Living off Page Three

IN Media Practice | 25/08/2004
Nafisa Joseph provided fodder for the sensation seekers

Celebrity lifestyle, night life, parties, wardrobes and love life have been the interesting aspects of the city pages, film and fashion magazines for long now.  Page 3 has been an integral part of the newspapers for more than ten years now.  Now Page 3 has moved into television, with not just Entertainment channels but news channels too joining the race to top the celeb-specials on their programme listings.  With each passing edition, Page 3 has been moved up the ladder, and now it is on the front page and prime time eating up the space and time that more important and urgent issues deserve.  Nafisa’s death and the space and time that were dedicated to the related stories, yet again raise the question, do such issues deserve space on front page while the news of farmer’s suicide is relegated to page 10?

It is true that celebrities live by the rules of Page 3; they do pour their hearts out to journalists in order to be in circulation. "Gossip" pays both the media and the celebrities.  Media gets more readership / viewership and celebrities get their 15 seconds of fame.  But it is not a complete win-win situation for the celebrities because once on the turf, they are always in the eye of the media. Whether they are getting into a relationship or out of it, whether they get a certain project or get kicked out of it and even for what they wear or sometime even for what they don’t.  The other questions that the media should answer are, whether celebrities have right to their private lives or do they lose their right to lead normal lives once they are under the spot light?  and where should the media draw the line, how far can they go?

On August 8th, the programme, "We the people" on NDTV had a panel of media personalities and an audience discussed the very same questions. Outlook’s Editor-in-chief, Vinod Mehta, Columnist Nina Pillai, Hindustan Times (HT) City Editor, Sourish Bhattacharya, Fashion Guru Prasad Biddappa and Media analyst Akila Shivdas were part of the panel. HTs Sourish Bhattacharya defended Page 3 saying it was the celebrities who played it up to the media.  He said ‘we are here to tell a story like any other journalist, we tell what is happening in the glamour world.’ On the other hand columnist Nina Pillai insisted that it was the journalists who put the words in their subject’s mouth,  and what you ask is what you get.

Outlook’s Editor-in-chief Vinod Mehta dismissed the whole discussion as unimportant saying there were more important issues to be discussed. He declared Page 3 as something that nothing can be done about. He did say that he is concerned about the way media sensationalises issues like putting Nafisa’s disturbed parents in the spotlight or asking the scared family members of the kidnapped Indians in Iraq, "Aapko kaisa lagraha hai? (how do you feel)?" He said this issue is what needs to be addressed and not the issues of boundaries of Page 3.

When Media analyst Akila Shivdas brought up the issue of why only women celebrities are targeted and tainted, HT’s Sourish Bhattacharya defended by saying that even men are an integral part of Page 3, unfortunately the last couple of incidents have been about women. His contention was that otherwise men get an equal share of Page 3. Then the question was raised as to why only the entertainment and fashion industry adorned Page 3 and not politicians? "Is it because there are not enough sex scandals in their lives or is it because they can handle the media better than the stars and models who are suddenly in the spotlight, because of Page 3?"

A majority of the audience on the programme denied being interested in the intimate details of celebrities, especially when the celebrity cannot defend himself / herself. The programme ended on the note that in future may be even politicians would be written about on Page 3, while hoping that likes of Nafisa would be left alone.   In the same programme Prasad Biddappa said that he was not disturbed by the invasion of privacy (referring to Nafisa’ case) but he understood that the media was just doing their job, which is to bring out the truth.  Is it the truth that the media was after or was it just out to satisfy the hunger of readership surveys and TRP ratings?

Mr. Bhattacharya was the only one defending Page 3 culture on the show with a little help from Mr. Mehta. It would have been interesting if the journalists who hunt for stories for Page 3 were also present in the panel.  The question one would like to ask them is "How does it feel to be a Page 3 Journalist?"  Simi Chandoke, erstwhile Page 3 journalist has written an article titled "Life after Page 3" in Mid-day last month.  The frustrations of a Page 3 journalist is obvious when she says – "It left me wondering if there was any job satisfaction to be found by either writing about a woman just because she wore a black dress or writing about a CEO just because he was white. Suave, attractive, head turner, pretty... well, suddenly journalism was nothing but a few such adjectives."

A member of the audience on NDTV’s programme suggested that celebrities should draw the line as to how much they will reveal to the media and if at anytime they find that the media is crossing the line, they should sue the media! Given the situation of interdependence of media and the celebrities for survival, suing would not be a practical option. But will the journalists stop looking for stories once the celebrity draws the line? While the Page 3 defenders say that they publish stories because the stories are told to them, what happened with Nafisa Joseph? Was she giving the stories? And what’s worse, she was not there to retaliate at the insensitivity of it all. The media cannot shy away from its responsibility for the Page 3 culture fiasco by saying ‘they said it so we wrote it.’ Media has a job to do. Fair and truthful is part of the job description and that does not exclude Page 3. A little sensitivity from the media towards the living and the unfortunate ones like Nafisa is not an unreasonable expectation.

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