A strange retraction

BY VIKRAM JOHRI| IN Media Practice | 01/07/2015
ET's story on a possible change in the law on homosexuality was quickly retracted, for no apparent reason.
Why are newspapers going soft on Section 377, asks VIKRAM JOHRI.

By Tuesday afternoon, the Economic Times had taken down a report, published in the June 30 edition of the paper, from the website. Headlined “Sec 377 may be scrapped, says Gowda” the report by Sowmya Aji quoted the law minister as sending positive signals to the LGBT community on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalises homosexuality.

“The mood appears to be in favour of it,” said Gowda, referring to a toning down of the Section. The mood that he was referring to may have meant the decision of the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) last week to allow nationwide gay marriage. “But it can only be done after widespread consultations and taking all views into account,” he added.

By Tuesday afternoon, however, Gowda was at pains to clarify that he had yielded not one inch on the issue. He appeared on a number of channels to defend his position, saying repeatedly that this was a “highly sensitive issue” and that the government had no plans to tackle it. He added, for good measure, that Aji had called him and apologised for misquoting him.

The content of Gowda’s defence, come to think of it, was not very different from what he had been “misquoted” as having said in the original ET report. Barring the “mood in its favour” bit he said pretty much the same thing: that the issue needs to be consulted with all parties before a decision can be made.

What then accounts for the backtracking? Was it the fact that ET published the story on the first page and gave it a headline that seemed LGBT-friendly? Perhaps the BJP/RSS top brass spilled their teas when they read it. It speaks to the drought of progressivism in India’s ruling party that nothing but semantics pushed the law minister into a corner.

Meanwhile, it was Subramanian Swamy who worked the agenda vigorously on Twitter. One of his many egregious tweets read: “Issue is not respect. We respect handicapped persons. Homos are genetically handicapped.”
Many such statements were made throughout the day but nobody in the ruling party reacted. While Gowda was quick to dispel any doubts with regard to his interview to ET, he did not offer any words of condemnation of his party colleagues’ blatant homophobia. He was only concerned with defending his position.
That, however, is only to be expected. What is surprising is that the Times Group, otherwise so forward in taking on opposition to its reports, conceded defeat so readily.
Last year, when Deepika Padukone launched a Twitter war against the Bombay Times for putting up a video of her cleavage on its Twitter feed, the newspaper responded with alacrity, putting out a public statement defending its stance. The newspaper then went all out, ferreting out Deepika’s pictures from her photo shoots to make its point.

Besides, the group’s most visible property, Times Now, has made a name for itself by exposing scams and not retreating even after days of a coverage blitzkrieg. Look at its coverage of l’affaire Lalit Modi which has taken prime time space on the channel for weeks.

Why then did ET not take a principled stand and ask its reporter not to apologise to Gowda, or not remove the story from the website? If the story had included anything that was salacious or seemed to indicate even so much as a commitment to a policy change, such a reversal on the newspaper’s part would be fine.

But since the story as it stands is perfectly in order and hardly differs from the content of Gowda’s subsequent retraction, one wonders what forced the paper to unnecessarily eat crow?

What is one to make of this? That newspapers in India will take on the powers that be only when the issue is “suitable”? Why has no newspaper demanded of any government representative what they intend to do about Section 377?

It was in December 2013 that the Supreme Court set aside the Delhi High Court order of 2009 decriminalising homosexuality. The apex court had at the time asked the government of the day to bring changes to Section 377 through the legislative route. Neither the then UPA nor the current regime has shown any willingness to take up the issue. Why have they not been grilled on this?

Sure, there were celebratory articles both in mainstream and social media around the SCOTUS ruling. Facebook allowed its users to cover their profile images in rainbow colours, and promptly, several Indian users followed suit.

Yet, when it comes to the real question of equality and rights, few in the mainstream media have shown a desire to stick their neck out. Even in the aftermath of the US ruling, there was little, if any, coverage of the hardships faced by members of the community back home.

And when one intrepid newspaper reporter did try to get a story, she was left to fend for herself, her newspaper choosing to stand by in silence.


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