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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Public figures; private lives

It’s time to make the case for privacy, as social media creates public personas for us all

So, once more we return to that old chestnut: are public figures entitled to keep their private lives private?

This time, the question is prompted by recent media reports on the state of a chief minister’s marriage. So relentless was the speculation and so vicious some of the rumour-mongering that the chief minister had no choice but to issue a statement to set the record straight – which, of course, only gave a further fillip to the coverage. Now all the newspapers which had ignored the story ran holier-than-thou pieces on how the fine line between public and private lives had been transgressed by the media – quite ignoring the fact that they were just as guilty.

I am aware that I am laying myself open to such criticism as well, but now that the issue is on the top of most people’s minds, I think it’s worth risking opprobrium to make a few points.

And so, back to our question: are public figures entitled to private lives? Well, there’s no easy ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to that one. But there are some rules that the Indian media have, on the whole, adhered to all these years. And for the most part, they have served us well.

First up, there has always been a clear distinction between how we treat politicians and other people in the public life. Film stars, models, singers, sports stars have always had their love lives scrutinised, their marriages and affairs reported, their break-ups gossiped about. But politicians and, to some extent, businessmen have always been granted a measure of privacy as far as their love lives are concerned.

And no, there was no double standard at work here. The logic was that film stars and other entertainment celebrities had no problems discussing their private lives in their interviews. They happily talked about their boyfriends/husbands, dished the dirt on their break-ups, and announced their engagements/weddings with much fanfare (think John Abraham and Bipasha Basu or Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya). So given that they themselves opened the door to their homes, in a manner of speaking, they had no right to complain if we all turned into Peeping Toms.

But when it came to politicians, the game was played according to different rules. As long as politicians didn’t bring their wives and families into the public domain, we steered clear of reporting on their private lives, no matter how tangled they might be. As long as their private lives didn’t impact on how they performed their public duties, we took the line that it was no one’s business but their own whom they did or did not sleep with. In other words, if a politician was dating someone, it wasn’t a legitimate news story. If his girlfriend was using him to make money, well then it was.

In this respect, the India media took their cue from the French press rather than the rabid British tabloid culture, which has made a fetish out of dabbling in the stuff of other people’s souls. We may have known full well which minister was having an affair, which one was unhappily married, which one was homosexual; but we chose not to report this on the grounds that none of this was in the slightest bit relevant.

All of this seems to be changing now. The old rules are in the process of being junked as the tabloidization of our media continues apace. Now, it seems that even mainstream publications have no problem running speculative stories about the private lives of politicians, all of them brimming over with unproven rumours and unverified gossip.

And that, if you ask me, is a pity.

The argument used to carry such stories goes roughly like this. Anyone who enters public life should get used to the concept of public scrutiny at all times. If you are a public figure, well, then your entire life should be lived out in public. And the public has the right to take an interest in whatever part of your life they see fit. In other words, public interest is defined as anything that the public is interested in.

To see just how dangerous this concept this, just extrapolate it outwards to include all those who exist on the fringes of public life. And in this age of social media, that would include you, me and all the several thousand people who follow you on twitter or read your blog.

To that extent, most of us are public figures now because we have a presence on social media networks and platforms. Journalists, bloggers and just regular folk who like to post their wisdom on Facebook or Twitter – all of us have created public personas for ourselves. We are constantly blogging and tweeting about our spouses, our kids, where we went on holiday, what we ate. And in that sense, we are opening the door to our private lives on a public forum.

But in doing so, have we forfeited all our rights to privacy? Are our private lives fair game as well? Should our marital problems be published on Facebook for all to see and snigger at? Should our divorces become trending topics on Twitter? Should our shouting matches with spouses/partners be posted on YouTube for the amusement of the world?

If your answer to any of the questions above is a horrified ‘no’ then think long and hard before you dip into a story about a chief minister’s marital problems. There, but for the grace of God, go you...

