The ridiculous climax of the media coverage of Sridevi’s death had a Telugu TV reporter getting into a bathtub to speculate on how the actor died.
This was only the latest in the long history of scandal-mongering by Telugu news channels, especially targeting ‘modern’ women – women going to pubs or drinking, walking on the streets, wearing fashionable clothes, or walking with men after dark on university campuses or actresses or women bureaucrats.
Most scoops are targeted at such ‘transgressing’ women in public spaces, but now and then the channels also give themselves permission to enter people’s homes in their project of making news out of their private lifestyles, difficulties and conflicts.
The latest episode
In the latest episode, the cameraman of TV9 Telugu broke into the home of a high ranking police woman officer – an assistant superintendent of police (ASP) – in the dead of the night.
The next morning, we saw visuals of her husband and her mother confronting another policeman – a circle inspector (CI) – and demanding that he come upstairs. The camera is then seen barging into the house along with the ASP’s husband, chasing her into her bedroom and bathroom. In the background, one could hear her pleading to be left alone. These visuals of her bedroom and bathroom, the confrontation between her husband and the CI, along with interviews of the husband accusing his wife of having an extra marital relationship with the latter were repeatedly telecast on this and all the other channels, which were quick to pick up the ‘story’. It was breaking news for the next three days.
The tag lines were “Addl SP was caught red-handed with Kalwakurthy CI”, “Sexual Escapades: ASP And Kalwakurthy CI Suspended Over Illicit Affair”. Kalwakurthy is a town about 80 km from Hyderabad. In all the telecasts, the ASP was shown in her police uniform. On January 24, we also came to know that she had been suspended from service.
It didn’t stop there. Between February 9 and 12, television channels dug up details of the ASP’s earlier marriage and telecast intimate pictures. ABN Andhrajyothi even called her ‘nitya pellikuturu‘ (eternal bride), feminising a term generally used for men who marry several times for dowry and abscond with money.
While the language of the news channels amounted to character assassination, the hundreds of YouTube videos that followed were downright malicious and vulgar. It seems that now any disgruntled husband can use a Telugu news channel to conduct a sting on his wife and turn it into breaking news. If the woman holds a powerful job, that creates heightened interest among voyeuristic viewers.
Private life as entertainment: Other stories
This is not the first time that Telugu news channels showed lack of sensitivity and awareness. On Feb 22, 2011, TV9 Telugu outed gay men in a news report called ‘Gay Culture in Hyderabad’ by entering gay dating websites. The names and faces of people from the websites were telecast without their knowledge. After widespread protests from the LGBT community and a long battle, the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA), censured TV9 under its guideline for ‘the sex and nudity, breach of privacy and irresponsible sting operations’. It had to pay a fine of Rs. 1 Lakh and broadcast an apology on prime-time both in English and in Telugu. Soon after, TV9 withdrew its membership from NBSA.
In April 2013, when a group of four NALSAR students were leaving a pub in Hyderabad, they got mobbed by Telugu channel cameras. They were presented as drunks creating a nuisance, obstructing traffic and attacking commuters. Their clothes were deliberately blurred to create an impression that they were in ‘obscene’ clothes. When the NALSAR women complained to the NBSA, it held Sakshi TV accountable and penalised it.
Yet another sting operation in August 2013 was called ‘University of Hyderabad Student’s Night Out Mystery – A TV9 Special Investigation Report’. The channel broadcast pictures of empty beer bottles, of male and female students hanging out and a picture of used condoms. With footage of a group of women students returning to their hostels from the library/reading room late at night in the background, the commentary declared that (university) students were indulging in immoral and illegal activities.
There were protests from students and administrators of the University of Hyderabad, and students mass-reported the video on YouTube. It is no longer available.
TV9’ Kannda’s shocking sting operation called ‘Anandhi’ and its deleterious effects on transgender people was reported by Ila Anasuya in the Ladiesfinger in 2016. Members of transgender community said that they faced increased violence from police and ostracism from landlords and general public after that.
