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Muckraking with no public purpose

ajosephs Icon Posted by Ammu Joseph

April 25th, 2010

A story with all the ingredients of a soap opera has dominated the front pages and prime time bulletins of much of the Indian news media over the last fortnight. As one columnist wrote, “There hasn’t been a story like this in six decades, so utterly rich in sex, sleaze and superstars. There is money, nepotism, ministers, molls, models, alcohol and parties where the big boys play at night… You have inside-dealers, high-rollers, back-stabbers, whistle-blowers, gambling rings and international betting rackets… How could the media resist turning such explosive ingredients into the most volatile Molotov cocktails in memory?”

Since cricket – an obsession in parts of South Asia, virtually a religion in India – is of little interest outside the erstwhile colonies of the late, unlamented British Empire (aka the Commonwealth) I won’t go into the details of the sordid drama that has been unfolding around the three-year-old Indian Premier League version of the game.

The initial controversy involved a new league team, with allegations of shady dealings in the franchise process. The ‘sweat equity’ allotted to a woman, Sunanda Pushkar, received most of the early attention. The first casualty of the ensuing political storm in the IPL teacup was international diplomat turned Indian politician Shashi Tharoor, who resigned from his post as a government minister last week, less than a year after he was elected a member of parliament and given a post in the cabinet.

What the media did to his friend, Sunanda Pushkar, is in many ways a more disturbing story, which a wide range of people within the general, media-consuming public have perceived as not only distasteful but inherently sexist.

The Indian media have traditionally been discreet about the often-colourful personal lives of political leaders, including affairs and even multiple (parallel and therefore illegal) marriages. Media audiences here have been exposed to more international political sexcapades (especially the regular supply from the U.S.) than domestic ones. But if the media frenzy over l’affaire Tharoor-Pushkar is any indication, the unwritten but generally accepted hands-off policy has been jettisoned at least by some sections of the media – and not just tabloids or their equivalents.

One of the worst examples of the kind of coverage to which Pushkar has been subjected over the past fortnight appeared in a respected current affairs magazine (which, just a few editions ago, published well-known writer Arundhati Roy’s long, controversial essay, Walking with the Comrades). If you have the stomach for it, here’s the link: Got a Girl, Named Sue.

Although many regular readers of the magazine were outraged by both the style and the substance of the article, a prominent columnist and author thought it was “delicious” enough to post on her blog: Go Sue! (April 21). Of course, she had written one of the earlier, somewhat below-the-belt pieces about Pushkar: Beautician and the Beasts.

In the midst of all the negative coverage it was something of a relief to find at least one sympathetic interview with Pushkar herself: The Parable of the Vamp.

Finally, this weekend, the witch-hunt journalism witnessed over the past couple of weeks was effectively critiqued in an op-ed page article in a leading newspaper: This Journalism Requires No Sweat.

The couple of prompt comments that have already appeared at the end of the piece suggest that readers tend to agree with the analysis. One of the only positive aspects of the entire episode is, in fact, that a substantial section of readers and viewers seems to be put off by scandal-mongering masquerading as journalism.

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