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Work in progress

A quick look at the various life forms that flourish in every office

Let me guess. Even as you settle down to reading the papers on a lazy Sunday, a part of you is already dreading the return to office come Monday morning. And who can blame you? There is something soul-destroying about being thrown into close proximity with a bunch of people for days and months, even years, on end – especially if you didn’t like them very much to begin with. The daily irritants just pile on until you’re ready to scream blue murder – or commit one with your own bare hands.

Every office has its irritants – and none is more annoying than an irritating colleague. These come in all shapes and sizes and have their own particular quirks. But odds are that there is one of the following types in every office across the world.

The Whinger:
No matter how well things are going, this guy (or gal) will find something to complain about. His raise wasn’t good enough; she didn’t get to go to the company off-site in that swanky location; the air-conditioning is too cold/not working; parking is such a bitch when you don’t have your own spot; the folks at head office are such idiots; and who on earth made that bozo their boss?

The Lothario:
This one is almost exclusively male – and a pretty unreconstructed male as that. He is convinced that he is God’s gift to womankind; and nothing, not even a kick in the groin, will convince him otherwise. Say no all you want, he will still believe that you actually mean yes – it’s just that you are too coy to say it out loud. Nothing deters him: not the presence of an all-too-visible boyfriend; not the threat of an irate husband; not the derision of the entire office staff. The only way to stop him is to report him for sexual harassment – though he’s likely to misinterpret even that for some sort of perverse come-on.

The Flirt:
It’s probably very politically incorrect to say this, but this one is almost always female. She’s the girl we all love to hate. The one who teeters into work on impossibly high heels and has the entire male staff lining up to open the door. The one who can get out of pulling night shifts by the simple expedient of batting her eyelashes at the supervisor. The one whose annual raise is inversely proportional to the size of her dress. The one who gets the best assignments by charming the boss – and then gets one of her deluded (male, of course) admirers to do the work for her. Yes, say it out loud, we hate her.

The Gossip:
This one is the best friend you can have in office because by some mysterious process he or she knows exactly what is going on in every department. The Gossip knows who gets paid more than you for considerably less work; who is sleeping with whom; who has broken up with whom; whose marriage seems to be in trouble; who is the boss’ blue-eyed boy/girl this month; which posting will be up for grabs at the end of the year; and much, much more. The only downside is that he or she will also gossip about you with the same cheery viciousness when talking to other people. But hey, that’s a small price to pay for being so well-informed.

The Tell-Tale:
This one has got the flow of information down pat. It’s in one ear and out in another person’s ear. But once you’ve got his or her measure, it’s relatively easy to deal with this type. You can put the Tell-Tale to good use when you want to get a rumour started on the office grapevine: just drop a word in that every-ready ear and swear him or her to confidence. The next thing you know the story will be buzzing up the office email and getting them all into a huddle at the water cooler. Mission accomplished.

The Martyr:
True to the name, this one always looks as if he or she has the cares of the world on their slender shoulders. But how can you blame them? Clearly, the office would cease to function if they did not come in early to work; pick up the slack of less efficient (not to mention less conscientious) staff members; stay in for lunch to catch up on outstanding projects; stay back after the boss to clear up the mess he has created; and then trudge in early to perform the same routine all over again. Honestly, it’s enough to give anyone a halo of incipient sainthood.

The Suck-Up:
This one never met an authority figure he didn’t want to sidle up to with an insincere compliment. He’s made a career out of cosying up to those in power, be it his boss or his boss’s boss. But he doesn’t stop at that. He also finds a way to worm his way into the affections of the boss’s wife, he makes friends with the boss’s kids, remembers all their birthdays and makes it a point to mark the occasion with a thoughtful little gift. His pay-off is the opportunity to baby-sit on weekends and a glowing confidential report at the end of the year.

The Slacker:
He never works at anything that he can palm off to someone else – and yet, he appears mysteriously busy all the time. You may have a sneaking suspicion that he’s playing Solitaire on his computer but when you sneak up on him you’ll find him studying a pie chart. Honestly, it’s enough to drive anyone up the wall.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Makeover mania

Is it ever a good idea to try and change the man you love into the man of your dreams?

