31st August 1997

At stake: the titillating role of the press

By Rajpal Abeynayake

Time was when the British press went on a guilt trip about its collective efforts at reporting the private lives of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. On one occasion, the British media had a serious attack of conscience. Columnists started to ruminate on the fact that maybe, just maybe, they had ruined the marriage of the Royal couple by their exaggeration and hyperbole of the royal estrangement.

A lot of water has gone under the bridge since that time. Now, they say, some humour writers have gone into retirement because they have no place beside the real life Charles-Camilla and Diana-Dodi circus that is playing on the sidelines. Princess Diana is said to be involved with an Egyptian playboy, in the latest episode of the soap. (Incidentally, the British press quoted an example of an occasion when a humour writer went into retirement because real-life had upstaged him. An American columnist said he is stepping down because he cannot compete with the comedy of Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State. He later added that his fears were confirmed when Kissinger started bombing Cambodia.

Hats off to the British press for giving at least some room to air the thought that they might have been ruining the marriage of the royals. But of course they eventually found they are not ruining anything but were on the other hand chronicling a rocky but interesting relationship which was of tremendous interest to the reading public.

Though the royals at various times complained that there were regular intrusions into their private lives, the British now seem to be witness to a spectacle where the estranged royals are using the press to wage a publicity war against each other.

What's of interest to us is not the whole jolly old house-of-Windsor pantomime, but that the media's right to report on the private lives of highly public personalities has been at least obliquely vindicated by what has happened.....

This is quite contrary to the situation that obtains here at home in Sri Lanka for instance, where the prevailing canon is that the higher the public figure, the stronger his or her right to remain aloof from comment.

This is not to subscribe to a view that it is acceptable that public figures do not have private lives. The best example of excess comes from the British press itself, when for example at one point it was felt that the pressmen prying into the lives of public figures were "drinking in the last chance saloon'', meaning that they were grossly abusing their journalistic privileges.

But, at least British policy makers have been self- effacing. It appears that they have recognised that there is, after all is said, a journalistic form that can only be termed as "titillation'' of the reading public.

Now, we in culturally hybrid developing country stations, would get carried away with the concept that all journalism should be in "the public interest'', or "for the public good''. But gossip kiss and tell etc., does not fall into any of these serious categories, but, show me a newspaper without gossip and a partiality for titillation, and I'll show you a public gazette....

It is strange how the Sri Lankan mind comes to terms, only very obliquely, with realities such as gossip columns, and reportage of private lives of public personalities. It was amusing to see a media pundit say recently (he was of the old school of course ) that a "freedom of information act'' should outlaw the publication of information on private lives when there is no "public cause'' involved.

That's a license to keep gossip from papers , or to keep reporters from photographing, even covertly, events such as private parties in which public figures participate.

It could even be argued that there is no such thing as a "private party '' if public figures participate. For example, purely hypothetically of course, if the President of the country is a guest at a party thrown by a businessman, that will be news — even if the businessman was throwing a very private party— because of the political implications of the whole situation.

But apart from that, why should anybody grudge the public from knowing the fact purely as a matter of inquisitive curious nosy human interest? Is there a law against the press "titillating'' the public, when advertisers, movie directors stage performers and similar figures do it all the time?

Apart from all of that, it is chronically old fashioned to say that "such and such a thing should not be said about this public figure, because after all — he or she is the Prime Minister, or the President or the Leader of the Opposition. '' But, quite curiously, even some of the so-called radical elements of our media culture and our judicial establishment have subscribed to the view that public figures should be treated as sacrosanct because of their "high office" or their high public profile. Hence, the funny refrain in some parts of Hulftsdorp recently that "if a person can defame the President and go home, what of the fate of the ordinary citizen who is defamed?'

It is when you become a public figure that you run the higher risk of being commented upon (and then it follows as a corollary) , of being defamed. For example, President Clinton has been called a draft-dodger and a "philanderer" precisely because he is President. Nobody has bothered to call his brother any names at all, because he is just simpleton Clinton. (While on it, there was this joke about President Clinton's brother, whose name is Roger. The President's brother's friends used to say: " Remember Jimmy Carter had an embarrassment of a brother named Billy? Well, now Roger has one?")

No prosecutor or panjandrum in America has so far said that to call Clinton a "draft dodger'' or a "philanderer'' is undignified or beneath the process of polite discourse, on the grounds that "that's not the way you should talk of the President." That a public figure is subject to greater private scrutiny should be obvious, but here in Sri Lanka we have got our wires crossed to such an extent that even the obvious needs to be restated.

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