AK Saseendran sting is a symptom of a larger malaise in Kerala’s mainstream media

The most remarkable feature of the aftermath of the TV-expose that grounded Kerala transport minister AK Saseendran on Sunday was that he didn’t have to struggle much to defend himself because the state’s overcrowded media and their periphery did it better than what he could have done.

Many television journalists and commentators were livid with the way the story unfolded. While many thought it had lowered the standards of journalism in the state by invading the privacy of Saseendran, many others thought it was patently illegal and that the minister did nothing wrong. The arguments that strengthened their outrage were that if at all the conversation was real, the minister was speaking as private individual, he didn’t misuse his office and that nobody had complained of sexual abuse or harassment by him.

They went on to argue that what he spoke in his privacy was completely personal and by recording and broadcasting it, the television channel breached the law of the land and resorted to yellow journalism. It was like hiding a camera in one’s bedroom or bathroom and one couldn’t have gone any lower, some of them said.

It’s indeed gratifying to see that a major section of the media in the state is outraged by this episode because sting and morality based journalism doesn’t bespeak something good about the media practice, not just in Kerala, but anywhere in the world. Therefore, journalists, most of them from rival channels, taking a stand against the expose was reassuring. But wait a minute, weren’t they on the vanguard of the same sleaze less than a year ago, when a fake women-entrepreneur was making sex and smut the main ingredient of her allegations against the then Chief Minister of Kerala Oomen Chandy and many of his cabinet colleagues?

It was just the inconsistent, one-sided version of that woman, with no technical background or entrepreneurial antecedents posing as a businesswoman, who was peddling stories about how her effort to be a solar-energy pioneer in the state was abused by several politicians of the ruling UDF that the channels celebrated. The climax of this competitive peddling of sleaze was when the channels went on a highway-race - beamed live OJ Simpson style - to recover the purported sex-videos of the chief minister that her accomplice, a murder-convict, claimed to have possessed. The con-woman and her stories seemed to have long since disappeared into thin air once the government fell. The journalists have forgotten the incomplete smut that they had pushed. They never bothered to complete the story.

 AK Saseendran sting is a symptom of a larger malaise in Kerala’s mainstream media

File image of AK Saseendran. Image Courtesy: Government of Kerala website

If the same journalists are outraged today, it couldn’t be because of conscience suddenly dawning on them, but because they are bad losers. According to some reports, Mangalam TV — the channel that aired Saseendran’s alleged sex talk — hit the TRP bull’s eye on its launch day itself. As they themselves have demonstrated several times in the past, media measure truth in terms of what’s expedient and what’s popular. If you are on a TRP race, you aren't a saint. And the new entrant Mangalam TV has learned it from you, nobody else. Probably, they amped it a bit and beat you in your game.

Now let’s look at the fallacy of some of the arguments of the journalists and the commentators who are on the outrage-bandwagon now.

The minister has been tricked into a trap and forced to talk sex. Nobody knows who’s at the other end and the talk involved no misuse of his office. What he does as a person has nothing to do with what he does as a minister.

The minister may very well have been tricked. Probably, there’s an imposter at the other end that he may not have even met as in the case of many phone-sex cases. But that precisely is the point — if it was indeed a trap, it tested the minister’s vulnerability and he failed.

In the US, the government routinely sets up honey-traps to reduce the supply side in prostitution. Undercover women officers, pose as escorts/sex-workers and advertise in the media offering sex services. If one calls, meets up with them and talk sex and money, he is instantly arrested. Decoy-officers even walk the streets.

Every year, in what’s called the “National Johns Suppression Initiative”, hundreds of unsuspecting men, who are solicited into talking sex and money, are arrested, shamed (by publicising their photos and details), fined and often sent to jail. To naked eyes, they haven’t done anything wrong because they didn’t talk sex-deals voluntarily, but were literally lured into doing it; but to the police, it’s a test of their proclivity to buy sex. If you fail the test, you are a potential buyer of sex, a potential participant in a possible crime. It’s a long shot, unfair to the men; but that’s the way it works.

In the case of the minister, if the conversation was indeed the result of a trap, it was not just a test of a personal vice, but his indiscretion as a minister. Can anybody vouch that a man who gets carried away like this wouldn’t have or couldn’t have misused his office? It’s not about immorality, but about the chinks in propriety that a constitutional job demands.

Even if it’s not a trap, the situation doesn’t change.

The channel violated law by recording and broadcasting a private conversation

Right to privacy is indeed a part of Article 21 (Right to Life), but the critics seemed to have failed in making a distinction between recording and tapping. Nobody knows if the conversation was recorded or tapped. If it’s recorded, the law is not clear and the general sense based on jurisprudence is that it can be done with the consent of one of the parties involved. One of the parties can record the conversation or allow somebody else to record with her/his consent. If it’s tapped, it is a different ballgame and without the statutory permission, it’s illegal; a crime. If Mangalam indeed did it by tapping, it’s liable to be prosecuted. Without really knowing how exactly the conversation was made public, calling it illegal or criminal is too premature.

The man who knows the truth the most must be the minister himself. Unless he’s speaking to too many people like this, he would have instantly recognised who the other person was. Probably, that’s why he resigned.

Phone sex or sex over new media is not as benign as it sounds. At the other end, it could have been even a minor. In the early years of Internet chat, there was this notorious case of the “Babe from Memphis” in which an old man was posing as a young girl and engaging in “tiny sex” with a minor boy at the other end.

This is a new low, an invasion into a person’s privacy. Can’t two consenting adults talk sex?

This is certainly not a new low, but a different low. The state has seen a lot smut on TV, particularly in recent years. In 2013, the sex-video of another prominent politician reached Kerala homes when a woman set up a stealth camera on herself and him. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and he was exonerated. A channel fronting for a political party once violated all norms of confidentiality and even law when it said that the victim of a sensational murder case was HIV-positive (whether it’s true or not was immaterial). During the last year of the Oomen Chandy regime, many TV channels peddled round-the-clock unverified sleaze that slandered several politicians. The same channels also aired damaging and libelous gossip against Congress MP Sashi Tharoor, when his wife died in a hotel room.

What Mangalam TV did was the symptom of a larger disease in Kerala’s mainstream media. Pointing fingers is not the way to get rid of it. When there are too many TV channels in such a tiny state (highest per capita density in India), the struggle for survival can only drag everybody down. It’s a competitive race to the bottom. Those who cashed out early preaching morality from the sidelines are lucky.

Inevitably, the government has announced a judicial commission enquiry into the sting. If it’s really serious about fixing the rot, they should have done instituted something similar to the Leveson Committee in England when smut from the News of the World had hit the fan.

Would it help? Probably not, because the argument in Kerala is whose sleaze is more moral.

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Updated Date: Mar 28, 2017 14:30:14 IST