So, now for our question of this week: What exactly is up with Shane Warne? The laddish leg-spiner from Australia is doing such a good impersonation of a newly-minted metrosexual that it is hard to believe that this is the same guy who peroxide-tinted the ends of his hair and – judging by appearances – lived entirely on pork pies and beer.

The new, improved (well, okay, the jury is still out on that one) Warne is missing one beer gut, innumerable wrinkles on his forehead, laugh lines and dodgy hair cut. He now cuts an impeccably slim figure with a suspiciously smooth forehead, a sculpted chin and perfectly highlighted hair. Gone are the grungy track pants and baggy jeans and T-shirts that he lived in. This avatar of Warne wears designer togs to show off his new slim-line waist and toned butt.

So what lies behind Shane’s new look? Plastic surgery? Face lift? Mid-life crisis? Perish the thought. Apparently the makeover is down to the new woman in his life: Liz Hurley. According to Liz, Shane’s new wrinkle-free look is entirely down to his using Estee Lauder skin care products – yes, the same brand that, by some remarkable coincidence, pays Hurley an obscene amount of money to flog their creams and lotions.

These must be magic potions of some potency because Shane Warne has been completely transformed after using them. Now, the man who used to drive his first wife, Simone, nuts with his unreconstructed male behaviour – sexting every second woman he met, for starters – is reduced to tweeting to Hurley’s parrot (yes, the bird has its own Twitter handle) to demonstrate his devotion to his lady love.

By now you’re probably muttering to yourself: what on earth is our Warnie thinking? The erstwhile Rajasthan Royals captain appears to have been reduced to nothing more than a pale – though very smooth-skinned – shadow of his former self. So, why is he allowing his girlfriend to change him into something he is palpably not?

Well, I guess you could put it down to the throes of new love. Rare is the man who can resist the blandishments of his woman in the honeymoon phase of the relationship. And if she comes bearing Resilience Lift face and eye cream, well then, what better way to show your love than to slap it on with a trowel?

But my question is this: why is Liz Hurley falling into the oldest trap in the world? Why is she trying to change the man she fell in love with? Why is she intent on turning him into something that he is clearly not? And why on earth is she bent on recasting him in her own image, complete with dewy complexion, skin-tight jeans and blow-dried hair?

More to the point: how long does she think she can keep this up? And how far down the line will Shane protest at being treated like a work in progress rather than a red-blooded male with a mind and personality of his own?

And at the end of the day, when they are done with their His and Hers facials and spa treatments, when they have scoffed down their green salads (dressing on the side) with sparkling water, will Liz still fancy the man she fell in love with – even though she is hard put to recognise him as the same person? And will he still see her as an object of desire rather than a mistress of makeover?

But why blame Liz Hurley alone? She is merely following the pattern laid down by countless others. I’ve lost count of the number of women who get into relationships with clearly unsuitable men with the rallying cry of: “No problem, I can always change him.”

Well, maybe you can in the short run. You can prevail on him to throw out all those grungy clothes. You can buy him an entire new wardrobe. You can tear him away from all his unsuitable friends. You can cut out red meat and beer from his diet. You can introduce him to the delights of a juicer. You can get him a trendy new haircut to go with the spanking new wardrobe. You can even get him to remember birthdays and anniversary – and get you flowers and chocolate.

Yes, you can train him to do the usual dog-and-pony tricks. But only up to a point. Sooner or later the worm will turn. He will begin to resent your overweening influence in every sphere of his life. He will begin to feel claustrophobic in the tightly-controlled world you have created for him. He will sneak out to meet his friends for a night out – and load up on all the forbidden food groups. He will announce his independence by letting his hair grow past his shoulders – and refusing to wash it even if you beg.

And sometimes even when he doesn’t chafe under the burden of your expectations, even when he continues to obey your every command, it still won’t work – because you have changed him so much that he is no longer the man you fell in love with.

Will Shane Warne and Liz Hurley go the same way? Well, let’s give it time. But all those ladies out there hoping to transform the men you love into the men of your dreams: consider yourself warned. You can never really change someone – no, not in the long run.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Name and shame

Does granting anonymity to rape victims also reinforce the idea that being raped is something to be ashamed of?

