This is a guest post by VINEETHA MOKKIL.
The Shashi Tharoor-Sunanda Pushkar tango has unleashed many demons. They woke up the country’s finance minister and party colleagues from a willful sleep. They are set to end Lalit Modi’s glitzy reign as IPL chief. The Tharoor-Pushkar coupling also let loose a spectre of another kind. It infected the electronic and print media with an epidemic of tabloidisation of unprecedented proportions. As soon as the first whiff of the story permeated the air, the strain of tabloid journalism that has been seeping into the Indian media scenario for over the last 15 years found the perfect setting to multiply and mutate and infect dailies, magazines and television channels across the board.
Newspapers and television channels which claim to occupy higher ground than lowly tabloids played out the entire episode like a soap opera. Headlines went overboard with the ‘wink-wink, nudge-nudge’ game. (Sample these: ‘Tharoor Unleashes Attractive Weapon,’ ‘Minister’s External Affair,’ ‘Got A Girl, Named Sue’). Sensationalism reigned supreme as columnists and hyper-ventilating television anchors marched in, flying high the flag of yellow journalism. Biased, personal opinion was paraded as fact. Unnamed sources came crawling out of the woodwork, spilling secrets of all sorts about the lead players.
Last Sunday, a prominent socialite claimed she had inside information about Sunanda’s cosmetic surgeries, her haircut, her wardrobe. She revealed them in her weekly newspaper column, informing readers that ‘sources’ had supplied her with these ‘facts.’ A lengthy profile (with the blurb describing it as The Eye-Popping Life Story of Sunanda Pushkar in true tabloid tradition) in a leading English news-magazine ripped apart Pushkar’s personal and professional lives like a mad bull on a rampage. The piece, like many others of its ilk, was propped up by nothing but quotes from unnamed sources and peppered with sexist remarks which would put a Right-wing prude to shame (‘Not surprisingly, Sunanda was leaving not just her friends behind but her husband too;’ she was ‘chasing the glittering mirage with vampire-like thirst – hyper networking and coursing business deals,’ her ‘peroxide hair streaks, heavy make-up, razzle dazzle, seductive couture, false eyelashes….’ (Italics mine).
Sensationalism, sexism, brazen disregard for facts – the spectre of tabloidisation leered at us in all its glory as the story unravelled. Both Sunanda and Tharoor are in the public glare and the media has every reason to investigate their roles in the IPL scandal. But neither truth nor public interest is served by saying goodbye to the fundamental norms of journalistic practice and passing off salacious half-truths and subjective judgement for fact.
Paid news, front page ads which elbow out news stories, flip headlines, personality-driven pieces which read like PR-handouts, odes to Bollywood stars and corporate honchos, brazen disregard for objectivity and accuracy – we are used to the taste of tabloid journalism by now. Fluff sells, sensational news grabs eyeballs – yes, we know. In a cut throat market place where television channels compete with each other to dilute hard news and keep viewers hooked to a steady diet of trivia, newspapers and magazines are on overdrive when it comes to increasing the tabloid quotient on their pages. The Tharoor-Sunanda story arrived on the scene like the apogee of this mission. Media houses of all shapes and sizes let the fig leaf fall. Their naked greed and single-minded devotion to the market was on display for all to see.
Did the garnish of sensationalism, sexism and titillation up circulation figures? Did it grab eyeballs and raise TRPs to the skies? There are more critical questions hovering overhead: how much longer will they take the viewer/reader for a complete imbecile? How many more waves of tabloid frenzy will wash over us before viewers lose the last shred of confidence in televisions news, before readers line their trash bins with broadsheets without bothering to wade through ultra-lite, trivia-ridden pages?
Vineetha Mokkil is a journalist based in Delhi.