Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram fractured a toe after he tripped and fell off a granite step leading to Koshy?s, a restaurant in Bangalore, on December 23. It made front page news, at least in the south Indian editions of The Indian Express and The Hindu (December 25).
No big deal, the cynic might say. The Indian Express merely mentioned that a news photographer was trying to get a picture of Shri Chidambaram eating out with his wife, son, daughter-in-law and grand daughter which was resented by Shri Chidambaram who wanted no intrusion into his privacy. And he is so right. Who was the photographer who was making a nuisance of himself? The Indian Express did not identify him. But The Hindu did. The photographer, it said, was a Times of India man whose request that he be allowed to take a picture of the family had been rebuffed over and over again. But when the Chidambaram family was coming out of the restaurant there apparently was a scuffle and an attempt was made to snatch the photographer'scamera when, in the melee that followed, Shri Chidambaram tripped and fell.
The Hindu said in its report that subsequently the Resident Editor of The Times of India apologised to the Chidambaram family and to the Minister himself, but the poor man had to be taken to a hospital and have a plaster cast put on his right foot. One hopes that The Times of India will bear the medical expenses.
But what is involved here is not the medical bill but the right of a man?any man, be he a politician, a film star or a champion sportsman?to have his privacy. Shri Chidambaram reportedly was on a private visit to Bangalore from where he was planning to go on a visit to Melkote, in Mandya district.
Police sources are quoted as saying that being on a private visit, Shri Chidambaram was in an entirely different attire from his usual white dhoti and white shirt. It is immaterial what he wore. A photographer had just no business to intrude on the Minister's privacy. A film star may enjoy being photographed, may be even a sportsman would think it is great fun, but it is one thing for a celebrity to address a public meeting or a political conference but quite another when he is out enjoying a meal with his family. His privacy must be strictly respected. One would even go to the extent of saying that were Shri Chidambaram to be seen entertaining a female film star, it is strictly his business. There are some Laxaman rekhas that no photographer should cross or be allowed to cross. Such behaviour should be punishable.
Not to so long ago, speaking at a seminar held in Panjim, Goa on ?Ethics in Journalism?, a former Judge of the Bombay High Court, Narendra Chapalgaonkar lashed out at the electronic media for its role in glorifying violences, violating privacy and projecting entertainment in the guise of news.
Addressing the Goa Union of Journalists on December 18, 2006 Justice Chapalgaonkar said that there was no official regulatory body to check the perversion of the electronic media?and he is absolutely right in saying so. The Press Council of India has jurisdiction only over the print media and even in this matter, some editors have refused to listen to the Counsel or obey its orders. The Press Council has no teeth and some have even shown their impertinence in refusing to appear before the Council. There is no question but that there has to be a regulatory body to keep an eye not only on the print and television media but an ear on radio. At the Goa meeting some journalists went to the extent of urging the Government of India to constitute a National Media Commission and Media Council to study the problems confronting the media in present day context. Had not the killings in Ahmedabad and elsewhere following the Godhra incident not been shown in all their gory, the riots would have been controlled in no time. There is blood on the hands of some of our TV anchor people, and if they do not realise it, they must be told firmly and decisively that any future recurrence of riots anywhere will have to be delicately covered, or else. True, press freedom is precious and must be respected as far as possible. But the press at the same time must know its limitations. During the post-Godhra riots the electronic media especially showed utter irresponsibility and one can fully understand and appreciate Justice Chapalgaonkar'sagony.
The American media showed great restraint in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the twin World Trade towers. So did the British media in another context. In India, we are rightly proud of our press freedom, especially in the context of the emergency, but it is time some of our editors indulged in quiet retrospection.
It is no argument to say that celebrities have no right to privacy. That is a mistaken notion. Even celebrities are human. And they have every right to enjoy a quiet meal with their families and friends. Justice Chapalgaonkar recalled that in the past, journalists were like teachers of the society and there was no need of a code to book them. That may be partly wishful thinking. There has been some yellow journalism in the past as there is some today, but the problem now is that leading newspapers are showing signs of immaturity that is highly disturbing.
Page 3 journalism is creating a new mind-set even among photographers who have to be told where they get off. That the Goa meeting was covered only by The Gomantak Times ( December 19) merely shows how insensitive some of our news editors have become. And what prevented The Indian Express to identify the photographer involved in the Bangalore melee? It revels in investigative journalism. Here there is no investigation involved. It was just a question of identification. In many ways the Indian media is trying to follow in the steps of the western media which hounds celebrities day in and day out. Even presuming that some celebrities have to be exposed, what was it that The Times of India was trying to expose: That Shri Chidambaram was having one more masala dosa or two more idlis not with chutney but with sambhar? Don'twe have some sense of decency? The Hindu, bless its editorial staff, has the courage to admit to its mistakes. And no less than President APJ Abdul Kalam has praised the paper in an address delivered on National Press Day in New Delhi (November 16). The Hindu has set an excellent example worthy of being followed. What is our media afraid of?