Smriti Irani's record may be in doubt, but Outlook's hit-job is sexist, hypocritical

The media has double-standards when it comes to talking about public persons and their privacy. When its Smriti irani or Narendra Modi, no privacy rules apply. When it is Sonia Gandhi, omerta applies.

Seetha April 14, 2015 07:15:04 IST
Smriti Irani's record may be in doubt, but Outlook's hit-job is sexist, hypocritical

"How an actress who has faced the biggest of television cameras of all sizes and shapes could get so rattled by a pinhole CCTV eye, we will never know."

Those are the opening lines of an article on how bureaucrats are quitting the human resource development ministry in droves, fed up with their minister, Smriti Z Irani's high-handed ways. This is one of five articles that form part of a cover story package in Outlook on the fading fortunes of Irani.

For those who’ve just crawled out from under a rock, the reference to the CCTV is the furore over Irani spotting a camera in a Fabindia outlet in Goa that was placed in a manner that could, she alleged, see into trial rooms.

Let us keep Irani aside for a minute.

Smriti Iranis record may be in doubt but Outlooks hitjob is sexist hypocritical

Union HRD minister Smriti Irani. Reuters

There is still some difference of opinion about whether the camera was actually positioned to look into the trial rooms. Another story which is part of the cover package makes this point and hints that the controversy may have been an attention-grabbing gimmick by Irani. That’s a point to consider - though debatable. But the author of this wonderful opening line is not taking this line. The sentence is about why Irani should kick up a kerfuffle over the camera regardless of its positioning, since she should be used to facing cameras. So a woman who is or has been an actress does not have the right to privacy, not even when she is trying on clothes?

The sentence is a telling comment about what the writer – and the magazine, since the sentence was allowed to pass – think of both women and the acting profession. Note that this is not the author quoting some fuddy-duddy conservative. It is his line. Why then outrage over Sanjay Nirupam asking Irani, "aap to TV par thumke lagati thi, aaj chunaavi vishleshak ban gayi hain (you were dancing on TV and now you are an election analyst)?" Or over Sushilkumar Shinde talking down to Jaya Bachchan, when she intervened to speak on violence in Assam: “This is serious stuff and not a filmy subject”?

But wait. When Deepika Padukone took down a leading daily for publishing a picture of her cleavage taken by an awkwardly positioned camera, Outlook carried articles which were largely supportive of her stand and bemoaned the sexism and misogyny actresses faced. One of them is linked here.

So it’s okay – even laudable - if Padukone protests about the way a picture about her body is used, but it is not okay for Irani to kick up a fuss about a dodgily-placed CCTV camera?

Let us bring Irani back into the picture now.

If what was all right for Padukone to do is not all right for Irani to do, then clearly there is something more at play here. The cover package is a hatchet-job on Irani. Now it is perfectly within Outlook’s right to do hatchet jobs or puff jobs on anyone. All newspapers and magazines are doing that all the time. Irani has not exactly excelled in her stint as HRD minister and perhaps warranted a negative story. But was there no anecdote relating to her rather bad stint in the ministry to show "how quickly Smriti Irani has squandered away the goodwill in her 10 months as helmswoman of a most crucial ministry"? Was such a sexist and personal comment warranted in an article about her professional record, which otherwise acknowledges the constraints she is functioning under? Is this the extent to which we as a profession will go when we do negative stories?

This anything-is-game approach is actually very selective. I was widely applauded by other journalists for a blog post I wrote in 2011 on media speculation about the state of Omar Abdullah’s marriage. Yet, many of these very journalists found nothing wrong in Narendra Modi’s marriage being made an issue before the 2014 elections and even after. His suitability for the post of prime minister should have depended purely on his chief ministerial record and yet there were numerous stories and endless speculation about the circumstances of his marriage and the consequent `abandonment’ of his wife.

This started well before he filed his election affidavit in which he mentioned his wife for the first time (since it became mandatory to do so). This was the only public aspect of the whole matter – that he had not mentioned her in earlier affidavits. The media, however, was silent on other politicians with two wives who mention only one of them in their election affidavits. The raking up of Modi’s personal life has not stopped - an editorial on Barrack Obama’s visit to put in a despairing line contrasting the two leaders on their marital life. Was there nothing else to criticise about the visit or about Modi’s record as prime minister?

This obsession with Modi’s marriage – a very personal matter – contrasts sharply the deafening silence the media maintained on Sonia Gandhi’s health when, as UPA chairperson, she suddenly went abroad for surgery. The Hindu (and Firstpost) were among a few publications which questioned the secrecy surrounding her illness. It was not a purely personal matter given the position she then held. There are other politicians with deeply problematic personal lives, which influence their professional conduct in some cases. All this is well known to journalists, but this is never hinted at, let alone written about.

Why is it okay for the media to dredge up personal matters of one politician’s life and keep quiet about another? What is the litmus test to decide that one person’s private life is public business and another’s public life is private business? These are questions the media will have to answer if it is to retain the last dregs of its already strained credibility.

Apparently, the opening line of the Outlook article has been doing the rounds on Twitter since Saturday. And still, till the time of writing this, friends who are on Twitter (I am not) say there has been no condemnation/criticism of this by any of the big names in journalism who are on Twitter. Outrage when journalists are called presstitutes and bazaru is immediate and sustained. But there is not a squeak of protest or admonishment when journalists indulge in personal attacks while writing on a minister’s performance, when they apply double standards in writing on people’s personal lives. Is that fair?

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