlines in both print and electronic media even after four year. It's intriguing, if only in a forgettable voyeuristic way. A double-murder with both a teenage girl and the family's domestic help winding up dead. And the needle of suspicion being on the parents of the girl, .with an angle of likely sex-sleaze, parents discovering about it and involved in her killing not being able to accept such ‘socially unacceptable behaviour and so on. So why has the 'nation' been held captive by the Aarushi (and, yes Hemraj) case, four years on? What's so different about this murder that it involves candlelight vigils and 24/ 7 invasive news coverage? I wonder whether would we still know Aarushi's name if she lived in some remote non-descript village or came from a poor family? Are we going to be held hostage to society's (and our TV channels') relentless interest in the fate of this family? Is it not being voyeuristic?

3. It’s more like a chase of one’s own tail. A self-righteous, delusional Anna, ably exploiting the willing media sets out to stigmatise politics and in a way, ills of Indian democracy and the media, both electronic and print, salivating the situation and becoming a cheerleader of the slanging match. I have covered this issues in my blog elsewhere.

4. The Bhanwari Devi case reads like a B-grade sexploitation flick. A beautiful woman with a bevy of powerful lovers, sexual blackmail and political intrigue, culminating in a gruesome murder. Lost in the gory details, however, is Bhanwari herself. She is hardly the ideal victim, a  midwife with vaulting ambitions, willing to trade her body for money and status. More femme fatale than bharatiya naari, her death perhaps evokes more voyeurism and the manner in which a 'helpless woman belonging to a 'particular community' (& thereby being branded easliy by media) is being exploited by the system and somewhere she became a willing victim. There will be no candlelight vigils or rallies at India Gate if in the end her killers go free. Much as we pretend otherwise, there are tens of thousands of Bhanwari Devis in India. Poor women who leverage the only asset they possess to get ahead, unwilling to accept the paltry cards life has dealt them. Sexual exploitation is a routine part of life for many Dalit women – Bhanwari may have just been trying to even the terms of exchange. As a Tehelka story notes: One aspect of the Bhanwari scandal points to the political subjugation of women. Visram Meena of the All India Scheduled Caste Federation says often some women are transferred to remote areas and made to arrive at a compromise (to prevent the transfer) through various representatives. Once the woman gets caught in this mess, she falls victim to the very people she’d trusted to help her out.

5. Abhishek Manu Singhvi, resigned recently as the spokesman of the Congress party, after a video purportedly showing him having sex with a woman was distributed on YouTube and other websites. The former spokesman and prominent lawyer, Singhvi, said the video was fake and strongly denied news reports that he had offered to help the woman become a judge.

6. We still haven’t forgotten Jessica Lal murder case . Infact, a movie “nobody killed Jessica” cashed rich on the story .

7. Further, the case of princess Diana and the media sympathy and the public sympathy that follows continues despite it being more than a decade old issue.

Why do we, as a society, obsessed with such news, which at best, can be classified as individual crimes and when, crimes in each of these categories keep happening in plenty all over the country and with amazing regularity.? Why does media highlight cases involving glamorous victims who are often rich and from bigger cities?

They call it the Missing White Woman Syndrome (MWWS) in the US. The young, upper-middle class story gets spun into a tragic (TRP-grabbing) tale that exposes the horrors of our society, while those further down the socio-economic ladder are relegated to 'crime-in-brief' columns, if at all.

The question is why is there so much coverage of such news items, which otherwise, have little relevance and doesn’t also address the basic issues involved in them? Is it because people like to read such news or is it because its all media driven and people get what comes their way? Either way, the fact remains that we are all voyeuristic, deriving our little pleasures by watching voyeuristically in the gory details of such cases.

I guess It wasn't always like this. As society's fixation on celebrities turned to obsession, media became more willing to abandon common decency in exchange for “a juicy news”. But can we blame the media alone? They are only providing what people want. Whats tragic is that in this process, the ethical and journalistic standards have come down and so is the overall credibility of newspapers as well as electronic media. I remember growing up reading Times of India with so much of respect (early eighties) and where it has brought itself now!

I am not getting into the right of free speech guaranteed under article 19(1)(a) of the Indian constitution and whether citizen’s right of freedom of free speech is or should be available to institutions like media or the ongoing case of SIRECL vs SEBI in Supreme Court. Likewise, I am not commenting on the controversial “Print and Electronic Media Standards and regulation Bill 2012” or the IT (intermediaries guidelines) Rules 2011. There also is a fact that “paid news”, corporate cronyism ,libellous insinuation, blatant violation of privacy and all kind of subjectivities masquerading as journalistic objectivity threatens to unseat the moral high media claims to be clinging on for a long time. Also, most of the bigger media houses are now owned by big corporate, dictating thereby the kind of news and the kink it will have, that get published.

What I am incensed is at the aberration and trivialization in media where titbits of the flippant and the sensational get preference over stories of impinging social and economic reality that are crying to be told and will make a difference in the lives of people if told. There is a growing mismatch and disjuncture between journalism as a socially powerful calling and what’s turning out to be trivialization of real issues to accommodate the voyeuristic taste. Things do need to change and we are all responsible to act mature if it has to happen.

While the yellow journalism often becomes an area for stories that have the potential of scoops, it is the tendency of national dailies and electronic media to turn into yellow journalism that, according to me, is causing a stinking decay in the media standards, both in English and vernacular press.

Is it an Indian phenomenon or a disease spread world over and its varying degree needs to be debated. However, the point remains that serious policy issues of social relevance are gettting neglected as a result of media's and general public's obsession with voyeurism and it has to stop.


  1. Interesting debate. I am surely forwarding the link to some of my colleagues to bring in their thoughts. Long ago in journalism school they use to teach “Man bites Dog,” is news...guess some us followed it more in letter than spirit...

    Intrinsically we all are voyeurs. Always been (Colosseum perhaps is a good reminder). But yes, an important part of the job in media busi-ness is to sieve information and raise the voices of those who cannot be heard otherwise.

    Undoubtedly, the MWWS is being replicated in India which is suitably Indianised to suit the local palate. A small glimmer of hope that I see among this clutter of Doomsday Coming, Baba bashing and Anna & Co. freedom movement, is that when some of such cases get national prominence, they tend to bring some kind of hope to those who do not have the means to slug it out.

    It proves that those with absolute power can be brought down and if they can fall so can other perpetrators of crime...

    May be am a bit optimistic. If in the process some issues are lost I guess they are waiting round the corner to be picked up by someone who still feels and is allowed to write for just cause...

  2. For me its simple. Make money whichever way possible. That's the idea ingrained into most of the people.