What Telugu entertainment channels do
It’s not just news channels, but even entertainment channels that have been entering people’s lives and creating havoc. Shows such as ‘Bathuku Jatka Bandi’, have erstwhile actresses, psychologists and lawyers who claim to mediate the domestic disputes of poor and working class/caste families and crassly chastise every party involved. The modalities adopted by the channels have run into serious problems with people filing police complaints accusing the channels of intimidation and harassment.
While there could be many reasons for the popularity of such family-dispute-based reality shows, they adopt mostly conservative attitudes, including transphobic and homophobic attitudes.
Take, for instance, the episode of ‘Bathuku Jatka Bandi’ on Zee Telugu, aired on October 31 and November 1, 2016, with a transman and a woman who wanted to live together. The anchor advised the parents of the young woman to “tie her up and keep her home” and get their children married to men to solve the problem. She also repeatedly told the young woman, “I will break your legs” and “I will slap you with slippers”. In the span of 37 minutes, the anchor used the words “shame” and “disgust” 18 times in total while talking about the couple’s relationship, including “If you both go out together, won’t people feel disgusted by you?”.
Hyderabad Queer groups filed complaints to the Indian Broadcasting Foundation regarding the homophobic and transphobic content of the program but did not receive any reply.
On the whole, these news and entertainment shows seem to disproportionately target modern women, university students, ethnic and racial minorities, African migrants and the LGBTQ community, portraying them as dangerous, criminal or pathological or immoral. Occasional complaints apart, this trend of info-tainment has created a situation wherein the viewers have stopped thinking about the implications of irresponsible and sensationalised news reports.
For the individuals involved, social media adds to the trauma. For instance, in this latest ‘scoop’, apart from videos on the channel websites, there are about 150 videos circulating about the ASP, most of them clickbait with little or no facts. What is shocking is the ease with which videos can be uploaded into cyber space. Following her complaint, a few TV channels deleted the videos. But what of the irreversible harm to her reputation? A shudder runs down one’s spine to to be a witness to such acts of public shaming and knowing that this might not be the last one.
What is needed
As we said earlier, most Telugu TV news channels are also not registered with the NBSA, a self-regulating body of private television channels, which has clear guidelines regulating content, clear mechanisms of complaint submission, enquiry and penalties. Depiction of women, intrusion into privacy, inaccurate and misleading news are all violations of the guidelines stipulated by NBSA and the Programme Code of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995.
The students from NALSAR could get redress because Sakshi TV is a member of NBSA. The procedures for registration of complaint against TV channels that are not members of NBSA or other broadcaster associations are far more cumbersome and confusing. It is this difficulty that several women’s groups which held a press conference in Hyderabad on March 12 to condemn media sensationalism and voyeurism pointed to. While media freedom is a value that they uphold, they discussed the disturbing trend of lack of accountability of local news channels and the absence of a code of conduct that regulates news telecasts.
More important is the dis-juncture between the morality that the Telugu news and entertainment channels practice and the democratic norms that they say they espouse. While promoting stories of ‘successful women’ and running ‘women-oriented’ programmes, they have come to assume the role of new moral guardians of urban spaces. Moral guardianship by a corporate body, as we all know, can only be un-democratic. While the police in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana is getting sensitised to the idea of ‘consent’ in all relationships, such a notion seems to be nearly absent in the everyday practices of the Telugu channels reporting on individual women’s problems or issues. One never sees them seeking permission before thrusting a camera into an unsuspecting woman’s face in private or public.
Such a predatory tendency to commoditise private lives for public entertainment has definitely resulted in the erasure of the line between news and entertainment. But more dangerously, it has led to the imposition of new restrictions on women, sexual and other minorities in urban spaces.
The new culture of media surveillance has made even the small spaces for non-normative genders and sexualities in cities like Hyderabad very precarious. It is high time this culture is challenged – by demanding that the media become democratic in practice, just like all the other institutions in our country are required to be.