So after that infamous perp walk conducted in full view of international media and a night spent at Riker’s Island jail, rape charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn have been dropped by the Manhattan district attorney’s office. The prosecutors on the case decided that the rape victim was not a credible witness, and that if they could not trust her story they couldn’t very well ask a jury to do so.

In the interim, as the case began to collapse, the hotel maid who was the alleged victim came forward to put her version of events in front of the world. In order to do so, Nafissatou Diallo voluntarily gave up the right to anonymity that the law grants her and allowed her name – and her face – to be splashed all over the world. But until she herself chose to reveal her identity, no media outlet was allowed to as much as name her, let alone carry her picture. Her privacy was guaranteed and protected by the law that insists on anonymity for victims of rape.

In India too, section 228-A of the Penal Code guarantees the same anonymity to victims of rape. And at one level, this guarantee makes absolute sense. Women who have been traumatised by a sexual attack should be allowed to recover in private. Revealing their identities in these circumstances only adds to their trauma. In addition, the guarantee of anonymity also ensures that more women come forward to report rapes – a crime that is under-reported to a shocking extent because of the social stigma associated with it.

So, there is a strong case to be made out for the granting of anonymity to rape victims. More so in a country like India where women who are raped are often ostracised and even told that they must have ‘asked’ for it by the way they dressed or behaved. So, granting them the right to keep their names and identities out of the public domain is the right thing to do.

And yet, at a more subliminal level, I can’t help but feel that this only reinforces the idea that women who are raped have something to be ashamed of. And that the vicious assault they suffered on their person has also tainted them in some mysterious way – and that this taint needs to be hidden away from the world.

Just consider the way in which rape is projected in popular culture, via our movies and TV shows. The phrase used most often to describe the act of rape in Hindi cinema is ‘izzat loot li’. The message that goes out is stark and simple: a woman’s ‘izzat’, her honour, is invested in her body. And you can ‘steal’ her honour if you violate her body.

So the act of rape is not something that dishonours the person who commits it; on the contrary, it besmirches the person who is the victim. Now, how does that make any sense?

And yet, every time we refrain from naming the victim of a rape by granting her anonymity we are, in a sense, both protecting her and shaming her at the same time. What we are effectively saying is: “You are not just the victim of a terrible crime; you also have something to be ashamed of.”

Why should that be so?

If we say that we are granting anonymity to protect a woman’s reputation because rape is such a heinous crime, then shouldn’t we also offer the same protection of anonymity to the alleged rapist? After all, the basic principle on which our jurisprudence is based is that everyone is considered innocent until pronounced guilty. So, if presumption of innocence is the guiding principle in these matters then why guarantee anonymity to the complainant while naming and shaming the defendant?

Whatever your opinion of Strauss-Kahn’s behaviour in that hotel room with the chambermaid – and even his lawyers concede that there was a sexual encounter, though they insist that it was consensual – there is no getting around the fact that he was treated as guilty from the word go, without even the pretence of a presumption of innocence. New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg even scoffed: “If you don’t want to do the perp walk; don’t do the crime” ignoring the fact that no case had been proven against Strauss-Kahn. (Bloomberg did an about-turn weeks later, terming perp walks ‘outrageous’ – so far, so predictable.)

But while none of us will shed many tears for Strauss-Kahn, given his long history of predatory behaviour towards women, his treatment in this case should give us pause for thought. Should any man be treated as guilty until proven innocent merely because a charge of rape is bought against him? If the crime of rape is so heinous that it will permanently scar a woman who is a victim of it, then how badly would it ruin a man’s reputation if he were to be falsely charged? So if we are to grant anonymity, shouldn’t it be to both parties, until such time as a verdict is delivered?

After all, when it comes to rape, naming and shaming works both ways. Hence, just as women’s names are protected, so should the reputation of men. Or else, we might as well throw the presumption of innocence out of the window – and any pretence at fair play.