'Sunny Leone' and the TOI

BY ARUNODAY MAJUMDER| IN Media Practice | 27/03/2014
It may be argued that the erotic and the pornographic are two separate identities and that the inclusion of Sunny Leone on newsprint is an allusion to the former and not to the latter.
But such contention is largely unsubstantiated, says ARUNODAY MAJUMDER. PIX: Sunny Leone

George Orwell remarked, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed …” Commonly, two circumstances can account for the reservation. First, when the public faith enjoyed by an institution is risked by an exposé. Second, when the irrelevant is advertised and the relevant is skipped much to the frustration of the reader. Thus, the ‘someone else’ who ‘does not want (something) printed’ can either be the establishment or the reader. Of course, author and editor Orwell made the remark anticipating the first circumstance as he went on to say, “… everything else is public relation.” Unfortunately, newspapers today regularly provide the second.

Newspapers have a right to diverse communication, including the erotic. But Sunny Leone is a symbol of not only the erotic but also the pornographic – a representation of women resisted due to the violence, verbal and physical, associated with it. It may be argued that the erotic and the pornographic are two separate identities and that the inclusion of Sunny Leone on newsprint is an allusion to the former and not to the latter. But such contention is largely unsubstantiated. For instance, consider a film review in The Times of India (TOI) (Delhi Edition, Page 4) on March 22, 2014.

In her evaluation of the just-released horror flick Ragini MMS 2 which has Sunny Leone in the cast, Madhureeta Mukherjee begins, “Hold on to your pants as Erotica meets Eerie …” though she admits, “There are a few spooky moments, but fewer leap-out-of-your-seat scenes.” The contradiction renders the ‘hold on to your pants’ suggestion needlessly emphatic and perhaps even graphic. Mukherjee adds, “… Sunny fakes an orgasm (really now?), talks dirty talk in bed and lip-locks with a woman (want more?)” The interrogative phrase ‘really now?’ is dropped in casual conversation to express rhetorical surprise. Used thus, ‘really now?’ is meant to be read as ‘again?’ in relation to Sunny Leone faking an orgasm. Clearly, the precedent which allows Madhureeta to use ‘again?’ alias ‘really now?’ is the involvement of Sunny Leone in pornographic cinema. References to pornography do not end there. Cheeky innuendos such as: “… film, offers screams, sighs and moans (read: erotic!)” and “While her ‘act’ is good, her ‘performance’ doesn’t really climax” make up the rest of the film review.

Such obsession with pornography via the convenient intermediate of Sunny Leone is perilous, especially when it influences reportage of general news. For instance, consider the report headlined: ‘Sunny Leone-II? US porn star half-Indian?’ in The Times of India (Delhi Edition, Page 1) on March 12 which is then continued inside (Page 20) under the headline ‘Parents’ loan drove girl to porn films?’ The story is about an undergraduate student in a reputed private university in the U.S.A. who has joined pornographic cinema apparently to meet the expenses of her education. Written by Chidanand Rajghatta, the report is a text-book example of bad journalism due to procedural lapses and misplaced priorities.

Effort is primary in journalism like in any other profession. And it is towards the search for news that effort should be directed. But the above mentioned report is an alarming testimony of the laziness with which the reporter has done the story. Spread across two columns and occupying eleven inches in length, the report does not have a single quote accessed by the reporter. The four quotes, two each of the student and a ‘close’ relative, are sourced from elsewhere but unattributed in two cases. Even the figures in the report that inform about the financial size of the pornographic industry and the amount of loan taken by her parents to fund their children’s education appear to be lifted unless the reporter is also an economist of high caliber. Thus, the report is a classic case of armchair journalism.

It is also distressing that such a report, with questions in both headlines, can make it to the front page of a national daily without inviting the scissors of the editing department. The first question does not deserve comment at this stage. The second question is so elementary that any reporter should begin search with it and not feign to arrive at it, especially since the news has been “… in the public domain for weeks” according to the reporter himself. Finally, the report claims, “… TOI doesn’t want to identify them (the family) out of respect for their privacy and concern for their safety.” But such a gesture is more a show of responsible journalism rather than responsible journalism itself. The report does not hesitate to spell out the screen name of the student, the university which she attends, the ethnic identity of both parents, the profession and last assignment of her father, the education details of her eldest sibling and the religious beliefs of the family. With that information, it takes Google 0.26 seconds to find her on the internet. Should she thank Chidanand and the TOI for merely not naming her and her family out of ‘respect’ and ‘concern’?

About the student, the report informs, “… (she) entered the porn industry ostensibly to meet the high cost of her college education and has caused a minor storm in America …” According to news reports accessed on the internet, the issue has indeed caused a stir. But the discussion is not whether this student is Sunny Leone-II, which is how the TOI has pegged the story. Rather, much of the outrage is about the rising cost of higher education in the U.S.A. which has contributed, fully or partially, to the student joining the pornographic industry. In fact, the reduction of government support to universities in Europe too has put students at risk of funding their increasingly expensive education. Students in India are also feeling the pinch of studying abroad because of shrinking scholarship amounts for foreign students or the total withdrawal of them. Despite the high cost of private education in India, primary or higher, the government policy is in favour of privatisation of education on the lines of the West. The University of Delhi has even redesigned its B.A. programme to make it complement the higher education system in the U.S.A.

The ‘minor storm’ in the U.S.A. is over the political economy of higher education which has pushed or nudged, as the case may be, the undergraduate student into pornographic cinema. But instead of insight on this dimension, the report chooses to busy itself on speculating the prospects of ‘Indians’ in the pornography industry.

From The Times of India which constitutes the so-called ‘fourth pillar of democracy’ and runs the ‘Teach India’ campaign, should the reader not expect focus on the inaccessibility of a basic entity like education? Or is it that ‘fourth pillar of democracy’ and ‘Teach India’ are gimmicks, shots at what Orwell dismissed as ‘public relation’?

(Arunoday Majumder is an M.Phil student at the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi and has worked with two prominent English news television stations. He can be reached at arunoday.majumder@gmail.com)

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